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A CurtainUp Book Review
Stephen Sondheim, a Life
One of the routines of my Berkshire summer is a Thursday drive to Williamstown, alternating between openings at the Williamstown Theatre Festival's two stages in the Adams Memorial Theatre building. The Adams Memorial Main Stage was the magnet drawing sixteen-year-old Stephen Sondheim to enroll at Williams College. It was also the venue for, Phinney's Rainbow, a collegiate spoof on the hit musical Finian's Rainbow, which was given four performances in 1948.

A motto adorning the steps of one of the dorms inspired his first original musical Climb High. Anyone reading Meryle Secrest's richly detailed biography will also find that, while there were plenty of stops and starts along the way, these words could also serve as a motto of Sondheim's career:

Climb high
Climb far
Your goal the sky
Your aim the star
Secrest while not a musical expert, is an expert biographer. Since a biographer is very much a puzzle solver, it's easy to understand her interest in a man with a well-known fascination for puzzles. Her previous subjects include people of diverse artistic background, only one of whom, Leonard Bernstein, was a musician. It was in fact while trying to get a handle on Bernstein's creative lapse, that she first sought out Sondheim. (He told her Bernstein had a bad case of "Important-itis").

As she did in the Bernstein book, Secrest again skillfully traces the evolution of Sondheim's work by carefully chronicling the personal influences that shaped his artistic development. Her interviews with the composer-lyricist are woven through with comments culled from interviews with friends, relatives and colleagues as well as secondary sources. In addition, there are a fair amount of biographer-as-analyst observations.

It would have been nice to have more details about her methodology, especially about the dates and circumstances pertaining to her meetings with Sondheim. Instead, she guards the steps taken to piece together the puzzle of what makes her subject tick, as much as Sondheim for all his cooperation seems to have controlled what he wanted in print. In spite of this, Stephen Sondheim: A Life succeeds admirably in drawing a well-rounded and richly embroidered psychological and professional portrait. The emotional deprived silver-spoon childhood -- a mother aptly called Foxy and a father who abandoned the family for another woman -- are not just thrown in for the sake of a tell-all expose flavor, but to show how artists generally and this artist in particular reprocess such painful experiences. This savvy integration of the personal story , Broadway insider anecdotes and the process of writing lyrics and composing makes for a book that should please musical theater buffs as well as the general readers who make biographies one of the best-selling categories of the book business.

The personal history isn't all Mommy Dearest and Daddy-Out-to-Lunch. Sondheim was lucky in many of his friendships and family connections -- knight in shining armor in the latter department being Oscar Hammerstein 2nd whose Bucks County retreat provided the young Sondheim with a nurturing home away from his mother's unnourishing nest nearby. This surrogate father also became Sondheim's musical mentor and the four-part program he prescribed for his protege as lessons in the art of writing musicals is one any young aspirant might do well to follow:
First take a play that you like and musicalize it. Then take a play that you like but that you feel has flaws and try to improve them, and musicalize it. Then take something that is not a play but that somebody else has written, a novel or a short story, so that you don't have to invent the characters or plot, and musicalize that and make it into a play. And then finally, write an original, your own story, and dramatize that.
Sondheim began on Hammerstein's lesson plan during his junior year at Williams, starting with Beggar on Horseback. Part four was the already mentioned Climbing High. Hammerstein saw much to like in this but was disturbed that Sondheim took so much trouble with a character he didn't like. One of his written notes in the margin of the script was "Don't bristle."

Ms. Secrest does not dwell unnecessarily on the darkness of her subject's childhood.. Instead she moves through the stages of his life and work at a crisp enough pace to take us through his stints as actor and TV scriptwriter and the genesis of his whole oeuvre of successful and not so successful musicals. (An appendix with a chronological list, main original cast members and performance dates would have enhanced the book's reference value).

Having reviewed a revival of A Little Night Music just a few weeks before starting this book, the chapter on this collaboration with Harold Prince and Arthur Laurents (one of several) was particularly enlightening and enjoyable: The way Hermione Gingold fought for the role of Madame Armfeldt, Prince's stated vision for an effect that would be "whipped cream with knives", the reason for the lyrical construction of the big hit song "Send In the Clowns" and the stage disaster that sent all the china crashing and destroyed two costly antique candelabras.

While perhaps not as explicit as some tell-all biographies, Ms. Secrest does not skim over Sondheim's homosexuality. In fact, with many memorable photographs generously sprinkled throughout the text, the only thing missing in these 466 pages (including a 15-page index) is a CD with a little Sondheim music -- especially the refrain from Sunday In the Park With George which she uses to sum up her story and Stephen Sondheim's continuing saga:
I want to move on.
I want to explore the light.
I want to know how to get through
Through to something new . . .

Secrest also wrote Leonard Bernstein : A Life and in fact, she first met Sondheim in the course of her work on that book.

Stephen Sondheim, A Life
By Meryle Secrest
Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, 1998
Reviewed 8/11/98 by Elyse Sommer

© August 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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