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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

Adam Kirsch
November 09, 2011
New York Public Library
Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rodgers working on Do I Hear a Waltz?, 1964.New York Public Library
New York Public Library
Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rodgers working on Do I Hear a Waltz?, 1964.New York Public Library

In Meryle Secrest’s 1998 biography Stephen Sondheim, the great composer and lyricist recalls an episode from 1957, on the second night of the original Broadway run of West Side Story. Sondheim, watching the show from the back of the theater, was basking in justified pride. He was just 27 years old, and he had written the lyrics for one of the most important musicals in Broadway’s history, holding his own with the show’s larger-than-life composer, Leonard Bernstein, and choreographer, Jerome Robbins. Two minutes into the first number, however, Sondheim’s complacency was punctured when he saw a member of the audience get up and walk out. He caught the man’s eye: “He knew I must be connected with the show, because I was standing there instead of sitting in a seat, and he just said, ‘Don’t ask.’ ”

“I had the whole picture,” Sondheim explained. “He’s a tired businessman on his way home to Westchester, and he thinks, I’m going to stop and see a musical. The curtain goes up and six ballet-dancing juvenile delinquents in color-coordinated sneakers go, ‘Da da-da da da,’ with their fingers snapping. And he thinks, ‘What—? My God!’ … I can’t blame him! But that’s when I knew my career was in trouble.”

Another kind of Broadway artist might have seen this as a warning; for Sondheim, it seems to have been a challenge. If that “tired businessman” found the Jets and Sharks too unconventional for a musical, just imagine what he and his descendants thought about the stories Sondheim would go on to bring to the stage in a career that has spanned almost 60 years. There have been shows about marital anguish and loneliness (Company, Follies), about artists who sell out (Merrily We Roll Along) and cut themselves off from love (Sunday in the Park With George). Then there are the evenings devoted to the opening of Japan to the West (Pacific Overtures), presidential assassinations (Assassins), and serial murder and cannibalism (Sweeney Todd). It’s all a long way from “In your Easter bonnet/ With all the frills upon it.”

Yet this month, as Sondheim publishes the second volume of his lyrics—Look, I Made a Hat, with the subtitle Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) With Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes, and Miscellany—it comes as the latest crown on a career full of honors. The first volume of Sondheim’s lyrics, Finishing the Hat, was a best-seller and a cultural event when it appeared last year. (The titles come from a song in Sunday in the Park With George, in which George Seurat sings about the costs and pleasures of artistic invention—making a picture of a hat “where there never was a hat.”) His 1971 show Follies is currently back on Broadway, the latest in a string of successful Sondheim revivals. Next year, City Center’s Encores! series will produce Merrily We Roll Along, a legendary flop in 1981 that, like so many Sondheim scores, has steadily gained in popularity thanks to recordings. He has won seven Tonys, seven Grammys, an Oscar, and a Pulitzer Prize.

No wonder that in 2010’s Sondheim on Sondheim—the latest of several revues drawn from his catalog of some 800 songs—Sondheim contributed a tongue-in-cheek number poking fun at his status as Broadway’s “God”:

I mean the man’s a god.
Wrote the score to “Sweeney Todd,”
With a nod
To de Sade—
Well, he’s odd.
Well, he’s God!

It’s strange to think that a man so honored could remain a minority taste. Yet that is clearly the image of himself that Sondheim cherishes, and he insists on it in the two volumes of his lyrics, which double as a kind of self-portrait. In particular, he is obsessed by the longstanding charge that he is a cold artist, admirable but not lovable. As he goes on to say in “God”:

The lyrics are so smart!
And the music has such heart!
It has heart?
Well, in part.
Let’s not start—
Call it art.

Arthur Laurents, the writer-director who worked with Sondheim on West Side Story and Gypsy, told Secrest, “I don’t think there’s any question that he is the greatest lyricist there’s ever been.” Leave it to such a lyricist to capture the whole dynamic of his career in a simple, even banal rhyme, “heart/art.” For the struggle Sondheim records in his collected lyrics is precisely the attempt to shift the musical from an affair of heart—naive beauty and emotion—to one of art—deliberate construction, in which every lyrical and musical choice serves the overarching theme.

Sondheim was not the first Broadway composer to make this shift. He refers often in his collected lyrics to the “Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution”—the attempt, starting with Oklahoma in 1943, to give the musical comedy the integrity of a play, by grounding the songs more deeply in plot and character. Musicals before Oklahoma—with the notable exception of Show Boat, which was also written by Oscar Hammerstein II—are almost never revived today; their songs may be standards, but their plots and characters were deliberately disposable. It is the decades after Oklahoma, the 1940s through the 1960s, that gave us virtually all the musicals now considered classics, from Carousel to Fiddler on the Roof.

Sondheim worked on two of these classics as the lyricist, West Side Story and Gypsy, and his lyrics for Gypsy are one of the high points in Broadway history. In Finishing the Hat, he remembers the time he played “Together Wherever We Go” for Cole Porter. When he reached the wonderful quadruple rhyme—

Wherever I go, I know he goes.
Wherever I go, I know she goes.
No fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos—

—he recalls that Porter gasped with pleasure and surprise at that unexpected fourth rhyme. “Any time I need an ego boost, I conjure up that gasp; it may well be the high point of my lyric-writing life,” Sondheim writes.

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.

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.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.