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By Meryle Secrest. Knopf. 480 pp. $30

Sondheim is the pre-eminent musical dramatist of our time, and not merely because there are no competitors for the title; he would wear the crown even in a stadium of rivals. Now in his late sixties, he merits the tribute Secrest has paid him, a full-scale life in print.

Sondheim was born in 1930 in New York City, grew up on the West Side of Manhattan in upper-middle-class privilege, and went to private schools and Williams College. He was the product of a troubled marriage—an ineffectual father who one day simply walked out on his difficult wife to live with another woman—and his childhood would send him into permanent analysis as an adult. He found encouragement for his musical talent from the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, a mentor and a second father.

By the time he was 25, Sondheim was working with Leonard Bernstein on the lyrics for West Side Story. He wrote the lyrics for other shows (Gypsy, to the music of Jule Styne, and Do I Hear a Waltz?, to the music of Richard Rodgers), but he aspired to be composer as well as lyricist. From that ambition came three decades of marvelous scores for Broadway, as well as fame, riches, influence, and, quite late, love. Not all the shows were successful, but the recorded scores have a contained and absolute life apart from the fate of the productions that introduced them.

Art isn’t easy, sings the cast of Sunday in the Park with George, and neither are artists. This is not exactly news (even Homer probably wanted better wine and a softer pillow from his hosts), but it is the largest truth delivered by Secrest’s biography. In the creation of a Broadway musical, many of Sondheim’s collaborators over the decades (Bernstein, Rodgers, Jerome Robbins,

Harold Prince, Ethel Merman) butt egos like billy goats. That such insecure, petty, jealous, backstabbing folks produce work that gives great pleasure to others is one of life’s enduring mysteries.



Sondheim himself is, in the biographer’s telling, closed, demanding, arrogant, overly sensitive, mean, repressed, awkward—and brilliant, charming, and companionable too. The unattractive personal traits become the treasurable subjects of his art, as in Sunday in the Park with George, where he is clearly the model for Georges Seurat, the artist obsessed with "finishing the hat" in a painting at the cost of living a normal life.

There is no music in Secrest’s book, of course, and the ingenious lyrics meant to sit upon the music—Sondheim once rhymed raisins with liaisons and made their conjunction poignant—look merely plain upon the page. What’s interesting about Sondheim is his work, not his work habits, and an hour spent listening to any one of the scores, particularly Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, or Sunday in the Park with George, will work more magic than all Secrest’s dutiful chronology. The daily Sondheim is here; the Sondheim who matters, and who will be remembered when everyone has forgotten that he did not get on with his mother, is elsewhere.

—James Morris