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Art vs Heart - From The Stage To The Page

Stephen Sondheim is an artistic genius and I bow to his work. He has released his second compilation of lyrics and observations, discussing art as well as creating it. In his "review"Adam Kirsch offers searing insights into genius and art and the resulting interaction. In describing Sondheim's intent (and comparing him to Henry James) he says that both the musical and the novel were turned "...  into a serious artistic genre, in which every element—perspective, theme, character, dialogue—was designed to serve a single authorial goal." Which - oddly enough - is how I look at the creation of a novel.


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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

By Adam Kirsch
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 (CompanyFollies), 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 inSunday 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.