For over four decades, Stephen Sondheim has been the most innovative composer-lyricist in the American musical theater. He first gained renown as the lyricist for West Side Story in 1956. Since then, he has not only written words and music for such Broadway hits as Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd, but he has led the way in redefining the musical show. In those shows and others, including Pacific Overtures, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, and Passion, he has experimented with themes and approaches thought to be without popular appeal too intellectual, depressing, or cynical with irony and wit that might go unappreciated. While it is true that only one of his songs, "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music has become a major popular hit, audiences throughout the world have hailed him as the premier musical dramatist of his time.
How did it happen? In her insightful and readable Stephen Sondheim: A Life, noted biographer Meryle Secrest explores the man and his achievements. Drawing on extensive interviews with Sondheim, his friends, and colleagues, she has brought vividly to life a person who says he is difficult to describe because "I just don't have an awful lot of colors."Although he received little attention or affection from his parents when he was younger, their divorce when he was ten-years-old shattered his world. He had a long and difficult relationship with his mother which ended only with her death many years later. His intense interest in music, games, and conundrum dates from that moment of their divorce when, as Sondheim said "nothing made sense anymore." Secrest writes, "If the puzzle was the metaphor, art was the solution, because of its equally crucial emphasis upon structure and form. Music became charged with meaning only when it could make order out of chaos, and this goal became the leitmotif of his life." From early on, Sondheim was determined to be, as one of his college professors noted, "the best on Broadway." He was fortunate to develop relationships with Oscar Hammerstein, Arthur Laurents, and, most importantly, producer-director Hal Prince, who helped him achieve his goal.
Sondheim is remarkably honest and forthright, a trait regarded as one of his most admirable by friends. He discusses his "very late blooming" homosexuality, as well as his 25 years of psychoanalysis with a doctor whose particular interest was the relationship between creativity and neurosis.
Secrest takes us behind the scenes to understand better the creative process of the solitary composer and the collaborative process involved in musicals. Sondheim has described himself as a playwright-actor, "And when I write songs I become the actor, and that's why actors like my stuff." Both processes are often difficult and tense and, even with a successful show, fleeting. His agent says that whenever she called with good news about attendance or sales, invariably Sondheim's response would be "Yes, but for how long?"The biographer traces the musical influences on Sondheim's work and also shows how his life influenced his art. It seemed, Secrest writes, "his ability to create a world of his own imaginings had saved him when life was at its bleakest. If his themes were somber the essential loneliness of the human condition and the death of illusion in the end it was his ability to metamorphose his private anguish into something outside of himself that had saved him."This excellent, absorbing biography of an extraordinarily talented, true American original should be of interest to a very large audience.
Reviewed by Roger Bishop.