Two of the world's most skilled wordsmiths, Stephen Sondheim and William Safire, were duking it out in the pages of the May 24 New York Times magazine.
The battlefield for this Olympian contest was On Language, Safire's weekly column of word usage. Safire, a former speech writer in the Nixon administration, writes the Sunday column in addition to his weekday columns on politics. Sondheim wrote the news paper's editors to upbraid Safire for apparently allowing his politics to spill over into his philology. Clearly delighted despite the salvo, Safire printed the letter and responded.
"Dear Sirs," began the Pulitzer-winning author of Sunday in the Park With George and other musical theatre landmarks, ". . . His column used to be about language. For a long time now it has been nothing but a sly forum for his virulent, bilious and, in my opinion, psychopathic hatred of Bill Clinton. His pretended interest in the linguistic fallout from such notable phrasemakers as Paula Jones, Susan Carpenter-McMillan, Ken Starr, Dick Armey, Trent Lott and their like, often filtered through the remarks of their friends, colleagues and commentators, is a transparent excuse to remind the reader of his (Mr. Safire's) political obsessions. Like his fellow reactionaries, he's an unregenerate pork-barreler: he attaches his views, no matter how irrelevant, to anything that moves.
"Safire already has two shots a week on the Op-Ed page. Isn't that enough? To call his Sunday salvo On Language is only one of his hypocrisies. The column used to be a vehicle for his often entertaining observations about words and phrases as linguistic outcroppings of national culture, not an excuse to slather us with his shrill opinions.
"Tell him to go back to his roots." Instead of counterpunching, per se, Safire analyzed "in temperate and scholarly fashion," much of Sondheim's phraseology.
Among other things, Safire noted, "Because psychopathic is rhetorically excessive. . . it would ordinarily lessen the impact of the two previous adjectives [virulent and bilious]. But note the writer's skillful interjection of in my opinion before the third word. The phrase not only introduces a dramatic pause before a point, but also seems to say that virulent and bilious were self-evident fact and that only psychopathic was a matter of opinion."
The column continued along those lines.
Safire good-naturedly acknowledged that Sondheim's broadside was "a good pop," and ended with an allusion to "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music:
"Deconstruction of a well-built pop opens a vein of inquiry that is always worthwhile. Isn't it rich?"
Sondheim, who turned 68 this year, has been taking a slightly higher profile recently, including a remarkable appearance at a New York zoning hearing to speak in support of a rezoning plan for Eighth Avenue on the west side of the Broadway theatre district. Earlier, he spoke at a municipal meeting in London in support of continued government funding for theatres, and is scheduled to appear there again in coming days at a tribute to producer Cameron Mackintosh.
In the meantime, his current musical project, Wise Guys, has been postponed three times, and is currently tentatively scheduled for a 1999 premiere. It will be his first new score since Passion in 1994.