The most startling revelation in Meryle Secrest’s 1998 biography of Stephen Sondheim wasn’t the dank, drink-fogged Oedipal drama he was forced to act out with his vicious mother, Foxy, or the opinion of his close friend Judy Prince that Sweeney Todd remains his most personal—even, psychologically speaking, autobiographical—work.
No, what stood out from Secrest’s exhaustive study was the anomalous image of Stevie Sondheim, song-plugger. Hair slicked back and piano fingers twitching, this dark-eyed young go-getter haunted New York theatre parties and backers’ auditions throughout the 1950s and ’60s, hammering and yammering his way through a trunk full of show songs for anyone who’d listen.
I don’t know about you, but to me something seems wrong with this picture. It doesn’t square with the Sondheim we’ve come to know: the Olympian talent whose Turtle Bay townhouse brims with puzzles and awards for shows that are, many of them, elaborate puzzles in themselves; the man about whom New York magazine only half-jokingly wondered in 1994, “Is Stephen Sondheim God?” Surely this éminence grise never had to bow and scrape as a mere pitchman of his wares.
But there’s that brash young man again, popping up in the asides and anecdotes in Sondheim’s huge two-volume compendium of lyrics, under the titles Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat (which hit the shelves by last Thanksgiving, just in time to stuff stockings and fill spare holiday reading hours). He’s a less frequent visitor in the second book, as it deals mostly with well-established latter-day Sondheim, 1981 to the present. But young salesman Sondheim crops up in a series of apocryphal appendices stuffed with miscellany and juvenilia: At 18, as a precocious Williams College underclassman, he snags an invite to play a song for Cole Porter at his Massachusetts estate, opting to play his own parody of “Begin the Beguine” and immediately regretting his cheek. Nearly a decade later, he’s sweating through an audition to work on a never-written musical with Jean Kerr and her husband, critic Walter Kerr, as their cavernous Westchester parlor fills with cigarette smoke.
The man paid his dues like any other Broadway baby, in other words, and over the years duly earned the right to become a subtler, more insidious kind of salesman—not of his talents, which were incontrovertibly established by 1970’s Company, but of a new, more probing brand of musical theatre, rooted in the Oscar Hammerstein narrative revolution but reflecting the concerns of an anxious, even dystopic, late-century cultural moment. On one level, it’s odd that he never embraced rock music, since rock-and-roll, like Sondheim’s musicals, uses populist means to essentially avant-garde ends: critique, disruption, norm- and form-breaking. But that’s also why a rocking Sondheim would be redundant, not to mention most likely embarrassing; he’s gone as dark and as bleak in his own way as any death-metal band.
Consider, for instance, the pitch-black Assassins, his and John Weidman’s rogues’ gallery of homegrown American discontent, and easily his most unnerving musical (apart from his masterpiece, Sweeney). Assassins’ hard gunmetal gleam shines forth coldly as the peak achievement in Look, I Made a Hat; indeed, Sondheim proudly concurs that he considers it a “perfect show,” and his excitement in recalling Weidman’s first, unmusicalized draft of the show is palpable.
That high assessment may be fighting words for fans of Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, the two other good-to-great Sondheim musicals represented in the new volume. But for all the emotional surrender he admits to, and claims to relish, in his collaborations with writer/director James Lapine—with whom he wrote not only Sunday and Woods but the turgid, neither-fish-nor-fowl misfire, Passion—it’s clear that Sondheim’s heart beats strongest for blood and brains. There are transcendent heights in Sunday and dramaturgical delights in Woods, but in terms of dramatic substance they are the equivalent of soft-rock next to his fractious best.
The new volume’s most heartrending drama, though, is of the meta kind. In the 112 pages given over to the misbegotten Mizner brothers musical—variously titled Wise Guys, Gold!, Bounce and Road Show over a decade of workshops, rewrites and productions—Sondheim is cast in a new role, that of the general in his labyrinth, scrabbling away with Weidman on an episodic story about two fascinating but undramatic con men, continually coming up short and doubling back. It’s as if Weidman and Sondheim were the Mizners’ last marks, posthumously conned into digging for musical and dramatic gold in a mountain of hard, unforgiving rock.
It’s a numbing trudge with just a flicker at the end of the tunnel. Sondheim all but blames the show’s troubles on the too-busy schedules of directors Sam Mendes and Hal Prince, who reportedly couldn’t give the show their full attention at key points in its development. By the time the clear-eyed British minimalist John Doyle enters the scene, stripping the show down to a lean, stark 100-minute chamber piece, we can almost glimpse the diabolical Sondheim spark in the material—the ineffable scent that led him down this time-bending rabbit hole. Almost.
In this long diversion, as well as in a fascinating chapter on Singing Out Loud, a never-made film he wrote with William Goldman for director Rob Reiner, we see how that eager erstwhile song-plugger has grown up into a no less avid idea-plugger. Indeed, the saving grace of this gargantuan literary effort—less a compendium of lyrics than a hybrid artistic memoir/deluxe liner notes collection—is its infectious enthusiasm; even when he has spent them on mistaken projects and blind alleys, Sondheim shows a questing vigor and restless creative spirit that offset his equally strong tendencies toward ruefulness, doubt and acerbic criticism of others as well as himself. Perhaps because the second volume contains two shows either savaged or dismissed by critics and audiences (Passion and the Mizner bros. debacle), as well as a number of never-finished pet projects, it has more than the usual tone of defensive special pleading.
This would be unpleasant were Sondheim not also so fair-minded and, yes, open-hearted about his process and his foibles. At one point, he confesses that he cries easily; more startling, he later confesses that he only noticed the precious, irreducible ephemerality of theatre—the chosen medium of his entire adult life!—after a 1979 cocktail conversation with British directors, who seemed aghast at the notion of videotaping performances for archival purposes. “The very thing that makes theatre impermanent is what makes it immortal,” he belatedly realizes. “In a sense, every night of a show is a revival.”
With this double Hat trick, Sondheim makes the case not only for his version of some contested historical chapters but for his unique vision of a fluid, nimble musical theatre that can tackle any subject or form. While I’d rather hear these songs than read them any day, even in this vestigial form they tower over most of American musical theatre, and American theatre period. They no longer require an aggressive pitchman. We’re buying.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!