Review: New Vibrant Sondheim Volume Will Delight Sondheads

By Bill Hirschman

Sondheim, His Life, His Shows, His Legacy; by Stephen M. Silverman; Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers; 304 pages; $35 (other lower prices available including Kindle)

Any Sondhead knows there are enough books, tapes, documentaries, podcasts, scripts, speeches, interviews and websites connected to Stephen Sondheim to fill a wing of Library of Congress bookcases.

But, surprisingly, the newest – Sondheim, His Life, His Shows, His Legacy – is a welcome addition. Certainly, the exhaustively researched volume features some tidbits, stories, photos and the like that even a true Sondhead might not know, although much of it is familiar.

And worthy of praise is how veteran biographer Stephen M. Silverman has melded the material from literally hundreds of sources into a chronological narrative seasoned with his own well-considered retrospective insights plus his smatterings of light-hearted humor that the Master would have appreciated.

Another virtue is copious use of more recent reflections and judgments of colleagues and Sondheim himself recorded in the past decade or even more recently. That adds a portrait of his work and the theatrical environment itself seen from a more contemporary vantagepoint rather than older ones prevalent in retelling achievements from the past century.

But notably, one other aspect makes this reading experience different. Although a chronological spine controls the storytelling structure, Silverman has ingeniously broken up the flow every second or third page (even more frequently) with a sidebar – perhaps a few paragraphs, perhaps two full pages, offering a kind of welcome divertissement like someone in a bar interrupting their tale-telling with an anecdote. They are such fascinating bits of trivia or effective scene setting that the reader does not resent the interruption; after all, most readers know the outlines of the narrative. The volume is filled – but not overwhelmed – by these pleasures down to a steady parade of photos, some rarely if ever seen such as the 24-year-old Sondheim as a clapper boy on John Huston’s Beat the Devil.

Silverman strikes a miraculous balance of including enough basic information about a show or time period so that if you are too young or ignorant, you are filled in, and if you lived through it or love the work, you are not bored. (One footnote explains briefly who the cited Sydney Greenstreet was,)

As fine as the writing and research, perhaps the most outstanding element is not credited to anyone. Perhaps its by Silverman himself, but the absence of credit is beyond strange. The design of the book is superlative in every element from typography to layout to choice of material, especially in furthering the creation atmosphere and specifics of the time..

For instance, the copy of the main pieces are traditional black type on white page, but the recurring sidebars are stark white type on a black background. Further, the work is peppered with photos: portraits of the ancient colleagues, awards shows, backstage shots of the shows in preparation and, of course, photos of the productions. Captions add fresh information rather than repeat what is on the adjacent column of copy. If Silverman did not design this, his criminally unnamed editors and graphics layout person deserve high praise.

Most fans will appreciate that nearly every piece in his career is mentioned and given at least a nominal examination. But far more rewarding are detailed chapters tracking step-by-step the evolution of nearly every major work, from the interior of composition to the backstage politics.

Amid the tales are grin-inducing scraps: Jerome Robbins didn’t quite understand the key phrase in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” The three women singing “You Could Drive A Person Crazy” in Company were meant to echo the Andrews Sisters. Jule Styne wanted Sondheim to do Funny Girl with him but he passed because he didn’t think the proposed Mary Martin was right for the part.

The volume works hard to make the vibe as current as possible, from citing the evolving new production of Merrily We Roll Along to mentioning TikTok to a sidebar talking about Sondheim’s appearance in a Simpsons’ episode. It mentions not just the best known productions of a famed work but cites the notable revivals down to Steven Spielberg’s recent West Side Story.

The cost of producing most shows is quoted both in the dollar value of the time and that of today: Follies cost an unusually high $800,000 for the time that translates into $5.6 million in today’s dollars.

Chapters include the creation of Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, even how “Send in the Clowns” almost was assigned to Len Cariou. Some passages quote Sondheim about composition and composing. He speaks how he learned from Bach fugue that the first four notes of a piece can provide the structure for the rest of a piece.

The volume also includes a few left turns that other volumes do not, quoting ordinary people on how the work has affected them.

Speaking as a similarly confirmed Sondhead, I was glad to make space on my bookcase for yet one more Sondheim paean.

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