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The Art of Making Art

With Stephen Sondheim’s second collection of his lyrics, the hyper-articulate, neurotic, modernist master Broadway songwriter takes a curtain call

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Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rodgers working on Do I Hear a Waltz?, 1964. (New York Public Library)

Yet Sondheim is oddly disparaging of lyric-writing as a craft and defensive about collecting his own work in a book. His comments on his lyrics may interest the reader, he wrote in Finishing the Hat, if only because “reading about how someone else practices a craft, no matter how individual or arcane—designing roller coasters, managing hedge funds, harvesting salt,” can be “enlightening.” This sounds like modesty, but it becomes clear that it is really the expression of a much greater pride—pride in his music, and in the shows that are the end product of music and lyrics. Juggling words is a skill, Sondheim implies, but creating musicals is an art, and he wants to be considered as an artist. Indeed, he writes in Look, I Made a Hat, he is finally uninterested in critical praise or awards. “The only meaningful recognition’s recognition by your peers or, more accurately, people you consider your peers. … An artist’s peers are other artists.”

This is a strange notion, when you think about it, coming from someone who has spent his life in show business. But Sondheim’s elevation of the musical from a popular, profit-making entertainment into an elite art form is the kind of transformation familiar from the history of other arts—for instance, the novel. In a sense, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat can be seen as the Broadway equivalent of what Henry James undertook in the prefaces to the New York Edition of his novels—a theoretical defense of an artistic revolution.

James, too, inherited a genre that was formless, spontaneous, often ludicrous, and immensely popular—the novel of Dickens and Melville, which he disparaged as a “loose, baggy monster.” In his own work, James self-consciously elevated the novel into a serious artistic genre, in which every element—perspective, theme, character, dialogue—was designed to serve a single authorial goal. His enormous success in this task made James the first modernist novelist and an idol to generations of writers and readers.

It also made him, for much of his career, a very unpopular novelist. By refusing to deliver the familiar pleasures of the novel, James forfeited the kind of popularity Dickens enjoyed. Worse, to many ill-disposed critics down to our own time, James was an elitist villain—the man who made the novel a sterile, mannered art, cutting it off from its former audience.

The parallels to Sondheim are striking at every point. Sondheim has been undeniably successful, winning not just awards but wealth, fame, and sizable audiences. Yet none of the shows he composed has been a smash hit on the scale of A Chorus Line or Phantom of the Opera—a show for which he has predictable disdain. (One of the revelations of Secrest’s biography is that some Sondheim shows ran for hundreds of performances and still ended up losing some or all of their investors’ money.) Nor have individual songs he composed entered the common musical culture the way that the songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein or the Gershwins did generations before. Only “Send in the Clowns,” from A Little Night Music, can be considered a standard.

“My kind of work,” Sondheim has said, “is caviar to the general. It’s not that it’s too good for people; it’s just that it’s too unexpected to sustain itself very firmly in the commercial theater.” But of course, “caviar to the general” means exactly that it is “too good for people,” and reading Sondheim’s lyrics, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is just what he believes. This impression comes across most clearly in the many short essays he devotes to the work of earlier lyricists—Noël Coward, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, and other writers of the golden age of Broadway musicals.

All these lyricists produced work that is more popular and beloved than Sondheim’s, and all of them, he insists, were shoddy craftsmen and/or rank sentimentalists. “There’s a fervent lack of surprise in Hammerstein’s thoughts, made manifest by his need to spell things out with plodding insistence,” runs a typical comment. Sondheim is outraged by these lyricists’ leniency with themselves and by their willing acceptance of convention. Even the institution of the chorus offends his sense of realism: After all, “they all sing the same lyric; that is to say, they apparently all have the same thought at the same time. … What about the picnickers in Carousel? Did every one of them have a real nice clambake? Wasn’t there anyone who had indigestion or a rotten time?” Sondheim asks.

Similarly, he objects to the use of “trunk songs”—old songs that a composer keeps in his trunk in order to recycle in future shows. If the music and lyrics of a show must be a direct outgrowth of its theme, such recycling is manifestly unacceptable: “The composers from the Golden Age were writing generic shows which had neither stylistic conceptions nor demands of character and could therefore accommodate any and every kind of song in the recesses of their trunks. I had relentlessly made it a point of pride not to recycle songs.”

Yet when Sondheim goes on to give examples of such trunk songs, they include Jule Styne’s music for “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (from Gypsy) and Leonard Bernstein’s for “America” and “Somewhere” (from West Side Story). Musically and dramatically, it would be impossible to tell that these songs were taken from the trunk; they fit their shows perfectly and have even become some of their best-known numbers. Here, as so often in reading Sondheim’s lyrics, the reader can sense the basic tension, even the paradox, in his idea of a modernist musical. After all, the musical is essentially a hybrid, collaborative, and popular form. The attempt to make it more like a novel or poem, reflecting the worldview of a single artistic intelligence, runs against the concrete conditions of its production.

