Art Isn’t Easy

Stephen Sondheim: A Life
Knopf; 461 pages; $30

When the playwright Anthony Shaffer had tea one afternoon at Stephen Sondheim’s Turtle Bay townhouse, he was so struck by his host’s obsession with games and puzzles that Shaffer modeled a character in his new play on the composer-lyricist. The character, Andrew Wyke, describes himself as “the complete man – a man of reason and imagination; of potent passions and bright fancies” who is “joyous and unrepenting. His weapons are the openness of a child and the cunning of a pike and with them he faces out the black terrors of life.” The character so evoked Sondheim that the play’s producer, Morton Gottlieb, suggested calling the thriller Who’s Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?

Though the show ultimately opened under the title Sleuth, Gottlieb was onto something. In the world of the Broadway musical, no one can set people to fisticuffs like Stephen Sondheim. To some, he is the iceman – distant, cold, unfeeling, unsingable; the twisted mind behind musicals about mass murders and assassins, stalkers, and aesthetes. To that crowd belong the critics – and there were many – who dismissed Sunday in the Park With George because “audiences like shows about people,” as one wrote. “They’re funny that way.” But even to those who hated that show, Sunday in the Park had several of the most beautiful – and moving – theater songs ever written. At a time when the Broadway musical had gone bland and British, Sondheim was writing firecracker lyrics set in an astonishing range of musical idioms – waltzes, ballads, sarabands, jigs, you name it. In the seventies, with the string of shows from from Company and Follies to A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd, Sondheim played with, and ultimately changed, the form of the musical. He captured, in the bargain, the postwar era’s shaky ambivalence with haunting and ever-deepening power.

The split over Sondheim has always been reflected in the culture. His musicals, continuously rediscovered and reinvented, are regarded as modern classics, yet they almost never make money and rarely appeal to a wide audience. Nightclub divas devote whole programs to Sondheim, yet with the exception of “Send In the Clowns,” his songs are mostly unknown to the general public. At 68, Sondheim remains the most influential unsuccessful talent Broadway has created, the subject of countless academic exegeses and a quarterly newsletter, the standard against whom every serious young theater composer and lyricist is today measured. Throw into the mix a psycho seductress of a mother, a devoted mentor in Oscar Hammerstein II, and a decade-long partnership with director Hal Prince that utterly changed Broadway before flaming out in failure, and the paradox of Sondheim is catnip to a biographer. After all, who could resist someone who writes, in a mere thank-you note to close friends, “Thanks for the plate, but where was my mother’s head?”

In Stephen Sondheim: A Life, Meryle Secrest sheds some light on the complex sensibility that grew out of a golden yet emotionally ragged childhood. Secrest spent many hours interviewing Sondheim, a famously elusive, not to say evasive, subject. His own words on subjects ranging from his homosexuality to the development of characters in his shows make this book a must-read for anyone interested in the musical theater. Moreover, Secrest has done considerable legwork, committing to print for the first time several anecdotes long known to musical-theater insiders. As a narrative of Sondheim’s intellectual and emotional growth from childhood into mature artist, it’s a good, juicy read. Secrest, who has written biographies of Leonard Bernstein (Sondheim’s West Side Story collaborator), Frank Lloyd Wright, and Bernard Berenson, is pretty useless in assessing Sondheim’s work – a job she’s all too willing to leave to others. Nevertheless, the tale of Sondheim’s early years provides a kind of skeleton key to his oeuvre.

Sondheim was born in 1930, the son of Herbert T. Sondheim, a successful dress manufacturer of German-Jewish extraction, and Janet Fox Sondheim, always called Foxy, a daughter of Lithuanian Jews who was Herbert’s chief designer. They were an affluent, vivacious couple – Herbert loved show tunes and was a skilled pianist – who lived in the San Remo, on Central Park West, until the parents divorced when Steve was 10. “After Herbert left, most of his mother’s effort was focused on poisoning his mind against his father,” Secrest writes. “She also began to act very strangely… . Then he became aware that she was trying to seduce him. ‘Well, she would sit across from me with her legs aspread. She would lower her blouse and that sort of stuff.’ This happened often during his teenage years, and he was ‘surprised, rather than shocked.’ ” No wonder, then, that Sondheim would grow into the master of the ambivalent statement – about sex, about marriage, about friendship, and, most unforgettably, about love.

