The great lyricist Stephen Sondheim was not just an observer of New York’s cultural scene of the 20th Century but an active participant, writes Gregory Camp.
Comment: One of the anecdotes Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) was most fond of telling was his last encounter with his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II. Just before he died in 1960, the great lyricist inscribed a picture for Sondheim, ‘For Stevie, my friend and teacher’.
In reflecting on Sondheim these past few days, seeing all the beautiful tributes coming in from all corners and all generations of the theatre world, I came to realise that he was, above all, a teacher. While he did teach in the literal sense, giving masterclasses and talks and interviews on his work, he also taught through his songs themselves. And then not just in their subject matter, but also in the very fabric of the music and lyrics. He taught that detail is important, that without the fundamental hard work that leads to craft, the results are meaningless, and that half rhymes don’t cut it.
Sondheim never wrote an autobiography, although Meryle Secrest wrote an excellent ‘authorised’ biography in 1998. Sondheim said that, instead, his collected books of lyrics, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, take that place in his œuvre.
By including annotations about his lyrics and sidebars on other lyricists, those books offer a full curriculum both on the history and the process of making musical theatre. The books teach us how the sausage is made, although as with any great artist, the specific ingredients will always be a secret to Sondheim alone. What he offers through his work is a model for how to write. If we listen closely, we can gain a better understanding not just of his art, but of art in general. His character George (in what many of his fans consider his magnum opus, Sunday in the Park with George), a conceptual artist, is entreated to ‘teach us how to see’; Sondheim taught us how to hear.
Sondheim was a generous interviewee, happy to talk to biographers and documentarians about his work and about friends and collaborators from previous generations. His constantly sharp memory allowed us to reconstruct the cultural scene of New York throughout the second half of the 20th century, as he was not merely a passenger in history but also a participant.
Unlike similar central ‘commentator’ figures of the previous generation like Gore Vidal (who retired to Italy) or Truman Capote (whose alcoholism hindered his work in his later years), Sondheim stayed up to date and in the flow, observing the comings and goings of styles and celebrities from his Turtle Bay, Manhattan, townhouse, offering advice on revivals of his own works and those of his contemporaries, and mentoring younger colleagues. This gave him a unique teaching ability because he was positioned to place current work within its historical context, and his generous spirit allowed him to act as a participant-observer in cultural history. He always imparted that knowledge freely.
Among the most notable of the younger composer-lyricists he mentored were Jonathan Larson, who probably would have been the major voice of turn-of-the-century Broadway had he not died from an aortic aneurysm just before the premiere of Rent in 1996, and Lin-Manual Miranda, the current reigning king of musical theatre.
This trio of three generations of musical theatre history renders itself beautifully in the new movie Tick, tick… BOOM!, directed by Miranda, based on Larson’s ‘rock monologue’, which was itself developed in 1990 with encouraging feedback from Sondheim.
While the suddenness of Sondheim’s death was unexpected, the timing of the movie has turned out to be perfect, as it helps us transition from the present-tense Sondheim to the past-tense Sondheim. For the first time, Sondheim is portrayed on screen by an actor (Bradley Whitford in a spot-on performance), but his real voice is also heard when he leaves a voice message for Larson at an important juncture in the movie’s plot. The movie lets us see Sondheim both as the living presence who so many of us feel like we knew even if we never met him, and as an historical figure.
In the movie, Miranda shows us Sondheim the teacher, giving feedback to Larson at a reading of one of his early shows. Miranda has often talked about the importance of what he learned from Sondheim, both from the man himself and through close study of his work, for his own writing process. And like all generous teachers, Sondheim said that he learned from his students like Miranda as well.
While we will remember Sondheim’s work through published sheet music, recordings, and films, we should also remember his generous ‘teacherly’ spirit. Even though we can now no longer learn from him directly, his work and his past interviews and mentorships remain to teach us about art and life.