In the old rehearsal snapshots from 1957, three of the four men who created West Side Story look as cool as the Jets and the Sharks. The choreographer Jerome Robbins, the playwright Arthur Laurents and the composer Leonard Bernstein are all dressed in 50s hip. Only the true kid of the group, the 27-year-old lyricist making his Broadway debut, seems out of place. Stephen Sondheim is in a tie and a loud, boxy sports jacket, his hair slicked back, his grin forced - a geek trying to cut it with the popular crowd.
Yet the appearance is deceiving. Perhaps even more than his collaborators, he was a rebel advancing a cause: a new, jarring, adult kind of Broadway musical. Like most Sondheim efforts to come - among them the landmark shows Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George - West Side Story wasn't the smash commercial hit of its season. It lost the Tony Award to The Music Man. But it also upended the genteel conversations of an American art form then exemplified by My Fair Lady. The future's possibilities seemed boundless, for both the musical theater and the four young artists retooling it.
Now that future has come - and gone. Bernstein and Robbins are dead, having deserted Broadway long before their passing. Laurents is still a busy playwright at 82, but musicals aren't high on his agenda. That leaves Sondheim, who turned 70 on March 22 2000. So obscure in 1957 that he wasn't even mentioned in The Times review of West Side Story he is now the greatest and perhaps best known artist in the American musical theater. But that is a somewhat empty distinction. Sondheim may be the last major creator of Broadway musicals, period, still actively devoted to the trade. He may have even outlived the genre itself, which was long ago exiled by rock music from center stage to niche status in American culture and is now barely a going concern.
Sondheim doesn't dispute that he is a dinosaur. "It's discouraging," he says, as he lists his vanished contemporaries and concluded that "only John and Freddie" - Kander and Ebb, the songwriters of Cabaret and Chicago remain as active in musical theater as he is. Nor is the Broadway of 2000 the one of his youthful dreams. For nearly two decades, the Winter Garden, where West Side Story jump started his career, was monopolized by Cats.
"You have two kinds of shows on Broadway - revivals and the same kind of musicals over and over again, all spectacles", says Sondheim. "You get your tickets for The Lion King a year in advance, and essentially a family comes as if to a picnic, and they pass on to their children the idea that that's what the theater is - a spectacular musical you see once a year, a stage version of a movie. It has nothing to do with theater at all. It has to do with seeing what is familiar. We live in a recycled culture."
Though he has outlived not only the traditional Broadway of his childhood but also the new, more urbane Broadway he ushered in for my generation, his tone is more regretful than angry. E~en when at his most down or acerbic, his choice can abruptly jump a decibel level to express childlike enthusiasm for a movie (Henry Fool) or a fellow composer ("Steve Reich is a personal hero to me") or a play ("Charles Busch's Tale of the Allergist's Wife may be the funniest evening I've ever had in the theater":).
The only time he cut me off was when I began a question with the phrase, "when you grew up ... "
"I never grew up," he interjected, with a finality that foreclosed any follow-up.
This may explain how Sondheim has remained an artist and why, for all his sophistication, he can seem guileless, even naive ...
When Sondheim was 17, he was hired as a gofer on Allegro, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical between Carousel and South Pacific. It was an experimental show, now rarely remembered or revived, about an idealistic doctor who gets distracted by success. "It's really about Oscar," Sondheim says, "who as a result of Oklahoma! and Carousel became very much in demand as a flag bearer for good causes." But what Sondheim most cherishes are the show's Our Town-style theatrical innovations, its Greek chorus and cinematic scene transitions.
Though the devices of Allegro were novel for big Broadway musicals then, they are puny next to Sondheim's subsequent breakthroughs. His own shows have told stories in reverse chronology, with flash-forwards and flashbacks, through dreams and nightmares, even in the stylized ritual (and drag) of classic Japanese theater. While Hammerstein introduced issues like miscegenation to the musical theater, Sondheim has annexed more complex subjects and dramatized them less preachily: political assassination, cultural imperialism, mass murder, the creation of art, the fear of intimacy and the terror of death. Along the way he has produced an incomparably diverse song catalog that embraces uncomplicated show-biz pizzazz ("Comedy Tonight"), the quintessential nocturnal cabaret turn ("Send in the Clowns"), and a poetic meditation on history ("Someone in a Tree") - songs that have attracted interpreters from Sinatra to Madonna.
For Sondheim, the daring of his career all goes back to that summer of '47. "Allegro had a very, very big effect on me", he says. When the show was briefly unearthed in concert form by the City Center Encores series in 1994, he appeared on stage to introduce it. "And I thought, oh god, it's so noively written. What Hammerstein reveals in Allegro is a large vision and a limited amount of technical ability to carry it out." His voice suddenly revs up:
"Except that the total vision is huge and imaginative and exploratory and opens new paths for everybody!"
