STEPHEN SONDHEIM by Meryle Secrest


A Life
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Veteran biographer Secrest moves, logically, from Leonard Bernstein (1994) to one of his collaborators and friends—and one of the undoubted giants of the American theater—Stephen Sondheim. Like his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim has vehement detractors and vociferous defenders; Secrest is quite clearly in the latter group. Born in New York in 1930, Sondheim is the son of well-to-do German Jews. But when their marriage disintegrated while Stephen was still a child, the boy found himself a pawn in his mother’s machinations. As Secrest makes clear, the scars from that experience stayed with Sondheim for a long time, occasionally finding their way into his creative work. Despite personal travails as a youth, Sondheim enjoyed a pretty nearly unbroken road to theatrical success, being virtually adopted by the Hammersteins, making his Broadway debut at 27 with the lyrics for West Side Story and not actually having a failure until his second show as sole composer-lyricist, the legendary Anyone Can Whistle. Secrest has had the great advantage of cooperation from her subject. More than any previous work on Sondheim, this book has the benefit of early reminiscences and access to its subject’s apprentice work all the way back to his high-school years. Yet Sondheim remains a somewhat emotionally distant figure, not surprising since his guardedness seems to be one of his most prominent traits. Regrettably, although there is much material here to fascinate both Sondheim addicts and theater fans, Secrest fails to organize it coherently. Although there are some engaging stories about the creation of such classics as Company, Pacific Overtures, and Sunday in the Park with George, the book rambles with a ramshackle thrown-together feeling and with awkward run-on sentences. And not surprisingly given that her subject is still working hard at 68, Secrest’s effort doesn’t so much end as stop abruptly. Some genuine insights into one of our living masters, but a disappointingly disorganized work with a surfeit of dollar-book Freud and Jung. (95 photos, not seen) (Literary Guild selection; author tour)

Pub Date: June 14th, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-44817-9
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1998


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