• U.S.

Stephen Sondheim: Master of the Musical

11 minute read
William A. Henry III

When Stephen Sondheim was a freshman pursuing mathematics at Williams College, he enrolled in a music course. Most of the class, he recalls, loathed it. “The professor, Robert Barrow, was cold and dogmatic. I thought he was the best thing I had ever encountered, because he took all the romance away from art. Instead of the muse coming at midnight and humming Some Enchanted Evening into your ear, music was constructed. It wasn’t what other people wanted to hear, but it turned me into a music major.”

Art without romance. An odd-sounding phrase, perhaps, from the man who wrote the gushy words of head-over-heels devotion to Maria for West Side Story, the anthem to unrequited passion, Losing My Mind, for Follies and the rueful look at love out of synch, Send In the Clowns, for A Little Night Music. Each of the 14 shows for which he has been composer, lyricist or both has been shot through with emotion. His latest, Into the Woods, which opened last month and promptly became Broadway’s newest musical hit, with advance sales climbing to $2.5 million, embraces every experience from birth to death, from delirious infatuation to parting regret. Yet to acerbic critics and ardent fans alike — and Sondheim, at 57, is surely the most controversial major figure in the American theater — his own dispassionate characterization evokes the distinctive flavor of the work that has brought him five Tonys, a record six New York Drama Critics Circle awards for best musical and a 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park with George.

He brings to show business, customarily a craft of schmaltz and charm, one of the keenest analytic minds around. Sondheim was the kind of boy whose favorite school subject is Latin, and he grew into the sort of man who browses through dictionaries for entertainment. His love of concocting puzzles, scavenger hunts and murder-mystery games, legendary in theater circles, inspired the premise and central character of Anthony Shaffer’s thriller, Sleuth, and led Sondheim and a longtime friend, Actor Anthony Perkins, to turn out their own Hollywood chiller, The Last of Sheila. Equally methodical for the stage, Sondheim does not simply write songs; he writes scores so intricately interconnected that he began Into the Woods by jotting down a musical motif for each character, as if planning a narrative symphony. He couples that architectural approach to music with a detached, almost anthropological look at his fellow man. He derives many of his lyrics from probing conversations with actors or friends. Yet even people who have been close to him for decades say he is hard to get to know. The only child of a couple who endured a venomous divorce, he is described by a friend as the “one person I know who truly hates his mother.” Despite diverse infatuations, he has always lived alone, and says, a little sadly, he has “never” been in love.

Sondheim’s intellectuality is reflected in his choice of subjects, far weightier than the heft of the average straight play on Broadway, let alone the merry moonshine of past musicals: the birth of pointillist painting (Sunday in the Park); Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan to the West (Pacific Overtures, 1977); a murderous barber with a Marxist-sounding class grievance and a woman companion who cooks his victims in pies (Sweeney Todd, 1979); the impossibility of marriage (Company, 1970); and the decline of the chorus-girl kick line as a metaphor for the loss of American innocence (Follies, 1971). Like Picasso, who painted a few realistic canvases as if to demonstrate he could, or Eugene O’Neill, who leavened his epic tragedies with one comedy of formula perfection, Ah, Wilderness, Sondheim proved in his lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy and his words and music for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum that he could work within the conventions as adeptly as anyone. But he perceived, earlier than almost any of his contemporaries, that the old style of musical was dying. That was the message of Follies, a fond but firm farewell to feather boas, torch songs, showstoppers and Busby Berkeley-like production numbers. When a much revamped version opened in London last July, audiences had long since come to share the show’s judgment and were able to see it as nostalgic rather than dismissive.

Follies is now the West End’s most profitable show and appears to be headed back to Broadway. Combined with the 3 million-copy sales of Barbra Streisand’s 1985Broadway Album, featuring Sondheim songs, and the annuity represented by his copyrights, notably West Side Story and Forum, the new hits yield fortune as well as fame. Money does not seem to mean much to Sondheim — “I turn it over to my accountants and do what they tell me to” — and, for a man who acknowledges he sometimes makes more than $1 million a year, he does not seem to believe he has much. After writing Sunday in the Park about Painter Georges Seurat, he went to a show of Seurat drawings, which sell in the low six figures. “I can’t tell you how much I wanted one,” he recalls, “but, of course, I couldn’t afford it.”

What does matter to Sondheim is work. Says he: “The point of being in the theater is to try one idea after another, maybe realize your first was the best, but be able to know — which just about no other art form can allow.” For Woods — a sort of Fractured Fairy Tales in which Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack of Beanstalk fame and other beloved characters all meet in the same forest at the same time and blunder into one another’s stories — Sondheim and Director-Librettist James Lapine started sketching ideas soon after the premiere of their first collaboration, Sunday in the Park. Through three workshop productions, a regional tryout at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego and five weeks of Broadway previews, they kept making fundamental changes almost daily, even in the basic plot. Quips Woods Co-Producer Rocco Landesman: “Opening night is a formality to these guys. I wouldn’t be surprised if they put in new stuff the week it closes.” Indeed, Sondheim has persuaded his Follies collaborators to gather in London in January to revise the show yet again.

