Did Stephen Sondheim Assault the First Amendment?


Maybe there’s something about turning 80 that makes public figures excessively conscious of their legacy and therefore disposed to litigate (or threaten to litigate) over perceived attempts to defame or slander.

Earlier this year, for example, we had Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate, notoriously comport himself so as to cower Theatre J, the Washington, D.C. company, into removing Deb Margolin’s play Imagining Madoff from its production slate. We’ve had lot of coverage on this here and here at the CFR — and yes, for those of you following the discussion, the idea of a play about the Wiesel-Margolin-Theatre J fracas is now starting to coalesce.

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There’s little question, little debate, that when Wiesel raised the specter of a lawsuit against Theatre J and Margolin, he committed a grievous offense against free speech and laid bare the money-driven cowardice that exists at times within the hallowed halls of the American theater.

But who would have thought that Stephen Sondheim, the master of the American musical theater, a man who has won every prize imaginable but for the Nobel Prize for Literature (and don’t count that out) would become the latest public figure to indulge in Wiesel-style weirdness? According to Michael Riedel’s theater column in the New York Post, John Logan, who wrote the Tony-winning Broadway play Red and is arguably best known for writing the screen version of the landmark Sondheim work Sweeney Todd, is basing the central character of the new HBO series The Miraculous Year on Sondheim himself.

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And Sondheim, Riedel says, is having none of it:

The man who wrote “Send in the Clowns” sent in the lawyers. He demanded script changes, and since neither Logan nor HBO wanted to tangle with a Broadway legend, they agreed.

Unlike the character in Imagining Madoff that Wiesel objected to — a character named Elie Wiesel — the character in the HBO series isn’t actually named Stephen Sondheim but Terry Segal. Enjoying a dip into a whole new fray, Riedel lists similarities between Sondheim’s well-reported life story and the Segal’s character attributes, and they’re all, to be frank, generic:

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Terry Segal lives in an elegant townhouse; Sondheim has a gorgeous brownstone in Turtle Bay.

Terry’s gay, as is Sondheim.

Terry writes sophisticated shows that please the critics but fail at the box office.

Would any jury believe, on the basis of these or any of the other examples that Riedel provides, that The Miraculous Year is some deliberate effort to slander Sondheim? How much of a case would Sondheim really have?

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If it is true, as Riedel suggests, that Sondheim forced Logan and HBO to make substantive changes to the show, what has happened here? Has Sondheim done his part to shred the First Amendment?

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I had to pinch myself. The Sondheim I know, the Sondheim I revere, the Sondheim I regard as one of the American theater’s timeless blessings, once wrote a lyric about the value of individuality, of voice, of speech, of expression. Yes, I know the lyric was written for a character, but are the following not words to live by?

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Everybody says don’t
Everybody says don’t
Everybody says don’t — it isn’t right,
Don’t — it isn’t nice!

Everybody says don’t
Everybody says don’t
Everybody says don’t walk on the grass,
Don’t disturb the peace,
Don’t skate on the ice.

Well I
I say,
Walk on the grass, it was meant to feel!
Tilt at the windmill
And if you fail you fail.

Everybody says don’t
Everybody says don’t
Everybody says don’t get out of line
When they say that then,
Lady that’s a sign:
Nine times out of ten,
Lady, you are doing just fine!

Make just a ripple,
Come on be brave.
This time a ripple,
Next time a wave.
Sometimes you have to start small,
Climbing the tiniest wall,
Maybe you’re going to fall —
But it’s better than not starting at all!

Everybody says no,
Everybody says stop,
Everybody says mustn’t rock the boat
Mustn’t touch a thing!
Everybody says don’t,
Everybody says wait,
Everybody says can’t fight city hall,
Can’t upset the cart,
Can’t laugh at the king!

Well, I
Laugh at the kings or they’ll make you cry.
Fall if you have to,
But, lady, make a noise!

Everybody says don’t,
Everybody says can’t,
Everybody says wait around for miracles,
That’s the way the world is made!
I insist on
Miracles, if you do them
Miracles — nothing to them!
I say don’t:
Don’t be afraid!