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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)

The trajectory of Sondheim’s own career suggests that his drive toward artistic autonomy was most fruitful when it was not allowed free rein. To his own discomfort, Sondheim first became well-known as a lyricist, writing words for other people’s music. When he did get the chance to write his own scores, in the 1960s, he produced Anyone Can Whistle, a flop, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—a huge hit, but one in which the music and lyrics were much less important than the book.

The first show in which Sondheim was really successful as both composer and lyricist was Company, in 1970. As he writes in Look, I Made a Hat, “My voice snuck up on me. … [It] all came together in full-throated fruition in Company. I heard it at the sitzprobe, the rehearsal where orchestra and singers go through a score together for the first time. ‘Oh,’ I thought at the end of the opening number, ‘that’s who I am.’ ”

His best shows are the ones he wrote in the next decade or so, especially Follies and Sweeney Todd. These shows, which were covered in Finishing the Hat, are formally more conservative than the ones that would follow—they have “numbers,” and stories (if not traditional plots), and characters. What makes them radical is, rather, their dark, astringent sensibility, their focus on various kinds of ambiguity, alienation, and misanthropy. These, one feels, are Sondheim’s real muses—thanks in part to the shockingly unhappy childhood chronicled in Secrest’s biography. The misery of relationships in Company, the misery of aging in Follies, the misery of success in Merrily We Roll Along, the misery of mankind in Sweeney Todd—these propel Sondheim to some of his best and, ironically, most appealing songs.

With Look, I Made a Hat, we enter a later and less satisfying phase of Sondheim’s career. The debacle of Merrily We Roll Along in 1981 marks the dividing line: This failure broke up his very fruitful partnership with the director Hal Prince. With his next show, Sunday in the Park With George in 1983, Sondheim began working with the playwright James Lapine. At the same time, he began to premiere his works Off Broadway, at Playwrights Horizons. These changes made it possible for him to pursue formal autonomy much farther than ever before, and the work, to my taste anyway, suffers as a result.

In Sunday in the Park and Into the Woods, Sondheim crosses the line from sophistication into preciosity and whimsy. His accounts of the production of these shows suggest how very little attention he was now paying to structure, theme, or audience appeal. 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.

This, too, is part of the familiar story of the modernist artist. Once he wins the autonomy he longs for, he finds it to be a poisoned chalice. Cut off from the need to engage an audience, he ends up creating art about the one subject that he really cares about most—creating art. It is left to later generations of artists to revitalize the genre by violating the modernist rule of impersonality, turning to their own private lives for subject matter. In the 1950s and after, novelists and poets often found the personal, confessional mode a source of new artistic energy.

It’s tempting to ask why Sondheim didn’t follow this path—as later composers and lyricists have done. In particular, it’s striking that in the whole corpus of his work, he virtually never addresses either Jewishness or homosexuality, even though not just Sondheim himself but a huge number of his collaborators were gay Jews (including his three collaborators on West Side Story—Laurents, Robbins, and Bernstein). Indeed, in the first volume of his collected lyrics, Sondheim had some notably sharp words for Noël Coward and Cole Porter, two of the rare lyricists whose homosexuality shaped their public image. His mini-essay on Porter is titled “Camp and Dazzle,” and it deprecates “the gay sensibility that surfaces in the brittle camp of his patter lyrics … or in the overheated fervor of songs like ‘Begin the Beguine’ and ‘Night and Day.’ ”

So, it does not quite satisfy when Sondheim begins the second volume of his lyrics by complaining that critics of the first wanted him to write more “about my personal life, ‘personal’ being the euphemism for ‘intimate,’ which is the euphemism for ‘sexual.’ ” The issue is not “prurient” curiosity, as Sondheim says, but artistic curiosity: If gayness shapes Porter’s art, one wonders, how does it shape Sondheim’s? His refusal to acknowledge this as a legitimate question is of a part with his insistence on modernist impersonality, and also of his generational reticence on sexual matters. As he told Secrest, “I don’t think I knew more than maybe four homosexuals in the fifties who were openly so. … Everybody knew the theater was full of homosexuals, but nobody admitted to being so.” Yet it is very easy to see Bobby in Company, the perpetual bachelor among a crowd of smug marrieds, as a commentary on gay experience.

Still more striking and pervasive is the Jewish atmosphere of Sondheim’s work. Like his near-contemporaries Philip Roth and Woody Allen, Sondheim is a chronicler of urban neurosis and sexual angst, in a hyper-articulate, Freudian mode that reads as culturally very Jewish. It would be a stretch, but not perhaps an unjustified one, to read Sweeney Todd as a post-Holocaust exploration of human depravity. Yet just as Benjamin Stone, in Follies, sounds like a name changed from something more Jewish-sounding, so the Jewish themes and inflections in Sondheim’s work are never explicit.

In this, too, Sondheim is a true heir of the Broadway tradition, which is so much the creation of Jewish artists, yet turns so resolutely toward universally American experience. The golden age of any art, perhaps, is the time when its contradictions are not yet perceived as such. It is when an artist like Sondheim comes along, who is afflicted by those contradictions and attempts to resolve them, that an art form reaches maturity—and begins to look back longingly at its vital, lawless, unrecoverable youth.

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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

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