Christmas books: 'Steven Sondheim: A Life'

Reviewed By Father Jim McDermott, SJ
Wednesday, December 15, 2021

On Nov. 26, Stephen Sondheim, considered by many to be America’s greatest musical theater composer, passed away at age 91. Since his death there has been an  outpouring of love and commentary on his life and body of work, which includes “Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods,” “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.”

For anyone interested in a deeper dive, Meryle Secrest’s 1998 biography of Sondheim is a must. Sondheim, who had always been very private about his personal life, sat down for over 50 hours of interviews with Secrest. The resulting portrait is complex and poignant.

Sondheim has few memories of his mother from when he was young. “I don’t think she was around,” he tells Secrest. “I don’t think she cared.” When his parents divorced, he was left with her for a time; the trauma of her treatment of him in those years would permanently affect his ability to enter into relationship. “I’ve lived an isolated life,” he tells Secrest. “I’m virtually the boy in the bubble.”

“A Life” is filled with anecdotes from many of Sondheim’s collaborators, like “Sunday in the Park with George” co-creator James Lapine, who details how Sondheim became drenched with sweat presenting “Finishing the Hat” from “Sunday” for the first time. “It wasn’t at all hot in there. He was terrified, just terrified.”

The book has great insight into the creation of each of his shows, too: how Sondheim hated ending “Company,” his show about marriage, with the hopeful song “Being Alive,” and wished he’d stuck instead with the much darker “Happily Ever After;” of people’s criticisms of the darker second act of “Into the Woods.” “Some people don’t like to be surprised. Particularly in musicals. They want what they expect. ... To me, the theatre is about quite the reverse. It’s about surprise.”

For those who mourn Sondheim’s passing, “Stephen Sondheim: A Life” is like a message in a bottle left for us by a beloved friend.