Sondheim: His Life, His Shows, His Legacy

There’s a photograph of 23-year-old Stephen Sondheim with Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Gina Lollabrigida on the set of director John Huston’s movie “Beat the Devil,” where  Sondheim had gotten a job through a college friend. The caption informs us that he and Bogie bonded with one another by playing chess. 

It’s one of the odd tidbits in “Sondheim: HIs Life, His Shows, His Legacy” (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 293 pages), a handsome, readable book by Stephen M. Silverman, a longtime editor at People Magazine, who doesn’t pass up any opportunity for a little stargazing, if the stars are even a little bit relevant. Among the two hundred photographs within its pages are five of Gypsy Rose Lee – a cheesecake pose during her striptease heyday; sitting in front of a typewriter, presumably writing her memoir; with her mother and third husband; at a rehearsal for Gypsy, the musical based on her memoir, sitting in front of Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics; chatting with Ethel Merman, who played her mother in the original production of the musical.

The very existence of a book like this is an argument that, by the time Stephen Sondheim died in November, 2021 at the age of 91, he had become as celebrated as many of the famous people featured in it. One of the numerous sidebars is a full page about the popularity of Sondheim’s face on t-shirts and such tchotchkes as enamel pins.

“Sondheim: His Life, His Shows, His Legacy” offers far less about his life or his legacy than about his shows. Most of the fourteen chapters focus on the individual musicals (and one straight play) in which Sondheim was involved, starting with West Side Story, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics when he was 27. The longest chapter, at 43 pages, is entitled “Princely Acts” and goes one by one through three of Sondheim’s fruitful collaborations with director Harold Prince – “Company,” “Follies” and “A Little Night Music.”

These chapters detail so much more about these shows than just the work by the composer/lyricist that his contribution can feel minimized. In the 17 pages that make up the chapter on “Sweeney Todd,” entitled “Bloody Hell,” roughly two pages are about Sondheim’s music, and nothing at all about the lyrics. We learn that his score was largely inspired by Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann, who did the music for a horror movie Sondheim saw when he was 15, “Hangover Square,” about a composer who murdered people whenever he heard a high note. There is also a two-page sidebar about the various opera companies that have done the show (featuring posters from four of them), which includes Sondheim’s well-known views about opera. (He was not a fan.)    In the rest of the chapter, Silverman goes over the many versions of the story of Sweeney Todd dating back to 1846; profiles the producers; explains director Harold Prince’s initial resistance to turning it into a musical, changing his mind when he began to see the story as an attack on the British class system; describes the elaborate set in the original production; recounts the debate over who to cast; quotes Angela Lansbury on her broad comic approach to the ghoulish role of Mrs. Lovett (“I just figured hell I’ve done everything else on Broadway…”); devotes a page-long sidebar to the 2005 Broadway revival directed by John Doyle where the actors all played musical instruments, a paragraph to the 2023 revival, two paragraphs to the plans by Disney+ to do a ten-episode animated version of “Sweeney Todd,”   and two pages to the 2007 movie adaptation by Tim Burton (who called it “the Sound of Music, with blood.”) Worked into the chapter are a few thin sentences about how during this time, Sondheim, then 49, had a life-changing heart attack.

Silverman’s “Sondheim” is not what you could call a biography, much less a definitive one, but the book has several things going for it.  Published this month in the midst of three high-profile Sondheim productions on New York stages (one of them a world premiere), it’s certainly well-timed – although not, unfortunately, for its author, who died in July at the age of 71. It serves Silverman’s legacy well: Commissioned by the publisher after Sondheim’s death, the book is free of the self-aggrandizing pretend-intimacy that other Sondheim chroniclers have exhibited in recent publications. It is primarily an intelligent sifting and workmanlike synthesis of information and anecdotes gleaned from decades of previous books, articles, films, even websites and social media, as well as just a few interviews with Sondheim associates and admirers that Silverman personally conducted, some of them in the course of his long career as an entertainment journalist.

If this means that there’s little in the book that’s new, it’s a useful introduction for Sondheim novices and full of welcome reminders for the Sondheim-is-God crowd. 

A reminder of his modest attitude towards his talent: After studying music with Professor Robert Barrow as an undergraduate at Williams College, Sondheim said, “I no longer thought of music as some kind of airy inspirational divine gift. I thought it is as a science, as a way of organizing sound…What I found, and what I believe, is that everybody is talented. It’s just that some people get it developed, and some don’t.”

A reminder of his pride in his talent: Recounting his collaboration on “West Side Story”  with composer Leonard Bernstein, who was as extroverted as Sondheim was introverted, Silverman writes that they nevertheless got along…usually:  “Bernstein appreciated that Sondheim knew music, which facilitated the writing. What Sondheim did not appreciate was Bernstein’s fancying himself a lyricist. He ‘would sketch out something that was purple prose, not poetry. It screamed Look at Me. I’m being Poetic.’” Sondheim, Silverman observes, had taken to heart the rule he had learned from his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, “to underwrite and let the music take care of the rest.”

A reminder of Sondheim’s view towards his work: “I find lyric writing one of the most unpleasant professions in the world. Whereas music is fun.”

If Silverman makes little effort at critical analysis, and wisely doesn’t attempt to sum up Sondheim’s significance to the culture, there is enough basic information to allow the readers to come to our own conclusions.  It is startling, for example, to realize a common theme —  how long it took the public to appreciate almost all of Sondheim’s musicals, even those that are wildly popular now, such as West Side Story. It’s a process that’s ongoing, promising more revivals and reappraisals, and surely more recapitulations of Sondheim’s life and work and legacy.

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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