Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: 'Sondheim: A Life'

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: 'Sondheim: A Life' STEPHEN SONDHEIM: A LIFE by Meryle Secrest (Alfred A. Knopf)

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: A LIFE by Meryle Secrest (Alfred A. Knopf)

The musicals of Stephen Sondheim are probably the most exciting works to have appeared in the field in the last 40 years. But I must admit to being slightly Sondheim-ed out, having read all the books and just about every article and program note on the subject, seen every one of the shows dozens of times (in most cases from the world premiere performance on, and in revival after revival), played all the discs, watched all the videos, etc. As Sondheim's is the most important musical theatre writing career to have happened entirely during my lifetime, I followed it very closely, particularly when the partnership with Harold Prince caught fire.

For those reasons, I was -- unlike most people I know -- not dying to read Meryle Secrest's book Stephen Sondheim the moment it appeared. But I was aware that I would have to get around to it soon, and I received a number of e-mails during the last two months from readers soliciting my comments on it and asking when I would be reviewing it. Throughout that time, I read mostly favorable reviews of it, so it is my duty to report that I found it to be almost entirely disappointing and unrewarding.

The most interesting material here comes right at the beginning: The information about Sondheim's gorgon of a mother named Foxy; how working as an assistant on Allegro affected the rest of Sondheim's career; his college musicals; and his attempt at a romantic relationship with life-long friend Mary Rodgers.

But as soon as we get to Sondheim's Broadway debut with West Side Story, the problems begin. The information on the show is familiar from other sources (particularly a Dramatists Guild symposium), but what is more troubling is that Secrest offers no interpretation of her own, failing to note why the show was a major musical theatre event, where it fits in the history of the genre, what shows influenced it, or how it would influence later musicals. She says the show "was not successful," when of course it was, even if it was not a blockbuster, and demonstrates little interest in or appreciation of one of the most important musicals in post-war history. Things don't get a great deal better with Gypsy, where we again get familiar anecdotes and no real appreciation of another landmark piece. And there's no appreciation whatsoever of Ethel Merman, without whom the show would never have been written; here as elsewhere, Arthur Laurents is all too fond of dismissing her performance, perhaps because she's the only Broadway Rose he didn't direct.

Yes, the book is intended as biography, not just musical theatre study, but it doesn't deliver on that level either. Because Secrest got her subject to co-operate and agree to be interviewed, she seems obliged to use what he says without comment or contradiction. But Sondheim is not especially forthcoming, telling what he wants to tell and nothing more. Much of what he supplies is evasive or inconsequential, and she doesn't probe deeper or challenge anything.

If a biography is not going to penetrate a subject's artistry, it should at least get the specifics on the life, and even dish the dirt a bit. As for the much-touted revelations about the subject's sexuality and romantic relationships, Sondheim is coy about that area, and there are virtually no details and names until the well-known current relationship with Peter Jones. Both subject and author make suggestions about affairs with various women without backing them up, and one would almost think from the book that Sondheim barely had sex until he was in his 60s.

Secrest's methods are often peculiar in the extreme. When not quoting such up-to-the-minute theatre authorities as Brooks Atkinson, Moss Hart, and Cecil Smith, she wastes space with psychological analyses by various writers, some of whom are the subjects of previous Secrest bios. More damagingly, she is extremely reluctant to analyze Sondheim's songs, relating anecdotes about them and occasionally quoting lyrics but rarely coming to grips with the material and how it developed over the decades. She's content to quote from reviews, program and liner notes, and background pieces, often citing the words of obscure British critics, and in general taking as gospel what anyone -- critics, friends, actors like Keith Baxter -- has to say about the quality of the shows. Isn't it the author's job to assess them herself?

In the section on Company, Secrest mentions that Cabaret secured Harold Prince's reputation as a director that Sondheim had until that time doubted. But she says nothing about how that show's conceptual daring might have influenced the Sondheim-Prince collaborations. She states that "with the exception of Forum" (p. 329), Sunday in the Park boasted "a rare happy ending for a Sondheim musical" -- what about A Little Night Music? She buys right into the erroneous statements by some critics that the Susan Schulman- directed revival of Sweeney Todd provided an emotional catharsis lacking in the original Prince production. And she bizarrely allows Douglas Wager space to offer his irrelevant account of the accident he suffered while staging his mediocre-at-best 1990 Arena Stage production of Merrily We Roll Along.

Secrest seems to have no particular insight into or opinion of Sondheim's work, nor any real feel for musical theatre, and it's often difficult to tell if she's even seen these shows. In general, I felt that she had seized upon Sondheim as yet another hot name to add to the list of such previous subjects as Leonard Bernstein, Salvador Dali, and Frank Lloyd Wright. If the final chapters are better, it's probably because she is simply more familiar with the various shows, particularly revivals, that were happening during the years she was working on the book.

Factual errors are not the big problem here, although there are a number: Stockton's The Lady or the Tiger did not "subsequently become an operetta" (p. 104) -- it became one third of the Broadway musical The Apple Tree. On page 133, she lists Jerome Robbins as the director of Call Me Madam, but credits it correctly to George Abbott on page 150. In the bottom Forum photo on page 153, the Hero appears to be Pat Fox, fired on the road, rather than Brian Davies. On page 190, she doesn't seem to know what Hot Spot was (it was not a revue) and what Sondheim's contribution to it consisted of. "Bang!" was not dropped from A Little Night Music during rehearsals (p. 307) -- I saw it performed in Boston. And she's confused (p. 348) about the credits for Follies in Concert -- Herbert Ross, rather than Thomas Z. Shepard, was the director.

Yes, there is a certain amount of fresh material from her personal interviews with Sondheim, Prince, Arthur Laurents, and others. And some quotes -- Sondheim describing George Abbott as without talent -- are riveting. But there's little sense of what makes Sondheim's shows tick or what makes them exciting. Perverse as his opinions sometimes are, Martin Gottfried remains the only author of a Sondheim book who makes a serious attempt to grapple with and analyze the material. I suppose some would say that Stephen Banfield's book on the subject does so as well, but that one seemed to me useless for all but musicologists, and I couldn't get through it. If he deals more with the making of the shows than with the material itself, Craig Zadan at least got there first, and, thanks to first-hand experience, does manage to convey what made these shows so electrifying when they first appeared. Rarely can so unique a talent and career have been so prosaically and ploddingly depicted as they are in Secrest's Sondheim; rather than being gripped, I found it a chore to read (and Richard Rodgers is her next subject).

I don't wish to leave the impression that I learned nothing from the book: A couple of pages before she concludes, Secrest informs us that the serious 1995 fire in Sondheim's New York home was apparently caused by the fact that cartons had been piled atop a desk lamp cord, and that "an electrical wire without adequate ventilation will eventually overheat." As soon as I closed the book, I checked every outlet in my apartment, so reading Stephen Sondheim: A Life may ultimately have helped to see to it that all my other Sondheim memorabilia never goes up in flames.

You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com