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Exploring America’s Greatest (and Jewish) Living Writer

avatar by David Meyers

Opinion

Book cover. Photo: provided.

“The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia” by Rick Pender (Rowman & Littlefield), 2021

A recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal argued that Stephen Sondheim is America’s greatest living writer. If you know Mr. Sondheim’s work, it’s hard to disagree.

And most Americans do know Sondheim’s work.

Starting with his iconic lyrics for West Side Story in 1957, Sondheim’s words, songs, and musicals have been performed continuously in America and across the world since that time. The breadth and depth of his work are simply unprecedented in the modern American theater (and not just the musical theater).

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Now, author and Sondheim expert Rick Pender has put out an entire encyclopedia dedicated to Sondheim’s work, and he recently spoke with The Algemeiner to discuss it.

David Meyers: Rick, I’m so glad to speak with you. If our readers don’t know who Stephen Sondheim is, why should they?

Rick Pender: Musical theater is a uniquely American art form, and one that has evolved from mere entertainment to works that are the equivalent of serious drama, thanks to Sondheim’s central role in the creation of works that shaped the genre’s path through the latter half of the 20th century. Sondheim is surely the most prolific and successful proponent of musical theater during the past half-century. He has advanced the subject matter and the way stories are told in astonishing ways.

DM: At what point did you go from understanding that Sondheim was the author of the lyrics for musicals like West Side Story and Gypsy to truly discovering and appreciating the breadth and scope of his work?  And when did it turn from a casual interest, into such a passion?

RP: I was miscellaneously aware of his works by the 1970s, but A Little Night Music was the first show that really made me focus on how his works combined brilliant lyrics and inventive melodies to tell complicated, mature stories. My passion was turned up another notch in the late 1980s, when I was laid up following surgery; I had a supply of CDs from my local public library to pass the time. One of them was the three-volume A Collector’s Sondheim, which I listened to over and over, discovering material — and especially lyrics — that I didn’t know.

In the 1990s I discovered and subscribed to The Sondheim Review (TSR), and in 1998, I offered to review the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of Sweeney Todd, which featured Pamela Myers, Company’s original Marta and a Cincinnati native, as Mrs. Lovett. The Playhouse produced eight shows by Sondheim over the next 15 years, all of which I wrote about, eventually becoming TSR’s associate editor in 2002. With the retirement of its editor in 2004, I moved into that role.

DM: You ran both The Sondheim Review and Everything Sondheim, in essence turning Sondheim’s career into part of your own; why? And what rewards do you think you took away from exploring his work on a near daily basis?

RP: These publications were the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to focus on the work of Stephen Sondheim, a true genius — and, in fact, to interact with him occasionally and to become more intimately involved with the 18 musicals he was involved in creating.

DM: If you’re not willing to name a favorite, would you give us your top 3 Sondheim musicals, and why?

RP: I like to say that my favorite depends on the day of the week or the one I’ve seen most recently. But if pressed, for three, I’d list Sweeney Todd, which is most fans’ choice for his greatest work, for its epic musical accomplishment and its profoundly tragic story; A Little Night Music, which captivates me with its waltz melodies and its operetta-like story and complex lyrics; and Assassins, which is so inventive and unusual in its subject matter and its varied score with inspiration from various eras.

DM: You’ve obviously been able to interview Sondheim on a few occasions; would you be willing to share a few of the questions you were most eager to ask him, and if his answers surprised you.

RP: In 2005, I did a stage interview with him, my first occasion to meet him in person. I offered to share questions with him, and he said he’d prefer to respond freshly without advance knowledge. Our conversation was “illustrated” with some songs from Merrily We Roll Along performed by Raúl Esparza. Sondheim’s answers gave me new insights into a show long considered a flop and caused me to regard it more seriously. He came to Cincinnati in 2006 when the Cincinnati Playhouse produced Company, staged by John Doyle, a production that transferred to Broadway and won the 2007 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. Sondheim joined me for a recorded radio interview, and I learned about his enthusiasm for new interpretations of his works, such as Doyle’s actor/musician productions. In 2010 and 2011, when his lyric study volumes were published, we had phone conversations that I turned into features for The Sondheim Review, deepening my appreciation of his astute writing of texts that both developed characters and enhanced storytelling.

