November 1998


Staff Writer

Stephen Sondheim is his own worst critic. The celebrated Broadway lyricist and composer, making a rare public appearance in a New York State Writers Institute talk Wednesday, spoke with humor and disarming bluntness before a reverent crowd at the University at Albany. He talked about his lyrics, his current project, his grim diagnosis of Broadway, his memories of Ethel Merman and the ups and downs of his own output--a career that spans such arch American classics as "Sweeney Todd," "Company" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

Sondheim may be regarded as a figure of towering influence--the fans who packed Page Hall may have given him a standing ovation before he opened his mouth--but he behaved like a man in no mood to be lionized. He was too sharp, too honest, too at ease with himself and his accomplishments.

And they are many. One of the most roundly lauded composer-lyricists of this half of the century, Sondheim is the Oscar Hammerstein protege who startled Broadway with a new, slyly sophisticated brand of musical theater. His brand of show tune was serious music that stopped short of opera: accessible yet erudite, hilarious yet complex. He's the object of an ardent following, the subject of a new biography (by Meryle Secrest) and the recipient of numerous awards, from Tonys to Grammys to the Kennedy Center Honors. When he refers to "Lenny," he means Bernstein.

Yet what came across Wednesday night was the temperance of his ego. He spoke critically, for instance, of the decision to cast very young actors in "Merrily We Roll Along," which demanded mature professionals. He was (and still is) "embarrassed" by some of his lyrics for Leonard Bemstein's "West Side Story"--particularly "It's alarming how charming I feel," sung by a Puerto Rican (Maria) with the flippant elan of Oscar Wilde. And he was surprisingly hard on the entire show, which he characterized as "a triumph of style over substance....

"There's no substitute for a good story, and 'Romeo and Juliet' is a good story," Sondheim said. But where "Romeo and Juliet" boasts specific characters,"West Side Story" builds its story on thinly drawn stereotypes. "They're sort of generic characters in the lyrics as well as the book... For me, it's not satisfying."

Others disagreed: Later in the evening, a rather prickly audience member took Sondheim to task for his remarks, claiming "Story" has staying power precisely because its characters aren't specific. Sondheim, looking perplexed, wondered why the very specific "Hamlet" had survived so long.

One might say the same for Sondheim, whose precise words and commanding voice--call it a modulated boom--filled the near-capacity theater. A small, trim man with gray hair and a tidy beard, Sondheim, 68, wears a face that's worn with life.

He wrote his first musical as a teenager. In his 20s, he reached Broadway as a lyricist, in his 30s he reached it as a composer (with "A Funny Thin Happened on the Way to the Forum," in 1962), and by the age of 40 he'd written "Company." "A Little Night Music" followed, as did "The Frogs", (performed in a Yale swimming pool), "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday in the Park With George," "Merrily We Roll Along" and "Into the Woods."

His last full-blown musical, "Passion," opened on Broadway in 1994. On Wednesday night he described his next one, a theatrical treatment of the brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner--one a card shark, wit and welterweight-boxer, the other a noted architect. "They were very close when the world was against them. When the world wasn't, they were constantly in competition with each other," Sondheim said. "Wilson, left some wisecracks, but Addison left some buildings--and that's what it's about. It's called 'Wiseguys."'

Commissioned by the Kennedy Center, it will go into production next summer.

Sondheim was pessimistic about the current and future state of Broadway theater, saying flat-out that the industry is on its final, wobbly legs. "There's very little vitality on Broadway. There's a lot of vitality at the box office.... (but) I think it's dying. Healthy theater is not all musicals."

The audience peppered him for about an hour with questions--some general, most arcane--about This addition of That song to Those productions. Several prefaced their questions with rapt expressions of gratitude. Sondheim was gracious to all, providing thoughtful, exhaustive replies, even to the fellow doing research for his daughter's school work. He answered everything.

For the record, the 'easiest ' show he wrote: "'Sweeney"Todd." The best musical ever written: Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." And his opinion of Lorenz Hart: "I don't like Lorenz Hart's lyrics because he's lazy. His inflections are all off."

Sondheim believes adamantly that good lyrics should reflect the natural cadences of speech. "I'm a conversational lyric writer," he said. "There are other kinds, but I've always thought that the only way to write lyrics is to imitate speech.... I'm very conscious of inflection." He told a handful of anecdotes about Broadway grande dame Ethel Merman, a brassy, overpowering woman trained in the low comedy of old Broadway.

"She was very straightforward; she was not terribly bright, and she was really professional," said Sondheim, who worked with her on "Gypsy" in the late 1950s. During a revival of Irving Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun," he said, Merman shared a scene with an Indian chief played by Jerry Orbach (now on "Law and Order"). One night she confronted Orbach backstage: What, she wanted to know, was he doing during her long speech in the boat? He was reacting, he said. "Jerry, look," she replied. "I don't react to your speech, you don't react to mine. You hear what I'm saying?"

Sondheim smiled. The audience laughed. Page Hall isn't Broadway, but it was--on this night, anyway--good theater.

Copyright 1994, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

Stephen Sondheim