A musical legend looks back
It is well-nigh impossible to take composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim out of the theater or the theater out of Stephen Sondheim.
At 81, the august talent behind such indelible Broadway musicals as A Little Night Music, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has just completed Look, I Made a Hat (Collected Lyrics 1981-2011), his second and final compendium of reflections, digressions and harangues that began with last year’s bestseller, Finishing the Hat (Collected Lyrics 1954-1981).
Neither conforms to the conventions of memoir. Instead, ever the showman, Sondheim places his lyrics center-stage, preferring to confine his comments and observations to expansive play introductions, boxed marginalia and occasional carping from the cheap seats. It’s a wonderfully theatrical way of describing his artistic process without revealing overly much about the personal life of a very private artist.
“If I’d wanted to write a memoir, I would have, but I don’t, and I didn’t,” Sondheim teases in what he calls volume two’s “reintroduction.” Later in the same chapter, he warns us, “Writing is a form of mischief.”
Having just completed what he admits was an arduous and sometimes uncomfortable diversion into introspective prose, how does it feel to be free of it?
“Funny you should ask; curiously enough, very depressing!” he replies in a voice that sounds half its age. “No, I’m suffering; I’m having post-partum. I didn’t expect it but there it is. I guess I enjoyed it more than I thought.”
Sondheim’s journey to Broadway began at age 10, when he became best friends with Jamie Hammerstein, son of Broadway musical legend Oscar Hammerstein II (South Pacific, The King & I, Carousel, The Sound of Music). In high school, Sondheim began writing musicals and would ask the elder Hammerstein to critique them. His big break came when he was hired to write the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s score that became West Side Story.
He was 27 when the Jets and the Sharks rumbled onto the Great White Way in 1957. What was it like to be a Broadway rage at such a tender age?
“I wasn’t ‘a rage’ after West Side Story; I was strictly treated like a minor player,” Sondheim recalls, speaking by phone from his home in New York City. “I wasn’t ‘a rage’ until Company . Prior to that, I got terrible reviews and was dismissed and condescended to.”
Ironically, West Side Story, perhaps his best-known musical, remains an embarrassment for its lyricist.
“I liked the show, but my own work is very self-conscious and florid,” he says. “It’s the kind of lyric writing I don’t cotton to; it’s so written with a capital W. It’s what Lenny [Bernstein] wanted; he wanted poetry with a capital P, and his idea of poetry and mine were just two different things. But I was 25 years old and I wanted everybody to be happy.”
Sondheim became the toast of Broadway in the 1970s as a result of hit collaborations with producer/
director Harold “Hal” Prince, including Company, Follies, A Little Night Music (which produced 1975’s Grammy Song of the Year, “Send in the Clowns”) and Sweeney Todd, Tony winners all. In 1981—the dividing point between his two volumes—Sondheim broke from his own traditions to embark on more experimental fare, beginning with the breakthrough Sunday in the Park with George, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985.
When asked to name his favorite musicals, Sondheim says, “If I had to choose one to take on a desert island, it would be Forum because I never failed to have a good time at it. I could see that every night if I were on a desert island.” As for those he’s proudest of, Sondheim expresses a preference for his more experimental works.
“Sunday in the Park with George is one. Assassins is another, which is Americana, which I never thought I could really get my arms around. And Pacific Overtures, which is one I was sure I couldn’t do. The more exotic ones are the ones that I was surprised that I was able to do.”
With an embarrassment of industry honors that includes eight Grammys, eight Tonys, a Pulitzer and an Academy Award for Best Song, Sondheim would seem, in the words of his boyhood idol, to have climbed every mountain. Might retirement be tempting at 81?
“No. At the moment, I’m not working on anything, but now that the book is finished as of three weeks ago, I’m getting restless and I’ve got to get to work,” he admits. “Work is part of life. The important thing is to get to the piano. That’s the important thing.”