They named a theater after him. Not because he was a financial donor—and may heaven reward all such people—but because he was so good, and so important. You will find the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on West Forty-third Street.
He was a little embarrassed when his name went up, on September 15, 2010. In fact, “deeply embarrassed.” “Thrilled,” he said, “but deeply embarrassed.” Sondheim continued, “I’ve always hated my last name. It just doesn’t sing.”
Man, did he care about words, and their singability.
“It sings better than ‘Schoenfeld’ or ‘Jacobs,’” said Sondheim of “Sondheim.” “But it just doesn’t sing.”
On that day—naming day—Nathan Lane, the performer, had a comment: “We love our corporate sponsors, and we love their money, but there’s something sacred about naming a theater, and there’s something about this that is right and just.”
Stephen Sondheim passed away on Friday, at age ninety-one. He was the dominant Broadway composer-lyricist of the second half of the twentieth century. We have seen, you could say, the Age of Sondheim. He is a big name—an enduring name—like, to cite one predecessor, Cole Porter.
Sondheim was born in Manhattan in 1930. He was born to privilege—by which I mean, his father was successful in business and had money. There, essentially, Stephen’s privileges ended. The father left wife and son when Stephen was ten. Stephen’s mother was a nightmare—a nightmare. Kind of an anti-mother.
The great break in Stephen’s life was to become good friends with Jamie Hammerstein, whose father was Oscar Hammerstein II. Jamie’s father became “Stevie”’s father, too, in a sense. The outstanding lyricist of one generation mentored the outstanding lyricist of another.
Over the years, I have thought a fair amount about talent, and I include Stephen Sondheim in my discussions, always. Hear me out. I’ll be brief.
When I was young, I read the memoirs of Pablo Casals: Joys and Sorrows. I’m going from memory, but I think he said something like this: “When I look at the fisherman kids, on the wharves of Barcelona—deprived of an education, made to work from early boyhood—I think, ‘Which of them is Mozart? Which is Beethoven? How much talent is going undetected and undeveloped?’”
“Hogwash,” I thought. “None of those fisherman kids is a Mozart or a Beethoven. Talent will out. The cream will rise to the top. You can’t suppress it, no matter what.”
I don’t know. Consider the Big Three alone—Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. The father of each of them was a professional musician. Not just a music-lover, or a gifted amateur, but a man who made his living in music. What if Leopold Mozart had been a baker? Would Wolfi have been the best baker in all of Austria?
Sondheim said that if Jamie’s father had been a geologist, “I probably would have been a geologist too.”
He also talked about his teacher at Williams College, Robert Barrow:
Barrow made me realize that all my romantic views of art were nonsense. I had always thought an angel came down and sat on your shoulder and whispered in your ear, “Dah-dah-dah-DUM.”
I wasn’t there, but I believe that Sondheim was intoning the opening motive of Beethoven’s Fifth.
Never occurred to me that art was something worked out. And suddenly it was skies opening up. As soon as you find out what a leading tone is, you think, “Oh my God!” What a diatonic scale is—“Oh my God!” The logic of it. And, of course, what that meant to me was: well, I can do that. Because you just don’t know. You think it’s a talent, you think you’re born with this thing. What I’ve found out is that everybody is talented. It’s just that some people get it developed and some don’t.
I don’t know about “everybody,” but I more or less agree, now.
Leonard Bernstein hated West Side Story. I’d better clarify: he feared that he would be remembered as the composer of West Side Story, and as nothing else. To which my response is twofold: You’re not remembered only for West Side Story. And if you were? So what? That thing is a flat-out masterpiece.
If Stephen Sondheim had done nothing else—nothing else in his whole, long, productive life—than write the lyrics of West Side Story, he would have made a great contribution to musical theater, to the arts, and, hell, to life. He himself would poor-mouth his West Side Story lyrics when he was older. He wrote them when he was about twenty-five; he thought they were immature, to a degree. But there is not much to poor-mouth. Those lyrics are dazzling, moving, and unforgettable. They are also impressively diverse: romantic, sardonic, comedic . . .
Is there a cleverer novelty song than “Gee, Officer Krupke”? How do you like this? “I feel fizzy and funny and fine/ And so pretty/ Miss America can just resign.”
One of my favorite rhymes, all time, comes from “America”: “I like the island Manhattan./ Smoke on your pipe and put that in.” Another of my favorites comes from “My Funny Valentine,” the Rodgers and Hart song: “Your looks are laughable./ Unphotographable.”
Sondheim didn’t like that line so much. “Unless the object of the singer’s affection is a vampire,” he said, “surely what Hart means is ‘unphotogenic.’ Only vampires are unphotographable, but affectionate ‘-enic’ rhymes are hard to come by.”
Yes, he cared a lot about words. For a time, in the 1960s, he constructed cryptic crosswords for New York magazine.
By the way, a new film version of West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg, is due out in about a week.
After all of these words—mine, I mean—I have not talked about Stephen Sondheim as a composer. I don’t mean to slight him. Other people know his musicals better than I do. His most famous song, probably, is “Send in the Clowns,” from A Little Night Music (1973). I have never cared for this song. I have something of an allergy to it. But this song means a lot to many people—millions, probably. It won the Grammy for Song of the Year. And everybody knows this song.
Isn’t that something, to have written a song that everybody knows? A song imprinted on the collective mind?
In 2014, I reviewed a New York Philharmonic presentation of Sweeney Todd, Sondheim’s 1979 musical about murder and cannibalism, those natural topics for a musical. What a grin-making evening. After Act I, when it’s time for intermission, you can’t help waltzing out to “A Little Priest.”
My gosh, what inventiveness—in words and music.
In 2002, I interviewed Ned Rorem, in anticipation of his eightieth birthday. (He is today ninety-eight.) This classical composer said he had no use for popular music. “I love the pop music of my day—the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties: Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Cole Porter. The tunes are memorable.” Then he said, “Stephen Sondheim at his best is out of this tradition. But other pop music: 99 percent of it is incomprehensible.”
You might say that Stephen Sondheim doesn’t need Ned Rorem’s praise. Fair enough. But this praise—Rorem’s exemption—is striking.
Sondheim worked hard—very hard. I will quote from the New York Times obit: “Though Mr. Sondheim spent long hours in solitary labor, usually late at night, when he was composing or writing, he often spoke lovingly of the collaborative nature of the theater.” Yes, but back to the “solitary labor.”
For decades now, people have told Paul Johnson, the British historian, journalist, and writer, that they, too, want to be a writer. He tells them, “It’s not for everyone, you know. You have to be prepared to spend much of your life alone. Because books and articles don’t write themselves: you do.”
Those songs and shows don’t write themselves, either—Sondheim did. He died with his boots on: writing, composing, attending shows, giving interviews. Right up to the last. “What else am I going to do?” he asked. “I’m too old now to do a lot of traveling, I’m sorry to say. What else would I do with my time but write?”
William F. Buckley Jr. was the exact same way, incidentally. To a T.
On Twitter, Mia Farrow related something that seems to capture Stephen Sondheim—a humanity, an intelligence, a wit. He was godfather to Farrow’s daughter Quincy. When the girl was two, she gave him a Christmas gift: a shiny penny, wrapped in toilet paper. He sent her a thank-you note on his engraved stationery—promising not to spend the money all at once.