DM: You ran two news outlets dedicated to Sondheim, and he and his collaborators have given so many interviews that it’s hard to keep track of them. But I still find myself coming across new information daily. Would you be willing to share some of the new material you may have unearthed during your writing process?

RP: Truth to tell, by managing those outlets, I had a profoundly broad exposure to his many shows and was seldom surprised during the writing of “The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia” by new material. I did gain more insights into the details of his life, as I closely read (and re-read) Meryle Secrest’s biography, “Stephen Sondheim: A Life.” But my goal with the Encyclopedia was principally to assemble an objective overview of the various subjects — it has 131 entries — that would provide an informative foundation for anyone wanting to know more about Sondheim and his creative output, not to dig into or provide lots of out-of-the-way details.

DM: Do you prefer any cut Sondheim songs to the material that replaced them? If so, would you be willing to name a few?

RP: Not really. As I mentioned above, my endeavor with the Encyclopedia was to provide overviews of the original productions and not go down too many alternative paths. I will say that I found it fascinating to explore the evolution in Company from “Multitudes of Amys” to “Happily Ever After” to — finally — “Being Alive.” That represents a path from expectable to bitterness to profound revelation.

DM: I have listened to some Sondheim scores more than a hundred times, yet still have such a lived and vicarious experience when I hear them again. I assume you feel the same. Why do you think that is?

RP: I believe it’s because he has written songs that peel away and dig into the psyches of characters, and repeated listening reveals more and more of his artistry — word choices, melodies, changes of key and meters and so on. It’s like studying great poetry and deepening your understanding with each reading.

DM: Can you share anything you were surprised to learn about the creation of some of Sondheim’s greatest musicals — either in the process of writing this book, or in your earlier work about his career?

RP: I would say the thing that surprised me the most as I became familiar with his body of work was his insistence that he would “Never Do Anything Twice” (in fact, he wrote a song about that). No two of his musicals resemble one another, musically or narratively. His bold experimentation is one of the constants, and its continued by his willing enthusiasm to allow directors to reinterpret his shows — such as John Doyle’s actor/musician stagings, Marianne Elliott’s gender-switched production of Company, or even Sweeney Todd presented in a cramped London pie-and-mash shop.

DM:  Sondheim has very publicly said that he often uses material from his book writers to craft his songs (sometimes taking the lyrics or a lyrical idea directly, word for word). Yet somehow, these writers often still get overlooked. Has it been a goal of yours to also bring attention to them?

RP: Sondheim’s career gives witness and testament to the value of collaboration. While his shows are often called “Sondheim shows,” he is always quick to cite his creative partners — book writers such as Arthur Laurents, Hugh Wheeler, George Furth, James Lapine, and John Weidman; his orchestrators, especially Jonathan Tunick and Michael Starobin; and of course his work with brilliant directors — most notably Hal Prince and, again, Lapine. That’s why each of them have their own entries in “The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia.”

DM: My favorite interpreter of Mr. Sondheim’s work is often Mr. Sondheim; I have found in listening to his demos, that no one quite captures the nuance or a spirit of his songs like he does. Many partial demos have been released on CD (bonus tracks, the album “Stephen Sings Sonheim”) — but many also seem hidden from public view.

Have you heard any of these? And would you like to see more released to the public?

RP: I have not heard anything beyond the demos you mention. I think they are intriguing, but I’m not sure that they would have broad public appeal. He’s quick to say that his singing voice is not great, although his enthusiasm is always evident. I’d say those demos are more for his fans who love personal glimpses of Sondheim as he’s endeavoring to “sell” a show to producers. Those performances often provide insights into the process of his songwriting since they sometimes reveal songs not in their final form. I think scholars might enjoy from hearing more, but I don’t think there’s a lot of public demand for this.

David Meyers is the Opinion Editor at The Algemeiner.

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