Remembering Steve: The Sky-Filling Giant That Was Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim celebrating with the actor playing the title role in a Barcelona production of ‘Sweeney Todd,’ date unknown.

PERSPECTIVE — Since the news of Stephen Sondheim’s sudden death Nov. 26 at age 91, the media, mainstream and social, has been flooded with tributes from theater folk in awe as much of his generosity as of his genius. They’re not the only ones.

Stephen Sondheim at work, circa 1972.

Like Tom Stoppard, Steve was one whose brain the world was quicker to recognize than his heart. Verbal brilliance will do that for you, especially if you use it as a defense. And so both these whizzes did, at least in their art, endowing even their humblest characters with a gift for contradiction and paradox. “Not to worry, not to worry,” sings the simpleton Toby in Sweeney Todd, “I may not be smart but I ain’t dumb.” Sophisticates in Steve’s shows often deliver equally trenchant epiphanies. Take Fosca, in Passion, sinking her fangs into the unwilling Giorgio: “We’re the same. We’re different.” But mostly, Steve’s characters, like Stoppard’s, talk and talk and talk and talk, in lyrics of staggering complexity. Elaine Stritch called “The Ladies Who Lunch,” in Company, a three-act play.

As a writer on the Manhattan arts-and-leisure beat beginning in the early 1980s, I had heard from colleagues that Steve had no time for the likes of us. My first encounter with him, at a Christmas party around Y2K, seemed to bear that out. Evidently, he knew my byline, and I lost him at hello. But in 2002, he talked to me for a profile in Town & Country — by phone, his preference, he on East 49th Street, I on West 94th, so near and yet so far. This was the story that posed the question, “Will this be the season that Stephen Sondheim grabs the popular recognition that he’s long deserved?”

“I’ve always wanted to have a smash,” he told me, candid to a fault, “but I rather doubt that I ever will.” Whether or not the deluge of revivals in the two decades that followed compensated in his mind for the smash that never came, he undeniably ascended Olympus. When Steve left us out of the blue, that latter-day Mr. Orpheum Cameron Mackintosh, who produced Cats, Les Miz, The Phantom of the Opera, but not much Sondheim, tweeted this salute: “Sadly, there is now a giant in the sky.” (The reference is to Into the Woods, but you knew that.)

Somehow, after the Town & Country story, Steve and I fell into an occasional correspondence punctuated by occasional visits at his townhouse, always one-on-one, always at the cocktail hour. Probably it started with notes I sent about striking revivals I’d seen on the road: the spooky Spanish premiere of Follies at the Teatro Español in Madrid, Imelda Staunton’s towering Momma Rose in London, Isaac Mizrahi’s A Little Night Music in St. Louis, with a fantasy ensemble of singing insects. Or snatches of his lyrics on the funny pages. Or the phrase “Pacific overtures,” from deep inside Prescott’s classic History of the Conquest of Peru.

And sometimes, I wanted to pick his brain. He once told me that he’d attended the out-of-town opening of the original Carousel, when the cast included the characters Mr. and Mrs. God (later replaced by the Starkeeper). But was the “Carousel Waltz” a dance number back in the day, as in the 2018 revival? Steve had the answer: “The waltz was staged, rather than choreographed. A carousel was on stage and Billy pantomimed being a barker as Julie and Carrie got on. He flirted with Julie while Mrs. Mullen scowled and Billy reacted. But all in pantomine.”

Chronology is failing me here. I’m guessing that the in-person visits started after I moved to the mid-Pacific in 2011. “Maui? Wowee!” Steve responded when I sent out an announcement. But it was the signoff — “Your lyricist friend” — that made my day. I’d let him know when I was back in town, and he’d check his calendar.

The first time I dropped in, Steve was on the upstairs phone when I arrived. When he came down, I was absorbed in assorted puzzles and curiosities, in particular a small sculpture of a washerwoman shaking out a sheet. He asked me how come she didn’t tip over. I figured there must be weights in her feet, and he grinned. “Nobody’s ever figured that out before,” he said. I told him my dad was a physicist. So, that’s where we started.

On two occasions, Steve took my breath away. Once, it was because he was so fierce. I was expounding this pet theory that creativity is a property in which everybody shares, even the audience. Exhibit A: Lucia di Lammermoor. Let’s start with Sir Walter Scott, who took everything he knew about life and his art and cooked up this novel he called The Bride of Lammermoor. Then Salvadore Cammarano came along, crafting a libretto in the same fashion. Then it was Gaetano Donizetti’s turn to lay on the music. And then Maria Callas came along and poured all she knew about life and art and created her Lucia. And a spectator… “No!” Steve shot back, sharp as a pistol. “Performers interpret! Only the writer creates!” I’m still not sure why that hit a nerve.

The second occasion was when I knocked myself out trying to crack Steve’s poetics in a 5,000-word article called “Sondheim’s World” for the venerable journal Parnassus. “Stephen Sondheim writes lyrics the way physicists split atoms,” I began, “a feat once deemed impossible.” Months later, after repeated (unsolicited) assurances that comment would be forthcoming, Steve came through with two single-spaced pages of calm, clinical disagreement — prefaced thus: “First of all, thank you for taking my work seriously. This may sound like shit-kicking modesty, but I mean it. […] As for a few specifics, however, in the (unlikely, I know) event that your article is reprinted[.]”

Most significantly, Steve had taken issue with another pet theory of mine. It was my contention that, while Steve had needed the books of the musicals to inspire his songs, the finished songs could stand on their own without the books. I wouldn’t make quite the same argument today. In my defense, there was (and still is) a huge vogue for all-Sondheim anthologies in which the songs indeed make an impression on their own. But Steve wasn’t buying. “With your dismissal of most of the books of the shows I’ve been connected with, I would really like to know the books of musicals that you think are greater than the sums of their parts. As Arthur Laurents said, ‘Critics always give themselves away by what they like.’” Then this, in closing: “Once again, though, thanks for taking this offshoot form of an offshoot form seriously.”

In the spirit of Laurents, might I add that when you tell a story about another person, you’re telling a story about yourself? So let me close with a story of Steve’s about the time Ingmar Bergman approached him about new lyrics and help with the script for an English-language movie of Franz Lehár’s silver-age operetta The Merry Widow. This was about a year into the original Broadway run of A Little Night Music, an adaptation, of course, of Bergman’s 1955 movie, Smiles of a Summer Night. When Bergman flew to New York to get together, Steve insisted that Bergman first see his show. The next day, they finally met in person.

As Steve told the story, he was instantly babbling apologies and excuses for what Bergman had been subjected to the night before. “[But Bergman] graciously cut me off. ‘No, no, Mr. Sondheim, please. I enjoyed the evening very much. Your piece has nothing to do with my movie, it merely has the same story.’ I thought: Only someone with that generosity and understanding would realize, much less say, such a thing. And then came the kicker. ‘After all,’ he added, ‘we all eat from the same cake.’”