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The Sondheim Puzzle

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I often find myself wondering how Steve survived not just the professional obstacles but also a mother so horrific that she actually sent him a hand-delivered letter when he was in his forties stating that having him as a son was her “only regret in life.” Part of Steve’s resilience, I think, can be found in the infectious, intrinsic enthusiasm he has for the world around him, whatever his complaints along the way, including those about aging that he has now. For all his association with a certain kind of cynical New York persona—now enshrined for better and worse by the role he and George Furth created for Elaine Stritch in Company—there is nothing jaded about Steve. One of my favorite stories of his is from the early fifties, when, one New York summer, he banded together with an actress friend, Sally Brophy, to go out every third night to a different ethnic restaurant, selecting one from each nationality listed in the Yellow Pages, in alphabetical order. (They made it from Afghanistan to the Philippines.) This is the same Steve who today will ask, when we meet for dinner, that we choose a restaurant that no one in the party has been to before (and who will then scour the menu in search of food he’s never previously tasted). It’s the Steve who will rush to the most out-of-the-way venues to see experimental theater whether here or abroad, seek out the most obscure movies (he has always been more of a film buff than a theater buff), and pick up the phone to tell anyone who will listen about any new or old talent who crosses his path, whether it’s a first-time playwright turning up in a loft or Meryl Streep digging deeper and deeper into the role of the Witch while laying down tracks for the film version of Into the Woods. He will travel almost anywhere and is curious about almost everything. I’ve been with him when he toured the house of a musical hero, Maurice Ravel, outside Paris, but also when he took in a tiny museum devoted to the train-robbing Dalton Gang in Coffeyville, Kansas.

What’s also somewhat unexpected about Steve is his objectivity about people; it’s almost a journalistic sensibility. He will praise the work of other songwriters he admires even when the writer in question (e.g., Cy Coleman) has knocked his own work in the press. A classic example of Steve’s magnanimity can be found in his long, sometimes fraught relationship with Arthur Laurents, the playwright and librettist who died two years ago and whose default personality trait was gratuitous nastiness to nearly everyone. Late in life, Laurents started taking shots at Steve in his serial memoirs, and was constantly in disagreement with him about artistic decisions that had to be made for the various major revivals of the two classics they worked on together at the dawn of Steve’s career. At times Steve had to tune Laurents out, but even then, he never stopped speaking affectionately of his old friend’s role in getting him his first Broadway job on West Side Story and never stopped praising his book for Gypsy.

It’s a mixture of this objectivity, enthusiasm, and adventurousness, I think, that keeps Steve fresh. It’s a quality I’ve found in other friends in his generation, and that I can only hope to emulate as I age. His openness to new experience also helps explain his ability to channel the endlessly divergent characters his collaborators have required him to dramatize through song over the years. I don’t think there’s anyone else in theater history who has successfully given voice to people as varied as a serial killer in Victorian England, married couples in late-sixties Manhattan, the Japanese confronting the arrival of Westerners in the 1850s, Grimm fairy-tale icons, fin de siècle Swedish aristocrats, boozy Follies performers at a reunion, and presidential assassins along a spectrum from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. Steve may be a lifelong creature of Manhattan, yet he’s game for anything and anybody. There’s a touch of the math prodigy in the way he casts a skeptical but bemused eye over the human equation with all its variables.

He explains that “a playwright loves all his characters, including his mass murderers,” and insists it’s a trap to assume that any who might superficially resemble him are his alter egos. “That’s not me singing ‘Finishing the Hat,’ ” he says. When I assume that I’m touched by something he wrote because our personal histories have some similarities, I’m inevitably found wrong and guilty of projection. “If Momma Was Married” notwithstanding, he says he enjoyed being alone as an only child of divorce. The bits and pieces of him embedded in his characters are simply not to be unearthed by biographical analysis or armchair psychiatry.

What unifies many of Steve’s characters and makes them so moving, I think, is not any facile resemblances to him but two primal traits many of them share with most of us: a longing to connect and a fear that time is going by too fast. There could be no more plaintive or direct Sondheim song title than “Take Me to the World,” which turns up in Evening Primrose, his 1966 television musical (from a John Collier story) about a young poet who tries to escape life’s woes by hiding out at night in a closed department store. And there could be no more representative Sondheim lyric than one sung by a pair of old flames who do reconnect, at least for a few hours, in Follies: “How much time can we hope that there will be?” What unites people as different as Georges’s mother in Sunday, Desiree in A Little Night Music, and an anonymous Japanese peasant recalling his role as a footnote to history in Pacific Overtures is their fierce desire to hold on to whatever moment of happiness they can grab before it inevitably moves out of reach.

It’s fitting that one of Steve’s favorite song composers is Harold Arlen, who did not write lyrics but who had a Sondheim-like emotional range, running from “Over the Rainbow” and “Blues in the Night” to “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Get Happy.” What makes Arlen special, Steve once told me, is his “ineffable qualities”—a “kind of yearning and sort of sadness, even in the joyful songs.”

Yearning/sadness … sorry/grateful—that’s Steve, all right. And “ineffable”? The dictionary says it means “incapable of being expressed in words,” and, for me, it will do for Steve too. The ineffable quality in Sondheim’s work is where love enters his equation—his love for his characters, our reciprocal love for him. As Oscar Hammerstein wrote in “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’,” if you love someone, “all the rest is talk.”


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