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James K. says:

Wonderful article — can’t wait to read the book.
Interesting points about Sondheim’s own identity — and his non-embrace of his own Judaism. It’s interesting that of the popular musical theatre folks who followed Sondheim or were contemporaries, much fewer were Jewish than those who preceded him (Webber/Rice, Boublil/Schoenberg etc)

When Henry James described “loose baggy monsters” he was referring to The Three Musketeers and War and Peace and Thackeray. (Preface to “The Tragic Muse”)

I cannot agree with you about late perido Sondheim — or early period Sondheim for that matter. As for His being a gay Jew you appear blithely unaware of history.
Speaking as gay half-Jew of 64, I was well aware at an early age that the chrge the Jews “control everything” was a central tenet of what’s commonly referred to as “The American Character.” As for “homosexuality” (a term invented by a Hungarian journalist at the close of the 19th century — and taken up by the medical profession as a cash cow) so-called “Sodomy” laws kept me, Sondheim and zillions of us under the aegis of being a “suspect class” in American until the Lawrence vs. Texas wiped such statures from the books in 2003.

Let me repeat that — IN 2003.

Like the vas majority of straight you know nothing at all about this, yet imagine that you do. I would adise you to “get a clue” as the children say nowadays. But when it comes to “Teh Ghey” that’s simply not possible.

N J Gill says:

“For instance, he shares a memory about how at the San Diego previews of Into the Woods, a large tour group once left the show at intermission, thinking it was over; someone had to follow them into the parking lot to get them back into the theater. Sondheim treats this as a joke, but surely it is a damning comment on the show’s lack of narrative suspense and coherence.”

No, it is a verification of the fact that the first act can and does stand alone – indeed, it is frequently performed by and for younger audiences who are deemed to be unready for the deeper, darker “later” outcomes of the first act’s once-upon-a-times.

Stephen Kennamer says:

Kirsch is way out of line demanding Jewish and gay confessions from Sondheim. I’m with Sondheim here: The interest IS prurient. Sondheim may have written about Cole Porter’s “gay sensibility.” But Porter’s lyrics could be imbued with gay sensibility and Sondheim’s not. It could be a legitimate question about Sondheim’s art, but the answer could be, “Not in this case.” And Kirsch is exactly one hundred years out of date with his equation of modernism with impersonality. Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” and “Rite of Springs” were composed in 1911. Those works fit the equation, and Stravinsky then made a fetish out of formalism, faux-objectivity, ironic detachment, impersonality, and coolness. But everything changed back decades ago, or has Kirsch never heard of the “confessional poets”? Today modernism is associated with the memoir, real or faked but personal to a fault in either case.

It is condescending for Kirsch to imagine that when Sondheim creates the character of a confirmed bachelor, we have gay shadows falling all over the character. Is “Our Town” suffused in gay sensibility? Only if we take Wilder’s unusual empathy for women to be indicative.

I think my cultural literacy includes some ability to understand a discussion of Noel Coward and Cole Porter in terms of giveaway gay mannerisms, but I don’t like those discussions, because they seem reductive. I suppose I’m more comfortable indicting Hemingway for his macho sensibility, but there too it can unhelpfully diminish good work.

In classical music, there is now an ongoing “Was he or wasn’t he” debate about Ravel. On Kirsch’s theory, either we should be able to answer the question by listening to the music, since music written by a gay man will differ in some quickly detectable way from music written by a straight man; or if we can’t, IT IS BECAUSE RAVEL FAILED US THE WAY KIRSCH THINKS SONDHEIM FAILED US, refusing to honestly reveal himself in his art. This is offensive and silly.

At the risk of being uncouth, I will evoke the recent South Park episode staring Sondheim among others. Even amongst that farce, some wisdom does emerge.

John Calendo says:

Terrific analysis and commentary by Mr. Kirsch. Sondheim writes at such a skilled level that I suspect Jewishness and homosexuality are too commonplace, too generic to be important parts of his deeper, truer identity as an artist. Isn’t it the artwork that in the end stands alone, independent of biography and influences. The topics Sondheim addresses in his art are not in themselves universal or at the onset meaningful to the audience member, but it is the way Sondheim handles the topic, plays with it, illuminates it that makes it suddenly, unexpectedly connect.

Points well taken Mr. Kennamer. It should also be mentioned that Sondheim HAS dealt with a gay character in his most recent musical Roadshow (aka. Bounce) “You Are The Best Thing That Ever Happebned To Me” is his first gay love song, and it was sung by the (as the children say nowadays) “openly gay” Gavin Creel.

Eric Henwood-Greer says:

I have to agree with most of these comments, particularly the last four.

Kirsch has written an interesting read, but the more I read it, the more I’m not even sure what it’s trying to say… Aside from obvious errors (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses” was a trunk song, melody wise, but “Someday” in West Side Story wasn’t–”One Hand, One Heart” and “Officer Krupke” musically were first intended for Candide, which Bernstein was working on as well), the very point of the article doesn’t hold.

