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Stephen Sondheim on West Side Jews, Israel, and Cole Porter

An excerpt from ‘Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish’ about the legendary composer, who died Friday at age 91

Abigail Pogrebin
November 30, 2021
Oliver Morris/Getty Images
Oliver Morris/Getty Images

“I think Jews are smarter than any other race.” Composer Stephen Sondheim is talking to me on the telephone. He responded to my request for a meeting with a typed note that said, “Might it be possible to do it over the phone instead of in person? I really hate to make appointments except when I have to (with doctors and dentists).”

Did he just say Jews are smarter than any other race? “I’m prejudiced,” he continues. “I identify with people who get beaten up. I’m in a profession that invites it.” Meaning? “The critics.”

Sondheim, whose resume includes Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, and Assassins, grew up in the tony San Remo apartment building on Central Park West. “I grew up thinking the Jews were the world,” he says. “Everybody was just Jewish. I went to summer camps where everyone was named Nussbaum.”

His father was a dressmaker who “raised a lot of money for the UJA.” His mother, who is described in Sondheim’s biography as emotionally abusive, “was sort of ashamed of being a Jew,” he says. “She claims she was brought up in a convent in Rhode Island.”

“The first serious Jew I came into contact with was Lenny Bernstein.” Sondheim is speaking of the celebrated composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, whose music accompanied Sondheim’s lyrics for West Side Story in 1957. “Lenny looked at me askance when I said ‘Yum Kupper.’ I grew up not knowing anything. We celebrated Christmas by buying things at Saks. You know what I mean by a West Side Jew.”

Did he ever experience any antisemitism in his profession? “My God—in the theater? In musicals? Name me three gentile composers.”

None come immediately to mind. “Cole Porter,” he helps me. “He is one of the three gentile composers. But his music is actually very Jewish. He was very influenced by the Mideast—he was in the Foreign Legion as a young man. His music is very Semitic. Semitic scales. Listen to any Cole Porter song in a minor key; you’ll hear it.”

I wonder if he’s every considered exploring Jewish themes in his work. “Not really.”

Does he have any special feeling for Israel? “My attitude toward Israel is The New York Times’ attitude toward Israel,” he replies. “Whatever they tell me is what I believe. I became aware of Israel because Lenny cared so much about it.”

I can see my brief telephone time is almost up, so I try to clarify how Sondheim would characterize his Jewish identification. “It’s very deep,” he answers immediately. “It’s the fact that so many of the people I admire in the arts are Jewish. And art is as close to a religion as I have.”

Excerpted from Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish by Abigail Pogrebin. Copyright 2005 by Abigail Pogrebin. Used by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.

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