Stephen Sondheim: In his own words, on his own words

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NEW YORK -- At the top of "Look, I Made a Hat," the second half of his exhaustively detailed two-volume set of collected lyrics to such incomparable musicals as "Gypsy" and "Follies," Stephen Sondheim addresses some of the complaints about the first book, "Finishing the Hat." "The most common of them," he writes, "is that I didn't speak enough about my personal life, 'personal' being the euphemism for 'intimate,' which is the euphemism for 'sexual.'"

After saying that he had been as personal as he could be about his creative life — a creative life that, among many other highlights, included early tutoring from surrogate father Oscar Hammerstein II and collaborations with such giants as Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Ethel Merman, James Lapine, Bernadette Peters, et cetera — Sondheim writes that these volumes are collections of lyrics, plus interpolations, not a memoir. "Look, I Made a Hat" deals principally with his work after 1981 and will be published by Knopf on Nov. 22.

"If I'd wanted to write a memoir," he writes, "I would have, but I don't, and I didn't."

On Wednesday afternoon at Sondheim's Manhattan town house, I asked him why not.

"I don't find my life that interesting," he said, sinking slightly into his couch. "The shows, maybe. But not me. I've had a very placid, privileged life with not a lot of vicissitudes outside of a rather melodramatic mother. That doesn't make for very good reading. I don't mind talking about myself, but if you're going to write about somebody's life, you want it to be Dickens, wouldn't you?"

Charles Dickens, though, did not ask for someone to "Marry me a little/ Do it with a will/ Make a few demands/ I'm able to fulfill." He did not lament the agony of loss through the exquisitely quotidian "The sun comes up/ I think about you/ The coffee cup/ I think about you." He did not write the hope "Peace and quiet and open air/ Wait for us, somewhere." And while he was surely in accordance with the sentiment, Dickens did not crystallize a parent's, and a nation's, responsibility to the young with the simple but devastating line, "Be careful the things you say/ Children will listen."

Those are all Sondheim lyrics — achievements across more than 50 years that win him the 2011 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize. He may not find his own biography especially interesting, even if his legions of devotees would disagree, especially given that he is one of the last people alive who had a place in the kitchen during at least three distinct styles and generations of musical-making of the 20th century — from Cole Porter comedy to Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein's integrated musicals to the experimentation of the 1960s and beyond. No one else approached all three from a point of view of (to borrow his words) "mild experimentation," while remaining dedicated to his identity as a Broadway baby, ever-subject to the oft-enraging strictures of critics, audiences and shows that need to make money.

Those issues have, to say the least, dissipated with time. His new book includes the famous New York magazine cover asking, "Is Sondheim God?" a question that its assumed deity describes as unanswerably camp.

These two books have, of course, made Sondheim more of a public figure, subjecting him to visiting interviewers and public appearances, even though he much prefers, he said, "to be standing in the dark at the back of the theater." But if there's a current mission, it is one of education, rather than personal veneration or even documentation. His new book, for example, includes all of the different versions of the troubled, long-in-gestation show variously known as "Wise Guys," "Bounce" (its title at the Goodman Theatre) and "Road Show," a show that had such troubles, you would perhaps expect a man with Sondheim's achievements to omit it entirely. But that would be to misunderstand his current purpose.

"I wanted to show people what you go through when writing and rewriting a musical," he said. "How you get from A to B." The "B" in the Sondheim lexicon has little to do with audience approval and nothing to do with critical praise, but everything to do with arriving where the artist wants himself to arrive. "I want the audience to see what I intended them to see," he said. "That is all there is."

Widespread veneration, Sondheim notes, is a dangerous mistress for the artist, not least because it impinges on creativity by making him terrified that he won't live up to past achievements. "You worry about people expecting too much next time up at bat. I keep telling myself not to think about what the audience and critics are going to say, but just to write the goddamn thing. That's the downside of adulation. It has slowed me down. I'm smelling around shows right now, but I should be leaping in."

He has, of course, been busy with his books. Sondheim's two volumes present his lyrics in chronological rather than alphabetical order, which has led, he said, to people "confusing them with a memoir." That's doubtless the case. The lyrics are not any kind of obvious narrative of Sondheim's life trajectory. After all, one of his lyric-writing precepts — along with "less is more" and "God is in the details" — is "content dictates form." And content throughout his creative life has, to say the least, varied, without regard to any unifying arc.

"I suppose a lot of my shows have to do with displacement, disenfranchisement, the loner, the maverick," he says, generously, when pushed on the subject. "Those themes tend to crop up momentarily in all of them. But the trouble is, I get interested in so many different things. If I were writing a thesis on my stuff, I'd have the hardest time stringing them together. I don't really know that 'Assassins' had anything to do with 'A Little Night Music' at all. On any level."

Many have tried to find it. "That's the academics," Sondheim said, with a shrug.

But in the musical revue "Sondheim on Sondheim," a revealing 2010 Broadway show that uses video images of Sondheim himself, filmed in this town house, a pixelated Sondheim looks out at the audience and says there are only two things worth leaving when exiting the Earth: children and art.

Or so I thought I remembered.

"I didn't say 'worth leaving,'" he said, gently, reflecting his typical insistence on precision (one reason to have the authorized version of all your lyrics under your control). "I say they are the two most important things, the two things you can leave behind after you die. Well, you can leave a wake of bitterness. But those are the things that are immortal, that can immortalize a person. One of the things that Lapine pointed out to me (in "Sunday in the Park With George") is that those are actual people in that (Georges Seurat) painting and they've been immortalized by that man. That lady there is immortal. And all she was, was his mistress. And she's never going to die. That's what art does. And that's what children do. They somehow have a part of you that's not going to die."

I asked Sondheim if his shows were, in essence, his kids. There was a pause.

"That hadn't occurred to me as such," he says. "Well, we've always said things like, 'That's the show I don't like; it's the runt of the litter.' But actually? I suppose they're surrogate children. I suppose one could think of that. You lavish care on them, and some of them turn out well, and some of them don't. You have your favorites."

As the text of "Sondheim on Sondheim" notes, and as the composer had previously revealed, he was not a favorite of his own mother. Indeed, there's a point in the show when Sondheim talks about receiving a note wherein Etta Janet expressed the late-in-life sentiment that giving birth to him, the boy who became America's greatest living composer for the theater, was a regrettable mistake. Given that he does not wish to write that memoir, I asked why he had agreed to put that particularly personal revelation in the show.

"It was a little ungallant of me, I suppose," he said. "But I thought it might explain to a lot of people that you can survive shock, parental shocks. Even at that advanced age, it was a big shock to discover that I wasn't loved. Some people say, 'Wow, oh gosh!' Others say, 'Boy, do I know what he is talking about.'"

For Sondheim fans, those for whom his lyrics have always explained their lives, that was hardly the first time.

cjones5@tribune.com

See Steven Sondheim

What: Chicago Tribune Literary Prize ceremony

When: 10 a.m. Nov. 6

Where: Symphony Center's Armour Stage, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago

Admission: $5-$15. A $5-per-ticket surcharge applies to purchases at the door. A $5 fee will be added to online and phone orders.

To buy tickets: 312-494-9509, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, or chicagohumanities.org

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