Getting Close to Sondheim: New Books Try to Capture His Essence
Roughly a decade before Stephen Sondheim died in November 2021, he added a surprising new occupation to his multi-hyphenate career: autobiographer. His two memoirs-through-lyrics, “Finishing the Hat” and “Look, I Made a Hat,” offered beguiling insights into the life of a man who had long cultivated a reputation for sphinx-like reticence. The year since his death has seen bookshelves sag with an array of books offering further glimpses; D.T. Max’s “Finale: Late Conversations With Stephen Sondheim” is the most recent, with several more on the horizon. Here is a look at some of those titles.
Many of the current crop of works can be classified as either “I worked with Steve” books or “I had an ongoing professional and intermittently contentious correspondence with Steve” books. (There’s also an “I was sort of married to Steve for a year” book. More on that soon.)
Accounts from two of Sondheim’s longtime collaborators, the musical director Paul Gemignani and the pianist Paul Ford, were both in the works well before 2021. Gemignani had put off writing his memoirs for years, and it wasn’t until the Covid pandemic shut down live theater that he had the time to work on “Gemignani: Life and Lessons From Broadway and Beyond.” The book’s extensive quotes from Sondheim include one that Gemignani’s co-author, Margaret Hall, agreed not to use until after his death. In it, Sondheim described their decades-long working relationship: “It can’t be expressed. It’s like trying to explain why you’re in love with somebody. There’s no explanation; it just is.”
His involvement with Ford’s “Lord Knows, at Least I Was There: Working With Stephen Sondheim” was less harmonious. Ford, who played piano on the original productions of four different Sondheim shows and what he described as “about 50,000 birthday celebrations,” had plugged away on his memoirs for years and gotten permission to use Sondheim’s name in the title — until Sondheim took a look at the manuscript in 2017.
“An advance copy was sent to Steve in the morning,” Ford recalled, “and by the afternoon a scathing series of emails came back saying, ‘I skimmed through it, but it’s just a memoir. Take my name off this book.’ So that was it for a while.” Until this March, to be precise.
Such exchanges were not unknown to Paul Salsini, who includes many of them in “Sondheim & Me: Revealing a Musical Genius,” which came out in October.As the longtime editor of the Sondheim Review magazine (for which I worked for several years), Salsini heard from Sondheim often. “He was so protective about making sure everything was accurate,” Salsini said.
Remembering Stephen Sondheim
The revered and influential composer-lyricist died Nov. 26, 2021. He was 91.
- Obituary: A titan of the American musical, Sondheim was the driving force behind some of Broadway’s most beloved shows.
- Final Interview: Days before he died, he sat down with The Times for his final major interview.
- His Legacy: As a mentor, a letter writer and an audience regular, Sondheim nurtured generations of theater makers.
- ‘West Side Story’: Does the musical, which features some of the artist’s best-known lyrics, deserve a new hearing?
- ‘Company’: The revival of his 1970 musical features a gender swap.
A low point in the relationship came after a 1996 review in the publication of the London premiere of “Passion.” The review compared it unfavorably to the original Broadway production, and called it “just a little too blatant,” which triggered a barrage of irate responses both by telephone and through the mail.
“It was a good, balanced review, and I have no idea why he was so upset,” said Salsini, who believes the written note could have opened Sondheim up for libel if it had run in the magazine, as Sondheim had intended. And then the protests stopped. “And to this day,” he said, “I don’t know why.”
D.T. Max’s involvement with Sondheim was not quite as heated or as lengthy: “Finale: Late Conversations With Stephen Sondheim” is based on five interactions between 2016 and 2019. Initially the intent was to produce a profile for The New Yorker to coincide with a new musical, a pair of one-acts adapted from two Luis Buñuel films, that was left unfinished at the time of Sondheim’s death. They discussed everything from “Vertigo” to the poetry of William Carlos Williams to the Beatles. (Sondheim only liked two of those three things.)
“I was not so arrogant as to think I would get to the mystery of Stephen Sondheim’s creative genius,” Max said, “but I did hope to get close to it.”
A question about whether he had learned anything from Andrew Lloyd Webber fell on clearly unsympathetic ears, however, and as the new work fizzled away, so did the profile. (“Sondheim broke up with me over that question,” as Max put it, alluding to an email after that interview in which Sondheim begged off participating for the profile.) “Finale” is essentially the paper trail of this long, ultimately fruitless (or was it?) pas de deux between interviewer and interviewee.
“Sondheim was a complicated guy to sit with,” said Max, who tagged along with Sondheim and Meryl Streep at a gala for one of the five interviews. “There was a sense of intimacy that wasn’t entirely real and wasn’t entirely fake.”
And then there’s that trial marriage. “Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers,” which the Broadway composer Rodgers (“Once Upon a Mattress”) co-wrote with the New York Times chief theater critic, Jesse Green, covers a lot of ground in a career that included far more than her interactions with Sondheim. But those interactions came to a head in 1960, when Sondheim and the recently divorced Rodgers “would get into the same bed, side by side, frozen with fear,” for roughly a year on and off. It didn’t last.
The seemingly eternal question mark involves David Benedict’s authorized Sondheim biography, which was announced in 2014 complete with a first draft to be submitted in 2017. But while we wait for that, two new titles are (presumably) more imminent.
March will see the release of “Careful the Spell You Cast: How Stephen Sondheim Extended the Range of the American Musical.” In it, Ben Francis takes aim at the prevalent view of Sondheim as the eternal cynic. Instead, he suggests, Sondheim’s reminder that “dreams take time” (to quote from “Merrily We Roll Along,” a revival of which is heading to Broadway next fall) positions him as a successor to his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, as an unlikely romantic.
And in “Sondheim: His Life, His Shows, His Legacy,” slated for release next October, Stephen M. Silverman supplements interviews with what the promotional copy describes as Sondheim’s “collaborators, mentors and fans,” along with illustrated transcripts, letters and more.
On the horizon
Sondheim was a gifted puzzle maker and creator of cryptic scavenger hunts. (Rian Johnson, the screenwriter and director of “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” has credited the 1973 mystery film “The Last of Sheila,” co-written by Sondheim, as an inspiration.) Barry Joseph decided to plumb this relatively under-discussed aspect of his life in “Matching Minds With Sondheim: The Puzzles and Games of the Master Lyricist.”
“This is seeing his mind and brilliance in a whole new way,” said Joseph, who hopes to release the book in 2024. “When you’re trying to solve someone’s puzzle, you’re getting into their head.”
The following year should see the publication of Dan Okrent’s own biography as part of the Yale Jewish Lives series, or what he calls “little books about big Jews.”
Although Sondheim didn’t set foot in a synagogue until he was 19, Okrent said, he spent much of his career on Broadway and grew up with a father in the garment business, two industries in which Jews were strongly represented at the time. Okrent’s book will look at Sondheim and his work through this lens.
“My goal is not to uncover things that people didn’t know,” he said. “It is to put what people do know into context.”