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Theatre Writer Book

Stephen Sondheim , Virgin Books , December 21, 2012
Theatre Writer Book by Stephen Sondheim Knowing how to end, the how and the when, is crucial. This is the summation of a personality imbued with sensitivity, insight and realism. Sondheim has fashioned fine endings in the work. Sweeney Todd exits stunningly with a slammed door. The young heroes of “Merrily We Roll Along” close on a New York rooftop in a bitter-sweet scene of hope and tenderness. Sondheim ends his second volume- with its predecessor it completes a magnum opus of nine hundred pages- on an epilogue that speaks truthfully of time and the artist: “Technical facility gets easier, invention does not.”

“Look, I Made a Hat” covers the years 1981-2011. The period has a lesser number of staged shows but includes the great “Into the Woods” and “Passion.” It also rounds out the career with occasional pieces, unrealised productions, and television and film work. The films include 1976’s “the Seven Percent Solution” with the deliciously suggestive “I Never Do Anything Twice.” The song’s characters are a handsome young Guardsman, a Baron and an Abbot and their respective lines “Yes, I know that it’s hard”, “he took the most extraordinary pains” and “he handed me a hammer and some nails”.

Enthusiasts for any one art form will see it as superior to others. Robert Hughes saw in the film industry an envy that their medium could not achieve that rapture of still and extended contemplation that canvas or sculpture invites. Sondheim too finds reasons for theatre’s superiority. In “Assassins” Guiteau, the killer of President Garfield, turns his gun on the audience. This is “the kind of shock that can exist only in theatre- a photograph is always a photograph, and movie shocks are an entirely different animal…In a movie you’re always on safe ground.” Not really. The cinema too can shake and thrill, engender shudders or tears.

Sondheim does not do prurience or the tittle-tattle of show business memoir, neither of himself nor of others. But he has a few good tales interwoven between the songs and commentary. He is charmed and flattered by Melinda Mercouri’s physical warmth- “embraced me fervently”- and her enthusiasm for “Opening Number” from “Ilya Darling”. At the previews in New York he goes backstage each night to praise the performance. Then on the opening night he can only react with “subdued astonishment that the number no longer existed.”

He comes late to film but an Academy Award comes his way. By unfortunate timing he is recuperating from a broken ankle and unable to make the nifty run to the Hollywood stage. The producers of “Dick Tracy” send him a full-size chocolate Oscar that arrives with its leg broken. “Either the producers” he comments “or the US Postal Service had a sense of humour.”

When the first volume was published it was the criticism of other songwriters that drew most attention. Sondheim’s judgements on Alan Jay Lerner, Lorenz Hart, Anthony Burgess, Truman Capote, even his mentor Oscar Hammerstein, were severe. His compensating enthusiasm for Frank Loesser, Dorothy Fields and Yip Harburg tended to go unnoticed.

In the second volume the lyricist-as-critic is less prominent. The new generation of composers, and that beyond America, is spared the Sondheimian scalpel. Michael John LaChiusa and Steven Sater, Tim Rice and Elton John may whisper quiet prayers of relief. He turns his attention instead to ten songwriters who had only occasional careers in musical theatre.

Thus the lyrics of DuBose Heyward are “the most genuinely poetic and deeply felt in the history of musical theatre.” Those by Richard Wilbur for “Candide” are “unequalled for their combination of wit and skill.” Carolyn Leigh “is the most brilliant technician of them all with the possible exception of Cole Porter.” In addition she comes with “more irony and less camp.” “Rock Island” Meredith Wilson’s opener for “The Music Man” is “surely one of the most startling and galvanic openings ever devised.” Quite right.

Sondheim as craftsman is possessed of the technical insight of a lifetime’s practice. In a chorus number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” he can see that writer Leo Robin “employs a rhyme scheme where each line ends in a three-syllable rhyme that consists of two identities followed by a masculine rhyme instead of the universal opposite, a masculine rhyme followed by two identities.”

He is unforgiving on his own work. “God is in the Details” is one of his three artistic precepts. The opening for the workshop version of “Wise Guys” is “flaccid and familiar.” The word “half-assed” appears in “Wise Guys” which is set in the1890’s. It is wrong not because it is historically inaccurate but because it sounds anachronistic.

In “Move On” which ends “Sunday in the Park with George” he has to make do with “usually” when he intends “eventually” which, alas, comes with a syllable too many. “Inevitably” is even worse. He frets over the excessive exposition in “Wise Guys” first outing. The number “Addison’s Trip” is “the show-stopper that isn’t” and “left, I suspect, something of a hole in Nathan Lane’s heart.”

The lyrical master writes many a line of equally pointed prose. Awards are a-plenty and “have three things to offer: cash, confidence and bric-a-brac.” The English language is richly latinated but he is wary of those “words ending in “ition, “action” and “estion” – not only easy to rhyme but give off a sheen of erudition, as well as articulation, precision, the perfection of expression- I think I’ve made my point. I usually avoid this huge family of words because the effect invariably glitters with glibness.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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