Sondheim has made it clear how much he loves the collaborative process of theatre–indeed only three of his projects (Road Show, Passion and Sweeney Todd) were ones he instigated, and not the book writer, or director. Book writers often get forgotten when critics are discussing musicals, but, while they brought out the best in Sondheim, a character like Ben Stone is just as much James Goldman’s, or George is James Lapine’s. Two Jewish men who were straight, for whatever it matters.

Cole Porter, who actually I get the impression Sondheim does like as a lyricist (unlike Hart and Coward), rarely wrote so much for character as Sondheim–it’s very diferent to give his lyrics which could be sung by nearly anyone a gay reading.

Sondheim’s love is for the *commercial* theatre–his shows are rarely megahits, but they do attract audiences.

This isn’t some obscure avant garde musical theatre that never gets produced. Sunday in the Park With George, which Kirsh seems to find hopeless, was a much bigger success originally and in revival than anyone expected. And Into the Woods is arguably one of his top three shows commercially (now of course that the audience knows to return after the self contained Act I, thanks to the added To Be Continued).

Kirsh seems to think the common theme to Sondheim’s work is misanthropy–I’d argue it’s about people trying and needing to connect, if anything.

mick waters says:

Today’s “culture of me” is completely antithetical to Sondheim’s personal values. He is a very private, protective, stoic, tortured intellectual who wouldn’t dare expose his personal life to the general public. It takes careful analysis of his lyrics to find glimpses into his soul – a puzzle that his fans have been desperately trying to solve. Inevitably,once we think we’ve solved it and him, he changes course. Even then, we only find what we want to see. A Rorschach test, if you will. The coded homosexuality of Bobby, the anti-American sentiment in Assasins and Pacific Overtures, the sadism of Sweeney Todd, the deconstructionist in Sunday…George, the romantic in A Little Night Music.
Purient questions such as “How old were you when you first fell in love?” or “Who are you dating now?” are an anathema to him. In fact, those kind of questions came up when he was writing “Passion” – because its themes were about obsession and beauty. I remember hearing rumors of him dating someone and that he’d actually fallen in love – so all of his fans were looking for clues about his love life in “Passion”.
So many writers/artists/celebrities reveal too much about themselves, in the media or in their work – so much so that there’s very little mystery left. We can no longer lose ourselves in their work, transfer our neurosis onto them, see what we want to see.
Sondheim’s reluctance and reticence keeps us guessing, asking questions and ultimately keeps us coming back for more.

Eric Henwood-Greer says:

I very much agree with that. Although I will point out he DID openly say (on some TV interviews in fact), when Passion came out, that he had fallen truly in love for the first time (and did appear in public with the guy–whose name I’m blanking on Peter Jones though I want to say), so he didn’t full on hide it, but he still didn’t exactly want to go into Lady Gaga details about how that informed his art.

While I do think one of Sondheim’s strengths is how much he does write for and in the voice of his characters, but one of the few things I do disagree with him is when he says so often that his own personal life and voice doesn’t come through in his writing–I don’t think that’s possible with such an instinctual composer (more so than lyricis which he does see as more of a craft). But that’s my own opinion, I certainly don’t have to know exactly and precisely where those parts might come from.

Yes it was Peter jones. Bit is his relationship with Jones a key to Sondheim’s art? Of course not. If Jones was indeed the first person he ever fell in love with that didn’t stop hi from writing about love years before.

The whole question of how much Sondheim my “reveal” about himself is rather silly considering that he’s always writin g songs for particular characters. Taht these characters may have thing sin common with him personally is infintiely less important thatn the way they function in the libretto.

As for ceaselessly discussed “gay sensibility” my dear friend Jeff Weinsten had the last word a considerable number of years back when he appeared on a paenl at the New School enetitled “Is there a Gay Sensibility and is it influential?” to which he said “There’s no such thing as a gay sensibility and yes it’s very influential.”

To me Sondheim’s “gay sensibility” is in full flower in Anyone Can Whistlei>. When you’ve got Angelea Lansbury doing Kya Thompson it simply doesn’t get any gayer.

Company has been regarded as a “coded gay” show, but I feel this is a mistake. If Boibby were gay he’d be the best pal of all the wives but there’s no way he could have had any relationships with the husbands. Indeed it’s the fact that Bobby ISN’T gay that makes him so desirable to the group. The wives look at him longinly — and try to fix him up with their friends. The hysbands meanwhile enjoy vicariously Bobb’ys bachelor freedom (“What do you want to get married for?” goes the refrain.)

Likewise it’s easy to see George in Sunday in the Park with as a species of apolgia pro vita sua in that he’s tagged as “bizarre, fixed, cold<' but again that's too easy.

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Aidan Carr says:

This review is more about Mr. Kirsch than Mr. Sondheim. While I come away from it knowing nothing more about Sondheim, I have learned that Mr. Kirsch has some rather quaint and reductive presumptions about art and artists. I want my time back.

paul_k_666 says:

I wonder if Sondheim ever has an “Amadeus” moment of clarity where he curses the gods that he isn’t Bob Dylan.


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The Art of Making Art

With Stephen Sondheim’s second collection of his lyrics, the hyper-articulate, neurotic, modernist master Broadway songwriter takes a curtain call