Sondheimlich Maneuver

I've been writing in-depth essays exploring great musicals for twenty-six years -- almost half my life. When my first book, From Assassins to West Side Story (I got better at titles later on) was published in 1996, nobody was writing like this about musicals, digging into music, lyrics, dialogue, subtext, themes, context, characters, relationships, process, etc. I had found some books that explored non-musical plays that way, but not musicals.

I really didn't know if anyone would want to read my thoughts and opinions, but I wanted to share with folks all the amazing, surprising wonders I find when I dig into these great shows. In fact, I thought maybe only directors would find my first book useful, so I subtitled it The Director's Guide to Musical Theatre; and while it was that, I discovered everybody found it interesting, directors, actors, designers, and lots and lots of casual musical theatre fans. So many people told me they loved the book and it made them enjoy the shows even more after they had read about them. I couldn't imagine a better compliment.

The response to the first book was so tremendous, the publisher asked for another. And then another. I never dreamed in 1996 that I was gong to keep writing. And keep writing. And keep writing. So here I am, twenty-six years later, I've analyzed eighty-five shows, and my tenth volume of essays has been released.

About six months before Stephen Sondheim's death in 2021, I decided I needed to write about the Sondheim shows that I never examined all that closely. And I also realized that in the years since I had written a few essays about Sondheim's shows for my first book, my understanding of those musicals has gotten deeper over time -- and notably, my first couple books were written without the benefit of internet research!

I always write intros to my books, though I call them all "Overture." (Of course I do.) For this new volume, He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheim, I wrote the most personal intro I've ever written. Sondheim was so nice to me and to New Line Theatre over the years, and we have had the great privilege of working on several of his shows. We all owe him so much, but I do in particular.

So here's part of the intro I wrote...
I grew up with cast albums in the house. Yes, on LP! I was in love with musicals as far back as I can remember. Up through high school, I knew only the most famous, most mainstream musicals, mostly from the so-called Golden Age, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Jerry Herman. But freshman year in college, my roommate introduced me to Company. It changed everything for me, and Sondheim quickly became my musical theatre hero. As a music major at Harvard, I devoted several semesters of independent studies to Sondheim’s scores. I fell hopelessly in love with Sweeney, Night Music, Merrily, Follies, Whistle, all of them. And one of my professors had been in The Frogs in the Yale swimming pool in 1974!

I had a correspondence with Stephen Sondheim since the early days of New Line. At the start of our second season in 1992, we asked lots of Broadway musical artists to donate items for a special celebrity auction. So many people sent wonderful stuff – Elaine Stritch sent an autographed copy of the “The Ladies Who Lunch” sheet music, Gwen Verdon sent a signed scarf she had worn onstage in a show, Kander and Ebb sent an autographed copy of the sheet music for “New York, New York;” and Hal Prince, Jim Lapine, Leonard Bernstein, Harnick and Bock, and many others donated autographed books, music, Playbills, etc.

Sondheim sent us an autographed copy of the private issue LP of the 1966 Evening Primrose soundtrack, years before it was released commercially. (I really thought about holding that one out of the auction for myself, but I didn’t. I did tape it though.) After the auction, I sent all the celebrities thank-you letters, and I cheekily asked if they would also donate money to us. Sondheim promptly sent a donation. After that first donation, I sent him another thank-you letter and asked him if he’d be an honorary member of our board. He said yes. From that time on, I had a periodic correspondence with him, he did some favors for us, he sent us contributions regularly, and he was pretty much all-round awesome to us. We often heard about the incredible way he treated young writers in New York, but it was just as cool – cooler? – that he was so supportive of our small company.

In the early days of New Line Theatre we did a lot of original revues to ease our audiences into the kind of more aggressive, more adult kind of musical theatre we wanted to produce. Among those early revues, two focused on Sondheim.

In 1993, we presented A Tribute to the Musicals of Stephen Sondheim, with songs chronicling his career, from West Side Story through Assassins. In 1997, we presented Extreme Sondheim, a staged concert of Sondheim’s most intense, most complex, most emotional, most strenuous songs, including “Company,” “Now/Later/Soon,” “Another Hundred People,” “Franklin Shepard Inc.” “Getting Married Today,” “Buddy’s Blues,” “A Weekend in the Country,” “The Miracle Song,” “Me and My Town,” “Someone in a Tree,” “Opening Doors,” “No One Has Ever Loved Me,” “Perpetual Anticipation,” “Move On,” “Hills of Tomorrow,” and quite a few more. It was an insane undertaking. But it was also amazing to work on. It was like a Sondheim master class. And it also functioned as a preview of things to come from New Line.

Our graphic designer at the time, Tracy Collins, who also performed with us, suggested we call our revue Sondheimlich Maneuver: Music and Lyrics So Intense You May Choke: A New Revue of Sondheim at His Sondheim-iest. It's the best title we never used.

In the years following, New Line produced Assassins (three times!), Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Sweeney Todd, Passion, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, and (coming in 2023), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Then back in 2011, it occurred to me one day (the day before Thanksgiving, appropriately, and about a week after seeing the magnificent Follies revival in New York) that I should thank Sondheim, not just for what he had done for us and for me, but for what he had done for our art form, for all the beautiful work he created that we’ve had the privilege of working on. I wanted to make sure I told him how much his work means to all of us, while he was still with us. [You can read my letter here.]

I realized long ago the main reason I love writing my musical theatre books, is the fun I have sharing that thrill of discovery, the joy of finding ever cooler things inside a show that I thought I knew well. It was a happy accident of history that I founded New Line Theatre right as this new Golden Age of Musical Theatre was beginning in the early Nineties. It’s been an amazing ride so far! I’ve written about several of Sondheim’s shows before, but this time, I really wanted to cover his whole career, and get to know those shows and side projects that I didn’t know as well.

It’s hard to believe Uncle Steve is gone. It’s hard to believe we’ll never see another new Sondheim musical. He was America’s Shakespeare, the towering theatrical figure of his century, an artist who changed everything, winner of eight Tonys, eight Grammys, an Oscar, fifteen Drama Desk Awards, five Olivier Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors, a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Broadway theatre named after him and a London theatre named for him.

In Thomas Adler’s essay, “The Sung and the Said,” in the collection Reading Stephen Sondheim, he writes:
I will argue, ultimately, that Sondheim is distinct among writers for the American musical stage in that he has a philosophy, an ideology that he continually expresses and deepens throughout his musicals and that raises them above the realm of popular entertainment – though they are, happily, still that – and places them among those works for the American stage that can be said to have not only artistic merit but a literary value as well. . . All the earlier writers of musicals attempt something quite different from what Sondheim undertakes, which is to consistently embody and refine several themes into the rarest of all achievements in this poplar context, a body of thought.

Sondheim lives on, in Bobby and George and Frank and Fosca and so many other characters. His experiments forever changed the theatre and his artistic adventuring profoundly influenced and inspired his successors. And yet writing about these shows now in this new millennium is different. We can’t ignore that Sondheim wrote almost exclusively about white characters; and that his one show about nonwhite characters is problematic. That doesn’t diminish his genius, but it reminds us that stories are always products of the times in which they’re told.

It’s been a blast writing this book, living in these masterpieces, and spending so much time (metaphorically) with the Master. I hope it’s a blast reading it.
It will be hard moving on from this project. But luckily, I get to direct A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum later this year. I. Can't. Wait.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Tickets for New Line's Nine are on sale now. For more info about the show, click here.

P.P.S. To check out all my musical theatre books, including my last book, Go Greased Lightning!, click here.