Lunch with the FT: Stephen Sondheim

A frisson runs through the Ivy, London theatreland’s favourite restaurant. The maître d’, a man who has probably seen more stars than the astronomer royal, confesses to being jittery with excitement. A theatre producer marches over to the table, hand outstretched. I half-expect the rest of the diners to rise up and belt out a chorus-line refrain. “He’s here, look around, Stephen Sondheim’s in town!”

The object of this excitement, “the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theatre,” according to former New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich, is at a table on one side of the wood-panelled dining room. Sondheim has just flown in from New York and sits nursing a Virgin Mary, fighting off jet lag. His eyes are sleepy; even his beige jumper looks tired. But his conversation is as sharp as you’d expect from a lyricist capable of rhyming “merely so-so” with “virtuoso”, and he grows more animated as the meal progresses, rapping the table for emphasis and semaphoring his meaning with hand gestures. “There’s nothing as stimulating as talking about yourself,” he says.

Sondheim is reminiscing. He turned 80 in March, and showbiz establishments throughout the world have been showering him with honours: birthday galas, concerts, Sondheim-themed television and radio programmes and revivals of his musicals, such as the excellent production of 1994’s Passion currently showing at London’s Donmar Warehouse.

This week also sees the publication of the first volume of his collected lyrics, Finishing the Hat, which opens in 1954 with Saturday Night and ends in 1981 with Merrily We Roll Along, encompassing the likes of West Side Story (1957), Company (1970), Follies (1971) and A Little Night Music (1973) along the way.

Sondheim’s mentor was Oscar Hammerstein II, of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame, who revolutionised the musical with Oklahoma! in 1943. “Think of him as an experimental playwright,” Sondheim says. “Before him musicals had chorus lines, girls, a lot of jokes and really good tunes. And Oscar thought, ‘Why not tell a story?’”

The pupil took the mentor’s revolution a stage further. Sondheim has brought unprecedented depth to musicals, transforming them from romantic comedies into psychological character studies (Company), meditations about art (Sunday in the Park with George, 1984) and investigations into the history of US imperialism (Pacific Overtures, 1987). You don’t go to Sondheim musicals for happy endings, show-stopping tunes and the sort of demented applause that Variety magazine labels “hefty mitts”. You go for the exhilaration of seeing a popular art form stretched to its limits.

The modern age, however, is proving an uncongenial habitat for musicals. “The major thing about them now is that they’re so expensive to produce, so young people aren’t getting a chance to go. The result is there’s a stultification of any invention in musicals. The musical is in a backwater as an art form because there isn’t a lot of fresh blood coming in.” There have been young composer-lyricists he admires, such as Rent’s Jonathan Larson, whom he mentored before Larson’s untimely death in 1996, but no one is following in his footsteps as he did with Hammerstein.

He scans the menu. A frequent visitor to London, he’s no stranger to the Ivy though he’s never lunched there. “I’m not a lunch type,” he explains. Autumn vegetable salad catches his eye; except the born-and-bred New Yorker hasn’t a clue what autumn vegetables are. Instead he opts for a simple dish of smoked salmon and a green salad, gastronomic illustration of one of his writing maxims, “Less is more.” I order haddock and chips. There’s no chance of anything more bracing than the Virgin Mary passing his lips. “If you want to finish the interview, do not feed me wine,” he says. “I will be asleep in a minute.”

In Finishing the Hat, he compares cooking food to songwriting. “The technical details,” he writes, “echo those which challenge a songwriter: timing, balance, form, surface versus substance, and all the rest of it.” Raised by parents who were too busy to cook, he’s a stranger to the kitchen himself but is drawn to cookery writing. “I love to read how anything is done, any craft in the world, whether or not I’m interested in the craft per se ... It’s the details that get me. ‘Blend this in, then wait until it simmers,’ that kind of thing fascinates me.”

Finishing a Hat does something similar: it’s a textbook on how to write theatre songs the Sondheim way. Except “textbook” doesn’t do justice to the insight and wit of Sondheim’s writing. It’s a surprise to learn he felt hesitant and insecure about trying his hand at prose.

“I’m not much of a reader, despite the fact I love language,” he says. He was brought up on the “passive entertainment” of movies, not books, and never acquired the habit of reading. When the publishing house Knopf suggested a book about lyrics, “I said, foolishly perhaps, I’d only do it if I could write essays on lyric-writing, thinking that would turn them off. But to my horror they said, ‘Wonderful.’” He began writing it three years ago, and is currently three-quarters of the way through volume two.