But he was struck as well by the disappointed reaction to the show on Broadway, where it lasted only a season. "It was baffling to most people and pretentious, " Sondheim says: "These are all adjectives that came to haunt me in my own, as we say, career: pretentious and incoherent and unfeeling and whatever."
He adds: "Somebody said to me once, "Your whole life has been fixing Allegro." That's what I've been doing. I've been trying to fix Allegro all my life."
It was around the time of South Pacific, two years later, that Sondheim met Hal Prince, who, in 1957, would be a producer of West Side Story.
"Often I'd say with Hal, we got in just under the wire," Sondheim says. "We were able to enjoy the so-called fruits of our labors in a field that we genuinely loved. We'd go down the street and see somebody else's show and know that we were all talking the same language." Rock 'n' roll was exploding then, but Sondheim says "Rock didn't affect me because the overlap was when shows were still popular so I could afford to ignore it. It was not part of my generation; it was the generation 10 years under me. To be 24 in 1954 as opposed to being in your teens is all the difference. I knew where I was and what I wanted to do. And through the 50s and 60s, the kinds of shows I liked were still viable: those that developed stories through song in which the songs had individual voices. There was enough success going around, and so you were encouraged to do more."
It was in the 80s that Sondheim could no longer ignore the reality that rock, rising costs and what he sees as "dumbing down" were endangering his Broadway. "The source of what was popular in music had shifted from movies and shows to records," and even the number of musicians in Broadway pit bands had been downsized by half. "What's happened to the theater," he says, "is one thing that does depress me a lot because you think
the audience isn't there anymore. The audience that is there is not an audience who would either like or respond to the kind of stuff I write except with, if anything, a kind of detached bemusement instead of getting involved."
"So what can you do on a Saturday night - alone?"
That lyric, sung by a lonely young man in Brooklyn desperate for romance, is at the top of Saturday Night. For those of us who don't find Sondheim's songs pretentious and unfeeling, it encapsulates the deeply felt Sondheim signature emotion in its fetal form: the aching, ambivalent and often thwarted desire to connect with someone. It's the naked yearning that runs through With So Little to Be Sure Of, Too Many Mornings, Being Alive, Pretty Woman, Not A Day Goes By, Finishing the Hat.
Like everyone else, I want to know what of the offstage Sondheim is in these songs. Is there some of him in Bobby, the perennial bachelor in Company? Or in Georges Seurat of Sunday in the Park, who would rather trance out and paint than be with his lover? Or even in the murderous Sweeney, whose yearning for lost love metastasizes into rage? Sondheim balks, of course. With rapid-fire erudition, he soliloquizes on how "the outsider is basic to a lot of dramatic literature. This country's about conformity. And so nonconformity is a fairly common theme, and it's obviously something I feel, belonging to a number of minorities." ...
"But my memory of childhood is very happy, and I spent most of my life in school anyway, because my parents were both working parents. And so I had a very good time. And for the most part, teachers liked me a lot. And older students liked me a lot. But I was aware that I was different."
"The kind of writing that I do in the musical theater, for which I'm both praised and condemned, has to do with its individuality, I think. It has to do with the fact that it's not like others. I started to become aware of it with Company, which is where I first got to start my own voice loud and clear. And the anger and condemnation and snottiness and sneering that I got with Company quite startled me. Because I'd been dismissed before, which is not the same thing."
"When you make somebody hate you without intending to make them hate you, it's a different feeling."
But Sondheim instantly adds that he doesn't mind "because it's so much better to be disliked than ignored." I have no doubt he means it. "I was very lucky now that I look back on it, that the first theater experience I had was Allegro, a completely maverick show. And the first show that I wrote that got produced was West Side Story, a completely maverick show. I think that confirmed me in, OK, you're going to be a maverick. So I was able to build on it" ...
"Something I only realized in my adult life is that one of the reasons I love writing musicals is that musicals are collaborations. I love the family feeling. I don't think I could ever write a play, because I'd be too lonely." ...
"I have always conscientiously tried not to do the same thing twice. If you're broken-field running, they can't hit you with so many tomatoes. I certainly feel out of the mainstream because what's happened in musicals is corporate and cookie-cutter stuff. And if I'm out of fashion, I'm out of fashion. Being a maverick isn't just about being different. It's about having your vision of the way a show might be. I mean, doing Pacific Overtures is not being in anybody's fashion. It's not being out of fashion either. It's called Pacific Overtures. Now, let's get on to something else."
New York Times Magazine, 12 March 2000
Frank Rich was the chief drama critic of The New York Times from 7980 to 7 993. He is now an Op-Ed columnist and senior writer for the magazine.