He spent a couple of comfortingly regimented years at the New York Military Academy in Cornwall, New York (a distinction he shares with that other Manhattan icon, Donald Trump). At Williams College, Sondheim began studying music seriously; the composer Milton Babbitt, who taught at Princeton, later took him on as a private pupil even though he knew Sondheim was not interested in becoming a “serious” composer. “When he came to me, he was about as sad a young man as I have ever seen,” Babbitt recalls.

While still a youngster, Sondheim had become friendly with Jamie Hammerstein, son of Oscar, and in order to cultivate the friendship, Foxy bought a country place in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, near the Hammersteins (where she proceeded to scandalize the neighbors with wild parties). However evil she may have been in her son’s mind, that move was providential. In Oscar, Sondheim found an incomparable mentor and father figure. Here, too, Secrest is revealing: Sondheim is typically characterized as the cocky protégé (Hammerstein called his first effort “the worst thing I ever read” before telling him why and taking him under his wing). But the relationship – and its impact on the other Hammersteins – was more complicated than that. Oscar, the great humanist lyric writer, had a cutting wit that only Sondheim, unlike Hammerstein’s own children, could match. Around the dinner table, Oscar and Steve tended to dominate in the repartee. And it was Oscar whose principles of writing would later take on a kind of biblical significance for Sondheim even as he rebelled against the form that Hammerstein and his last great partner, composer Richard Rodgers, had themselves redefined.

Hammerstein died in 1960, and if that decade was a tough one for Sondheim – after all, the rise of rock and roll made the Broadway musical increasingly irrelevant as a source of popular music – the one that followed saw him come into his own. Only Hal Prince was as important as Hammerstein in focusing Sondheim’s vision and launching him to a higher level of achievement, ushering him from excellence to greatness. Both were interested in offbeat subjects. But where Sondheim saw brittle short stories and private little sagas, Prince saw Major Statements, and the fitful merging of those two intellects and approaches resulted in a new kind of musical, beginning with Company in 1970 and extending through Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, and Merrily We Roll Along (the last a wonderful score that may never fit comfortably onstage, no matter how many times it’s tried).

Broadway is an insular community in which everyone’s business is known to everyone else. Once Secrest passes through Sondheim’s early years into his development as a Broadway lyricist – beginning in 1957 with West Side Story – and composer-lyricist (his first show with both credits was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in 1962), she enters territory well covered elsewhere, notably in Craig Zadan’s Sondheim & Co., a freewheeling, indispensable oral history of the making of Sondheim’s shows. And because Secrest has so little to say about the musicals themselves, her book bogs down in details about the productions that aren’t particularly illuminating and aren’t always correct. She never conveys the emotional pull Sondheim exerts on some of us. One may speculate that having gained the confidence of her subject, Secrest never probed deeply; A Life is pretty meager reading on details of Sondheim’s adult life and padded with windy, speculative passages from Secrest’s other work.

For decades now, Sondheim has stood accused of a certain aloofness – the same charge leveled, it’s worth noting, against Tom Stoppard and George Bernard Shaw – and of an ambivalence toward love that derived from his essential solitariness, his homosexuality, his perfectionism, his literary conceits. When he fell seriously in love, he wrote Passion, a mesmerizing one-act musical in which an obsessive, sickly woman through sheer force of will wins the love of a handsome soldier otherwise engaged. The woman, Fosca, sings of “a love as pure as breath, as permanent as death, implacable as stone / a love that like a knife, has cut into a life I wanted left alone.” “Some Enchanted Evening” it ain’t. It’s closer to what the critic Julius Novick, writing about Sweeney Todd, called “emotionalism of operatic boldness.” Passion left the critics, and the public, deeply divided; though it had its earnest supporters and won the Tony award for Best Musical in 1994, the show struggled for a few months before closing without having earned back the money it had cost to produce. Yet those who saw it will never forget it. That seems to be Sondheim’s fate.

Art Isn’t Easy