On the Complex Hagiography of Stephen Sondheim

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James Kaplan opens his profile of Stephen Sondheim in the April 4, 1994, issue of New York magazine by characterizing the “scene” at a press preview of Passion, then a new Broadway musical. The headline, “The Cult of Stephen Sondheim,” was slightly misleading, implying a critical look at those who worship the great composer-lyricist (and his work) along with the icon himself. Kaplan never quite delivered on the former, but the cheeky magazine ran a photo of Sondheim in a tuxedo, trademark half-smile at full tilt, a hand-drawn halo over his head.

Perhaps Kaplan did intend to slather the top of his narrative with wild cliches. In the rehearsal studio, for example, the air was “thick with reverence.” Passion, he decreed, was “a curious, dark subject for a Broadway musical.” Then again, was it not Sondheim who “reinvented the form” of musical theater? If you didn’t know it already, ever since West Side Story, the great master had been “daring to bring high art to the Great White Way.” Thus, you see, the “awe in the room”:

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For the writers, for the actors, Stephen Sondheim stands like a solitary colossus, pitilessly overlooking the arid landscape that is the modern musical theater: a desert of campy revivals; overpriced, whiz-bang, middlebrow extravaganzas; and forlorn postromantic experiments… The engine of Sondheim’s mystique is that to theater people — who worship sophistication; who live (or like to think they live) a kind of heightened existence, at once cynical and fervid, with a special language and an incestuous social network — he is a god. The feeling is contagious: As discreetly as possible, even the jaded reporters crane their necks. Is he here yet?

Fast-forward 16 years: actor Michael Ball, writing in the Guardian on March 29, 2010, pens a quick, memoir-style piece about performing Sondheim and working with the man himself. For a headline, the Guardian’s editors opt for hyperbole that even New York’s sassy chieftains did not dare attempt: “Is Stephen Sondheim the Shakespeare of musical theatre?”

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At issue here is not whether Sondheim deserves the accolades and adulation that have intensified with the arrival of his 80th birthday on March 22, culminating with the announcement that a Broadway theater — Henry Miller’s — is being renamed in his honor. That he is greatest artist in the history of the American musical theater is unquestionable. Roundabout Theatre Company, which owns Henry Miller’s, did right.

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What is at issue is whether press coverage of Sondheim has done the great man wrong — or at least something of an odd disservice. By forever reinforcing the meme that Sondheim is a deity, has the press crushed the creativity that laid the golden musical?

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Years ago I kept a file of Sondheim articles; I thought it might be useful to revisit, to see what journalists and critics wrote about him 20, 25 years ago. Did the Shakespeare comparison signify new heights in editorial one-upsmanship or is hyperbolic consistency simply the hobgoblin of uncritical minds?

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The clips, it turns out, come in two forms: prescient and ironic. Into the latter category we can place an end-of-the-’80s think piece by Martin Gottfried in TheaterWeek (issue of Dec. 25-31). The headline: “Stephen Sondheim: State of The Art?” It is then burnished by a dek that could, well, drive a person crazy:

With the success of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Les Miz, there is a question of whether Sondheim’s influence on the direction of the musical theater has waned.

Other clips in the file fit brilliantly into the former category. Frank Rich’s Oct. 21, 1984 feature in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, for example, may offer a very flat headline — “A Musical Theater Breakthrough” — but then Rich, in the traditional prerogative of the critic-as-taste-maker, asserts his rights:

With Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim has transcended four decades of Broadway history.

Most clips, meanwhile, suffer in one way or another from the need to emphasize, re-emphasize and emphasize again the towering, titanic importance of Sondheim to the musical theater. It’s as if there’s a tone, a need, a compulsion to almost overstate the case. After awhile, one begins contrasting the canonization of Sondheim in these articles with the genuine modesty that most everyone who actually knows the fellow ascribes to him. It is not a pose: In 2000, Rich, writing a series of pieces in the Times on the occasion of Sondheim’s 70th birthday, quoted Sondheim as follows: “I don’t want to spend the next six months being iconized.” Too late. In Craig Zadan’s landmark semi-biography Sondheim & Co., there is this quote from the late Anthony Perkins, Sondheim’s close friend: “He doesn’t want to become the grand young-old-man of the American musical theater.” Again, too late.

Now and then, a journalist figures out that the glorification of Stephen Sondheim is probably a counterproductive way to treat the man — a true stage artist whose work ethic has always been predicated on the avoidance of laurel-resting. In this sense, the New York magazine headline warns Sondheim worshipers that in their cult may lie the very seeds of its own destruction. By his own admission, Sondheim’s output has slowed to trickle; Bounce, we may assume, will be the last new musical he sees produced in his own lifetime.

What is unquestionably meant as genuine affection and admiration, in other words, very often tips into exaltation and lionization — neither of which can benefit a man who, by all accounts, simply wants to keep working. If you’re Stephen Sondheim, just imagine coming to the part of Ball’s article where he writes:

Whether we’ll still be staging Sondheim in 500 years, like Shakespeare, is another matter. He would be appalled I’d even made the comparison, he’s a very modest man. But yes, he’s an innovator and he’s stayed relevant throughout his career.

Perhaps in this case it’s the Guardian’s editors to blame, not Ball, for perpetuating the ongoing hagiography of Stephen Sondheim, by ginning up a story through a grabby headline. Perhaps it was also the hyperlink that brought me to Ball’s article in the first place (via daily e-blast from ArtsJournal.com). It boiled down the topic as only the glib 21st century could: “Sondheim = Shakespeare. Discuss.”

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When I was 17, Stephen Sondheim personally disabused me of worshipful tendencies. Note that I didn’t say love and admiration and respect — just worship. It was October 1985, the day Sunday in the Park with George was being filmed, and I had been invited to be in the audience, and brought my mom. I had occasion to speak with Sondheim when the filming was done; my memory of the early part of the conversation is that I babbled incomprehensibly, consumed with terror, fascination and nerves. Calming me, his trademark half-smile at full tilt, Sondheim put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Leonard, I’m just a person.”

Yes, you are, Mr. Sondheim. Happy birthday. I wish you every happiness — and the physical, mental and psychological room to get through, as always before, to something new, to something of your own.