Finale: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim

In 2016, Stephen Sondheim, who was working on a new musical based on two movies by Luis Buñuel,  was listed on an internal memo at the New Yorker Magazine as a possible subject for a profile. Staff writer D.T. Max signed up. 

The two met five times over the next several years, but neither the musical nor the profile had happened by the time Sondheim died on November 26, 2021 at the age of 91.

 Two and a half months later, the New Yorker published an article with an edited and condensed but still lengthy version of Max’s interviews with Sondheim, in Q&A format, under the title Stephen Sondheim’s Lessons for Every Artist.

It is a worthwhile, wide-ranging read, in which Sondheim talked about the origins and progress he was making with his Buñuel musical; about his technique as a composer; about what music he liked (classical and movie music; Puccini, not Verdi; the Beatles and Radiohead, not any other rock bands); about his parents (“My mother was entirely visual, my father played by ear. He would go to a Broadway show and come home and pick the tunes out on the piano. And when I was a tiny kid I would sit on the piano bench, and he would put my little hand on his right hand, and I would play the piano with him”); and about his view of death. (“I don’t mind dying. I just hate—I just don’t want it to be uncomfortable. And I don’t want it to be prolonged.”)
And do you worry about not finishing this work because—

All of this is part of Finale: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim (Harper, 228 pages), D.T. Max’s expansion of that article, hooked to the first anniversary of the composer’s death.

It is an embarrassing book.

Max does offer some additional material of at least casual interest that was not in the New Yorker article. Sondheim told Max that he lived his entire life within 20 square blocks of Manhattan, and since 1960 in “the house that Gypsy built” in Turtle Bay, although he also spent much time in his country house in Connecticut.  His favorite piece of classical music was probably Brahms’s second concerto. Sondheim was a slow reader, preferring book reviews to books. Indeed, this habit annoyed playwright Arthur Laurents enough to inspire a line in “Gypsy,” in which Mama Rose sneers at her daughter: “You, who read book reviews like they was books!” 

Also included in the book are expanded versions of two short pieces in the New Yorker that Max had written involving Sondheim (which account for two of their five encounters) – one in which he accompanied Sondheim and his friend Meryl Streep to the PEN America Literary Gala, the other an interview with Sondheim and his long-time musical collaborators, Paul Gemignani and his son Alex Gemignani. In the chapter with the Gemignanis (but not in the New Yorker article about them), Alex tells Sondheim he thinks it’s “incredibly brave” of him to allow artists to do new versions of his work. Sondheim replies:

“Everybody says, ‘Oh, it’s so brave!’ I’ve said so many
times, out loud and in public, the joy of the theater is that
from generation to generation, from year to year, the pro-
duction is alive, because it can be done differently. Even
night to night, as we all know. It’s not the same show tonight
as it was last night. And that’s so much better than writing
for the movies, where it’s there, and that may be perfect, but
that’s permanent. The fun is allowing people to reinterpret.”

But “Finale” as a whole feels dashed off. The bulk of it that was not previously published in the New Yorker is what Max calls “free-form chats,” keeping to the Q&A format. Too much of this is in need of editing, reading like the transcripts of endless random chit-chat such as those that used to fill up Interview magazine. But these are certainly better than the few paragraphs that Max writes for the book, in which he casts himself as one of the two central characters in a psychodrama of his own making.  He frames “Finale” as his personal journey with Stephen Sondheim – detailing his strategies for their interactions, and his reactions to those interactions. It seems worth noting that the book was originally subtitled “Late Interviews with Stephen Sondheim,” now changed to “…Conversations…,” as if trying to elevate the status of the journalist assigned to ask questions. Even the titles for each chapter, though surely meant to be clever, further reveal this skewed perspective: Audition, Opening Night, New York Run, etc. These have no correlation to any actual opening night or New York run. Audition is about Max’s “audition” in front of Sondheim, i.e. his first interview with him. These metaphorically give the weight of a theatrical production to what Max views as his evolving relationship with his subject, with Max being the show. At one point, Max writes in typically ponderous prose:

“Was I actually getting closer to answering the question of how whatever was true about him had molded him into such an astonishingly creative being? That’s, in the end, the treasure everyone who ever interviewed Sondheim was searching for, and I was no different.”

No, he doesn’t actually get close, and yes, he was different. A profile of Sondheim was not published in the New Yorker, because Sondheim changed his mind and nixed the project, twice. First, he didn’t want a reporter sitting in on meetings about the musical because that would make his collaborators uneasy; then, Max’s interviewing made Sondheim himself uneasy. Specifically, Max asked Sondheim his opinion of Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Max writes that he was surprised that Sondheim found this off-putting, but he shouldn’t have been surprised: Earlier in his own book, when Max asked Sondheim whose music interests him, Sondheim answered: “This is a subject that’s taboo.” To avoid offending anybody, “I just don’t give opinions on anybody alive.” It’s hard to avoid concluding that “Finale” is a salvage job, selling to the public the raw material of an aborted project now that Sondheim can no longer object.

From the first interview, D.T. Max seems like the wrong person to write a book about Sondheim. Although he claims to have been a fan from childhood, he knew so little about him that he was not even aware of Sondheim’s two published volumes of lyrics and commentary, “Finishing The Hat” and “Look I Made A Hat,” when he first visited Sondheim at his townhouse. There is no indication that Max, best known as the author of a best-selling biography of the fiction writer David Foster Wallace, has a strong grounding in theater, musical theater, or music, nor any special interest in any of these. This might not be a requirement for putting together a profile in a magazine, but feels a disadvantage for an author on a purported book-length quest to unravel the mysteries of a musical theater composer’s creativity.

It is noteworthy how much Sondheim takes Max’s ignorance in stride, as if he just assumed interviewers wouldn’t necessarily know anything about him – something that Max himself later acknowledges: “Sondheim, an eye on his legacy, seemed happy to teach me what I already should have known…”

Indeed, Stephen Sondheim comes off well in “Finale,” as he does in even more self-aggrandizing and less informative books that have come out recently about the musical theater composer whose work has meant so much to so many. Perhaps with time he’ll get the more considered literary treatment he deserves.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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