Sondheim’s fascination with the theater reaches back to a day in 1939 when his father took Stephen, 9, to see a Broadway musical, Very Warm for May. He recalls, “The curtain went up and revealed a piano. A butler took a duster and brushed it up, tinkling the keys. I thought that was thrilling.” That moment, a few months before his parents’ divorce, was one of the few distinctly happy ones from a latchkey childhood: “I did not have an unhappy time, because it literally did not occur to me that other people had a family life. I saw ((my parents)) occasionally at night and on weekends, and I thought every child in New York lived that way.” Sondheim’s father was a manufacturer of medium-price dresses, and his mother was the firm’s designer. “We lived very nicely,” he recalls, “on Central Park West in Manhattan, but at the back of the building. After my father remarried, he moved to Fifth Avenue, still at the back of the building. From him I get my tendency to pessimism. He always looked at the black side, imagined the worst that could happen. Eventually my stepmother and I forced him to retire, and I’m sorry to say I think it killed him — he missed the worry.”

Stephen’s mother won custody of him in the divorce and forbade him to have any contact with his father. “She would have members of her family follow me to see if I met him in secret,” he recalls. “She would telephone his apartment to see if I answered, then hang up. I was a substitute for him, and she took out all her anger and craziness on me. From her I get my tendency to hysteria. It was not a great relationship.” It never improved: Sondheim has helped his mother financially but has gone through long periods of not speaking to her, and regales friends with darkly comic tales of her attempts to rile him — making mementos of his shows, for example, but pointedly omitting the flops. Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers and one of Sondheim’s oldest friends, describes Sondheim’s propensity for writing “eloquent, deliberately mean, really hooty little thank-you notes,” and quotes a sample: “Dear Mary and Hank, Thanks for the plate, but where was my mother’s head? Love, Steve.”

A couple of years after the divorce, however, Sondheim’s mother made a doting gesture that transformed his life. Stephen, then 12, had made a new friend named Jamie Hammerstein, son of Oscar, the lyricist of Very Warm for May, and was invited to the family farm in Doylestown, Pa., for a weekend. The weekend turned into a summer and, not long after, Mrs. Sondheim bought a house in Doylestown so Stephen could live there year-round. She continued to commute to Manhattan, often stayed there during the week and on weekends typically brought along guests. But as Jamie Hammerstein recalls, “by Christmas, Stephen was more a Hammerstein than a Sondheim.” The pivotal relationship was with Oscar. Sondheim recalls that at 15 he showed Hammerstein a novice musical he had written: “Oscar said, ‘It’s the worst thing I have ever read — but I didn’t say it was untalented.’ ” What followed was the first installment of a years-long informal education.

His next mentor was Avant-Garde Composer Milton Babbitt. Sondheim, straight out of Williams, talked Babbitt into taking him on as a private pupil in structure and theory. He paid with money from a fellowship and stretched the funds by living in bohemian disorder in his father’s dining room. Next he tried to break into show business. A few painful years of struggle — scraping up auditions that led to more auditions, writing and rewriting a show that never got staged because the producer died, going out to Hollywood to write scripts for the TV sitcom Topper — ended in triumph when his lyrics for West Side Story established him at 27.

With success came creature comforts. Sondheim splurged in 1960 and bought a Manhattan town house after the movie sale of Gypsy. He still lives there, in an East Side enclave of houses that share a sprawling back garden with low brick walls, small fountains and mossy enclosures. Katharine Hepburn resides next door, but they did not meet until nearly a decade after he moved in. “I was up one night at about 3, pounding on the piano, writing The Ladies Who Lunch for Company, when I heard this banging on the garden door. There she was, in a babushka and no shoes, saying, ‘Young man, I cannot sleep with the noise you’re making.’ Now she and my houseman, Lou Vargas, swap recipes, and she brings him vegetables from the country.” After renting the house’s upper floors to friends for years, Sondheim has expanded, allotting himself an office, a studio with a piano and an exercise room, where he cycles 40 minutes a day while watching old movies to avert a repetition of the mild heart attack that stunned him in 1979. Once a little pudgy, his short frame is now trim. But he does not dress to show it off: his clothing, like his manner, is no- nonsense informal and definitely not extravagant. Jewish by birth but not religious, Sondheim became no more so through his brush with death. Of the idea of an afterlife, he says, “I never think about it.” But after years of brooding intensity and frequent suspicion of the larger world, he seems to have achieved a midlife serenity. Formerly a renowned partygiver, Sondheim is a homebody these days, and fretted aloud that his house was too run down — there are cracks in the walls from subsidence, and the upholstery is in shreds from his cats — to have the Woods cast over for a proper party.

Perhaps what makes Sondheim’s work most interesting is that he is fascinated by happiness without quite sharing the gift for it. Among the characters in Woods are a father uncomfortable with babies, who Sondheim admits is his father, and a mother who regrets having had children, who Sondheim says is his mother. In almost all his shows at least one character stands apart from the world and comments, and that is Sondheim himself. His salvation, always, has been work. Mary Rodgers recalls, “My only expectation, and it was shared by all his close friends, was that Steve would have to make it, because if he didn’t, he would die.” Make it Sondheim did, in everyone’s eyes except his own: “Deep down, I don’t feel any more successful than I did as a young man. I won’t be happy until everyone likes my shows. If they ever do, I’ll worry they’re not liking them for the right reasons.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com