The food arrives. Sondheim’s smoked salmon comes with small scotch pancakes that he butters and a peeled boiled egg that he ignores. He passes me the bread basket. I consider offering him some chips in return but then recall Gypsy’s song “Have an Egg Roll, Mr Goldstone”, in which a character becomes hysterically lost while attempting to offer Chinese food to a showbiz figure called Mr Goldstone: “Have a Goldstone, Mr Egg Roll ... Have some fried rice, Mr Soy Sauce.” I decide not to risk offering a Sondheim to Mr French Fry.

For all the acclaim that’s been heaped on him, Sondheim is a divisive figure. There are those who accuse him of destroying the frivolousness of the traditional musical, of perverting its innocence with too much knowledge. Detractors accuse him of lacking emotion. “I’ve been accused of being cold, but what they really mean is it’s too cerebral, it’s not zingy enough, it’s not getting in the shower and singing.”

He expects his book’s judgments of other lyricists to cause controversy, too. Noël Coward, for instance, is roundly disparaged for insincerity. “I’m going to get stoned about that over here, I know it,” he says, eyed flicking around the room, as if afraid that British musicals buffs are listening in, armed with bread rolls.

He even lambasts Hammerstein for writing flowery lyrics. “That’s going to shock people. There are people who are going to say, ‘Jesus, I thought he worshipped Hammerstein.’ No, I don’t,” he says emphatically. “I’m using his principles to criticise him. I know for sure that he might be hurt and he might disagree violently with what I’ve written but he absolutely would not disapprove.”

Sondheim loves puzzles and murder mysteries, and his lyrics operate in much the same way, surprising audiences with sudden twists or ingenious solutions to seeming dead ends. He once had the satisfaction of making Cole Porter gasp at an unexpected quadruple rhyme in Gypsy’s “Together Wherever We Go”: “Wherever I go, I know he goes,/ Wherever I go, I know she goes./ No fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos – amigos,/ together!” Porter’s gasp came at “amigos”.

As well as playfulness, he has an almost moral fervour for the correct use of language. The words must be true to the character singing them, content must dictate form; unnecessary verbal pyrotechnics or poeticisms are to be avoided, for they draw attention to the writer. “It’s like an engine. You don’t just stop in the middle of the road and go, ‘Look oh look, all the gears are working, isn’t that wonderful?’ No!” He raps the table. “You want to get to the next town.”

Sondheim quotes duff lyrics from Hammerstein. “‘You are the promised kiss of springtime/ That makes the lonely winter seem long.’ Huh? ‘You are the breathless hush of evening/ That trembles on the brink of a lovely song.’ I challenge anybody $10,000, anyone in this room, to tell me what that means. No,” he concludes, jabbing at his green salad. “They’re pretty words.”

His self-criticism is equally unsparing. Finishing the Hat is liberally stocked with lyrics or songs he admits to being unhappy with. I read one offending couplet out to him, sung by Mrs Lovett after she sells one of the sinister pies in Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979): “Last one really sold./ Wasn’t quite so old.” Sondheim groans. More than 30 years after writing it, he’s still bugged by the redundancy of “really”.

All the best songwriters are meticulous, he believes. He has kept almost every piece of paper he has written on since he was 15, when he attempted his first musical. “Luckily, being of German ancestry, I am extremely organised,” he says. “Psychologists would probably say I started holding on to stuff right away.” Our plates are tidied away. No, he won’t have dessert, though he’ll join me for a coffee.

Sondheim had a lonely upbringing, growing up an only child on the 10th floor of a Central Park apartment block. His father Herbert was a successful dress manufacturer; his mother Janet, nicknamed “Foxy”, was the designer. But material comfort wasn’t matched by emotional nourishment. Both spent long periods away from home, until his father ran off with another woman when Sondheim was 11.

He and Foxy, a difficult, unloving woman who once told him her only regret was giving birth to him, moved to Pennsylvania, where they were neighbours of Hammerstein, who became a surrogate father to the young Stephen. “When I was in my forties, a very smart lady I know said, ‘Steve, don’t you realise you were an institutionalised child?’ When she used that word, it went, ‘Click, click, click, click, click, click, click.’” His hands mime a complex mechanical structure moving into place.

“It’s interesting how a word can – I won’t say change your life but – give you a realisation. It was suddenly the long shot instead of the close-up. I went, ‘Oh my God, she’s absolutely right.’ You don’t think of yourself as an orphan when you’re living in a nice apartment and you have plenty of food and you’re getting well educated. But I was an orphan. And that explains a lot about my childhood.” At the time he had been in psychoanalysis since his twenties. “It wasn’t until she said ‘institutionalised’ that everything we’d been discussing in analysis suddenly went ‘click’, like that. And you just get a picture of yourself.”

