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The Sondheim Puzzle

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The conversations we started during those long nights in 2000 have not let up since. That Times interview would lead to the two of us touring the country doing onstage conversations discussing his life and work. He has his stories and he sticks to them, and what audiences see of the public Steve is not wildly different from the private Steve, at least when it comes to talking about his art and biography. He is so articulate, circumspect, and funny about his process—more than he has to be and more than most artists are—that it’s hard not to be entertained. Rapt crowds turned up to see him not just in the expected coastal enclaves but in mid-American outposts like Tulsa, where fans of all ages drove hundreds of miles at night to hear him answer questions in a vast sports arena. At every stop where a university was the host, Steve carved out time to meet privately with small groups of theater and music students to answer their questions, whether about how to perform a particular song or how to pursue a stage career. Steve considers teaching “the sacred profession” and credits teachers with saving his life. This, of course, is what Hammerstein did for him, and what in a smaller way Steve had done for me when I first met him as a college student. He has done the same for countless others, individually and in groups, in private and in classrooms, for decades—and in some cases has nurtured young songwriters, like Jonathan Larson and Adam Guettel, who went on to landmark musical-theater successes. In and beyond the theater, there’s a whole unofficial Sondheim U alumni association out there.

I enrolled in an extended postgraduate course. And I’ve learned an incalculable amount—about Steve, about art, and about life—as we’ve closed down bars and restaurants across the country when on the road, as we’ve traveled with our significant others (my second wife, his second longtime partner), as we’ve sat together at plays and at Sondheim tributes, and at premieres of new productions of his own shows. Steve’s enthusiasm even for less-than-stellar revivals of his works is impressive—and perhaps the only proper response when confronted with errant, and in some instances deranged, offspring of one’s own children. He is so supportive of other creative artists, especially those who take chances, that the only film version of his shows that he has liked thus far is Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, which inflicted Sweeney-esque butchery on his score, to the extreme of eliminating “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”

Steve is more buoyant now than he was at the time of my Times piece. He has also shed much of the sourness that was evident during the seventies, when Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd were produced back-to-back. The Sondheim you see in on-camera interviews from that decade, some of which appear in Six by Sondheim, is an angry man in his cups, grumpy and defensive. Given the remarkable run of works he created then, you’d think that wouldn’t be the case. But he had reason to be mad.

What’s forgotten now that Steve is a Grand Old Man of the Theater is just how hostile critics and audiences were to his work for much of his career. What I saw with Forum in Washington in 1962 was, as it happened, only a small, relatively benign taste of what was to come for Sondheim. Steve will occasionally engage with his ­critics—and won’t hesitate to needle me about what I hadn’t liked about his shows in the eighties. But mixed or negative reviews are one thing, and the vicious personal animosity that has dogged him for much of his career is another.

When Company opened in Boston, Variety, then the influential Bible of show business, didn’t just call it “bewildering” and “dull” but dismissed it as suitable only for “ladies’ matinees, homos and misogynists.” The grudging reviews of Company and Follies in the Times sometimes seemed to review Sondheim as a person. (The critic Clive Barnes declared that the music of Follies had no “heart.”) In 1979, John Lahr struck a similar tone in Harper’s, holding Sondheim accountable for the death of the joyful old-fashioned Broadway musical and accusing him of both “bitchy irony” and a “lack of heart.” Lahr thought nothing of condemning the about-to-open Sweeney Todd as “shallow camp” without seeing it or hearing it, on the basis of an early script. Today Sweeney is an international staple in theaters and at opera houses and even middle schools and high schools, but back then Lahr’s antipathy was common.

I got sideswiped by a bit of the anti-Sondheim blowback myself when I reviewed Sunday in the Park. Steve’s perennial antagonist Variety, which knocked the show for “a basic lack of emotion and movement,” portrayed my efforts to champion it as “Sondheimania” and a misuse of the Times’ power; “Page Six” of the New York Post called to confirm an item saying that I must have liked Sunday because Lapine, its director and co-author, had been my college roommate. (Lapine and I went to different schools and didn’t meet each other until years later.) This hostility echoed the resentment of many theater people toward Sondheim since he’d first emerged as a precocious upstart. The sneering reached a culmination at the Tonys that season, when the songwriter who won for Best Score, Jerry Herman, asserted on network television that his own show, La Cage aux Folles, had shattered “a myth” that “the simple, hummable show tune was no longer welcome on Broadway,” an implicit slap at the presumably pretentious and tuneless songs of his main competitor.

Among the many things I’ve learned from Steve is that a career as iconoclastic as his, whatever the profession, requires not just talent but courage. He not only had to outlast the most hostile naysayers but to ignore powerful trends in pop culture: The rock revolution was arriving just as his first produced musical, West Side Story, opened in 1957. The center-stage status Broadway had enjoyed during Hammerstein’s era was over, making it a much tougher battle to get shows on. Yet Steve persevered despite being out of fashion, despite being ignored or savaged by critics and peers, and despite the abandonment of his two most esteemed early collaborators, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, both of whom drifted away from Broadway soon after he arrived. And Steve hung in despite committing the capital crime of the American cultural marketplace: writing commercial flops. It wasn’t just Anyone Can Whistle, Pacific Overtures, and Merrily that lost money in their original Broadway productions; so did Follies, Sweeney Todd, and Sunday in the Park. Steve’s response to box-office failure was not to pander to a Broadway audience but to be more adventurous with nearly each successive work.


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