A portrait of composer Stephen Sondheim. (Joseph Ciardiello / For…)
Reporting from New York — — Stately and rumpled, Stephen Sondheim descended from an upper floor of his elegant East Side townhouse and submitted to the interview as though it were a necessary barber shop shave. He's used to these intrusions — the artist obliged to natter on about his work was one of the themes of "Sunday in the Park With George" — but this year the distractions have gone to a harrying new extreme.
Sondheim turned 80 in March, and he's been blowing out the candles ever since. There was an all-star birthday concert at Lincoln Center (scheduled to air on PBS on Nov. 24). Broadway paid homage with a musical revue, "Sondheim on Sondheim," interspersed with video clips of the maestro musing about art and life. And now that he has a new book out, "Finishing the Hat," he finds himself once again thrust into the spotlight, with a West Coast tour that includes a UCLA Live conversation at Royce Hall on Monday night with KCRW-FM's "Bookworm" host Michael Silverblatt.
Hey, when's a guy going to get a spare minute to compose the next "Sweeney Todd"?
Ever alert to paradox, Sondheim described all this public attention as "thrilling and embarrassing." "There's an up- and downside to being venerated," he said. "You start to believe your own notices, and that's very dangerous. At the same time, it does feel like it's gold-watch time. It's 'thanks so much for coming to the party.' They're nails in the coffin, is what they are."
The far-off look in his eyes, as though tracking a giant hourglass emptying somewhere in the middle distance, is reminiscent of Trigorin, the writer in Chekhov's "The Seagull," who strives to deromanticize the artist's life to a young gaga actress: "Here am I talking to you and getting quite excited yet can't forget for a second that I've an unfinished novel waiting for me." Or as Sondheim apologetically put it, "Even as I'm sitting here talking to you, and I'm having a perfectly fine time, part of my head is saying, 'I should be up at the computer.' My Jewish guilt is building up."
His life has been consumed of late by "Finishing the Hat," an extraordinary book of commentary on his own work from "Saturday Night" through "Merrily We Roll Along." Scattered throughout are short, spiky essays on an elite group of lyricists, all dead and safely ensconced in the pantheon. Sondheim has been hard at work on the second volume, which will pick up with "Sunday in the Park With George," the show that contains the autobiographical song about compulsive creativity that has provided his title. The subtitle, "Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes," has the delightful accuracy one expects from the man roundly hailed as the American theater's greatest living songwriter.
Although Sondheim claimed that "prose is not a natural language" to him, his verbal gifts of precision and concision are on magnificent display. He offers authoritative verdicts on such legends as Ira Gershwin ("He is often undone by his passion for rhyming, for which he sacrifices both ease and syntax"), Noel Coward ("Most of Coward's lyrics come in two flavors: brittle and sentimental") and Lorenz Hart ("the laziest of the preeminent lyricists, and one of the most disconcerting…").
The book escorts us into the workshop of Sondheim's mind, inviting us to evaluate songs through his own exacting eyes. For example, in parsing his mentor and father-figure Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim takes issue with redundancies ("I could say life is just a bowl of Jell-O / And appear more intelligent and smart") and strained imagery ("When the sky is a bright canary yellow" — a color that makes him want to take refuge in a "storm cellar"). But these quibbles are contextualized in an eye-opening comparison between Hammerstein and Eugene O'Neill that suggests these writers' soaring "theatrical imaginations" are compensation for language that "is usually more earthbound than earthy and tends to veer off into preachment."
This intensive critical scrutiny might indicate a serious case of "anxiety of influence," one titan toppling his forebears in an Oedipal wrestling match for pride of place in posterity. But as Sondheim reminded, "I cover 12 of them, and half of them I really like, almost without reservation." What's more, he unleashed his pointy editor's pencil on himself, complaining that some of the lines of "America" in "West Side Story" "melt in the mouth as gracelessly as peanut butter and are impossible to comprehend…."
A British playwright friend objected to the way he didn't consider the class system that informed Coward's sneering satire of the rich, an attitude Sondheim unfavorably contrasts with Cole Porter's ("Both make sport of the haute monde, but Porter does it with fondness, Coward with disdain"). Yet it's hard to miss the spirit of generosity underlying this hardcover master class — essentially, a passing of trade secrets to the next generation.