Sondheim was also in his forties when he came out to friends as gay, but he didn’t speak publicly about it until Meryle Secrest’s authorised biography in 1998. “I never denied it,” he says. “I just didn’t publish it, it’s a different thing. There were people fighting for a liberal view of homosexuality who went out there and wrote articles and gave speeches. I was never somebody like that. On the other hand, I never pretended otherwise.”

He was a latecomer to relationships. His first began when he was 61. The second, which he’s in now, began seven years ago. Finishing the Hat takes its name from a song about the difficulty of balancing art and intimacy, sung by a painter. He says, “I’m talking about the moment of intensity when you are involved in the fantasy of what you’re writing or painting or composing, people don’t matter to you,” he says. “When you’re an artist that privacy is unbreachable.” He raps the table again; his coffee cup rattles.

What happens when fame intrudes on privacy? The “Sondheim at 80” celebrations treat him as theatrical royalty, an icon to be admired and revered. “Garlic! Garlic!” he says, fingers raised in a cross, warding me off vampire-style when I mention the birthday hoopla. “As you get more venerable,” he gives a low chuckle, “people expect more from you.” The celebrations are double-edged, both a thrill and an embarrassment. “It’s the coffin, it’s the coffin, it’s the nails in the coffin. Yes, I feel that very keenly.”

His most recent new musical was Bounce in 2003. In the past three years he has concentrated on the book and not written a single piece of music. Is this an example of knowing when to stop, like the perfect ending of a song or a show? “I’m not stopping just to stop. If I had something I really wanted to write, I’d write it. But on the other hand I haven’t been looking for the past three years.” In a few months he’ll finish the second volume of Finishing the Hat.

I pay the bill and we leave. On the way out of the Ivy he’s approached by an admirer who wonders if Mr Sondheim might be around in November for an event. It turns out that, no, Mr Sondheim won’t be. He’ll be back in New York, finishing his next book, and – in the perfect world that Sondheim’s musicals inconveniently don’t let us believe in – counting down the days before the songwriting itch reappears.

‘Finishing the Hat’ (Virgin Books, £30) is published this month. Sondheim will be appearing at the Royal Festival Hall, London on October 16

Ludo Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic

The Ivy

1 West Street, London WC2H

2x cover charge £4

1x Brown and Forrest smoked salmon £13.75

1x deep-fried haddock with pea purée and chips £17.50

1x green salad £5

3x Virgin Mary £13.50

2x water £9

2x large espresso £6

Total (including service) £77.34

Behind the scenes: memorable Sondheim collaborations

West Side Story, with Jerome Robbins (1957)

Despite Sondheim’s initial reservations (“I’ve never been that poor and I’ve never even known a Puerto Rican”), West Side Story would prove the biggest break of his career. Working with perfectionist director Jerome Robbins was a strain, however, with Robbins openly insulting Sondheim’s lyrics in front of cast and crew. Sondheim refuses to repeat the words used but has called Robbins’ attack “the worst thing a director ever said to me”.

Gypsy, with Ethel Merman (1959)

When the young Sondheim was invited to write the words and music for Gypsy, a musical loosely about striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, its star Ethel Merman was unimpressed and demanded a big-name composer instead. Jule Styne of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was brought in and Sondheim relegated to the role of lyricist. Sondheim recalled how Merman had a reputation for mechanical performances but would “perform the hell out of the show” whenever a critic or celebrity was in the audience, forcing the creative team to concoct regular rumours that Judy Garland or Frank Sinatra were in attendance.

Do I Hear A Waltz?, with Richard Rodgers (1965)

Sondheim once told the journalist Frank Rich that this collaboration with the elderly composer Rodgers was his only professional regret. Problems blighted rehearsals, often fuelled by Rodgers’ drinking, and when the two met with first-choice director Franco Zeffirelli for dinner, Rodgers conspicuously fell asleep. Sondheim believed the show “deserved to fail”.

Company, with Hal Prince, (1970)

During Sondheim’s collaboration with Broadway producer Hal Prince, “Barcelona”, one of Company’s most popular comic numbers, almost didn’t make it past rehearsals. Sondheim recalls Prince sitting blank-faced throughout before responding: “Well, we can do it at the read-through tomorrow anyway.” The next day “Barcelona” drew laughter from its very first line. Prince’s reaction? “He looks over at me and shrugs. He has no trouble admitting he’s wrong.”

Alexandra Coghlan

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