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Stephen Sondheim: A Life Paperback – October 4, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

America's foremost musical-theater composer also proves to be a fascinatingly complex and conflicted human being in this meticulous biography by the always-capable Meryle Secrest (Being Bernard Berenson, etc.). Stephen Sondheim himself was interviewed for the book, as were many of his closest friends, and the author makes perceptive use of this material. Born in 1930, Sondheim was a successful Broadway lyricist (West Side Story and Gypsy) before he was 30. But the scars from a miserable childhood remained: he was inclined to be distant, hypercritical of those less intelligent than he, and terrified of serious emotional commitment. Critics sometimes found those qualities in the series of groundbreaking musicals he created with director Hal Prince--Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd, to name four--but they agreed that he brought new intellectual ambition and artistic adventurousness to the musical theater. Secrest does a fine job of delineating Sondheim's career in terms of what it tells us about the state of American theater, as when he shifted to a partnership with writer-director James Lapine and worked in the nonprofit sector for such musicals as Sunday in the Park with George and Assassins. She also does well in selecting revealing quotes to depict the composer's struggle to accept his homosexuality and a rage at his overbearing mother so deep that he didn't even attend her funeral. Sondheim the man and Sondheim the visionary artist get nearly equal time in an intriguing portrait. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Secrest interviewed composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim extensively for this full-scale biography, resulting in a portrait as subtle and sophisticated as its subject. Son of a wealthy New York City dress designer and manufacturer of German-Jewish extraction, Sondheim, an only child born in 1930, was emotionally neglected by his distant father, Herbert, and by his domineering mother, Janet (Foxy). Herbert left her when their son was 10 to live with his blonde, Catholic, Cuban lover, Alicia Bab?, whom he married after they had two sons. Oscar Hammerstein II became mentor and surrogate father to Sondheim, who grew up isolated, keeping people at a distance. Sondheim discusses with Secrest his 25 years of psychoanalysis, his homosexuality, his early stumbling career as actor and TV scriptwriter, and his working relationships with such pivotal figures in his life as producer Hal Prince and playwright-director Arthur Laurents. Biographer of Leonard Bernstein and Frank Lloyd Wright, Secrest has written a wonderful biography of an uncompromising musical dramatist who uses irony, wit and disillusion to probe painful emotions. Decked out with memorable photographs, her moving and perceptive portrait, full of Broadway lore, provides an incomparable peek into the genesis of such musicals as West Side Story, Gypsy, A Little Night Music and Passion.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (October 4, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307946843
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307946843
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #513,187 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 27, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I am a passionate admirer of Stephen Sondheim's output, and joyfully anticipated reading this book. It is pedestrian and uninspiring - - surely Mr. Sondheim could have entrusted this work to a writer with more flair, skill and specialist knowledge of the creative and professional worlds he inhabits. The most striking aspect of Ms. Secrest's book, in my view, is the snobbish and insupportable bit of American bashing she indulges in. She introduces the notion that Sondheim has found a more receptive audience for his work in England than he has in the US, and posits that this is attributable to the superior "training" of the English theatre-going public (e.g., rigorously schooled in Shakespeare, a native love of language, etc.). I am an American and an avid theatre-goer who has been resident in London for seven years, and cannot identify any justification for Ms. Secrest's absurd obervations! They signify what these kinds of remarks always do - the desperate and embittered attempts of a surpassed culture to cling to the romance of its imagined regality.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 25, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I, like many other people, approached this biography with high hopes. Unfortunately, I found an often poorly and pretentiously written book. Some of it is so incoherent that it was hard to believe it had been edited and copy-edited. There were also a number of factual errors in the book, many of them minor, some not so minor, but surprising in a book like this (especially one that Sondheim was apparently allowed to see and comment on before publication).
However, what is the Sondheim addict to do? Craig Zadan's "Sondheim and Co." and Stephen Banfield's "Sondheim's Broadway Musicals" both have much of value (Martin Gottfried's "Sondheim" is awful), even if Banfield's often brilliant and certainly ground-breaking book has a few factual errors of its own. But they are not biographies. If you love Sondheim, this is a book you're going to want to read; there is unquestionably much that is of interest here. Hopefully, no one will read it under the illusion that it is definitive. In the meantime, I look forward to the next Sondheim biography in the hope that when it comes, it is better than this one.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By "gplechuck" on March 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I bought this book after it had been hyped up in "The Sondheim Review", a magazine for Sondheim junkies like myself. I read it in hopes of going behind the genius of such musicals as "Follies", "Company" and "West Side Story", but instead got a dark and detailed (too detailed for my taste) account of the more dreary parts of his life. There is some musical theater critique, but her lack of knowledge in this area is unbelievable. Her constant "Here, let me tell you what I think was going on at this point" grows tiresome as well. Still, there's no denying his life has been fascinating, and this book serves as a good rainy day reader.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Beezer on November 7, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I would have liked to know this was a reissue. However, having missed it the first time around, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's not gossipy, but intimate and thorough about his early life and work. A "must read" for any Sondheim fan.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 29, 1999
Format: Hardcover
As a Sondheim addict, my hopes for this new biography were high. Unfortunately, they weren't met -- not even close. As has been stated in other reviews, there is little new here, very little insight; Seacrest does talk to a number of interesting people from Sondheim's past, but the passages she chooses to use are ho-hum at best. Perhaps most off-putting is Seacrest's almost unbearably dry writing style. The fact that she could take a subject like Stephen Sondheim and make him boring to read about has to be one of the new wonders of the world.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 12, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This was worth reading for the insights Sondheim provided into his work and for the numerous interviews conducted in its writing, but I wish someone would tell Ms. Secrest that the numerous analogies she draws between Mr. Sondheim's life and classical literature are both pretentious and overdone. What's the point you're trying to make Meryle? I'm sure it's not how well read you happen to be. And one other thing: being a homosexual does NOT mean that everything you produce artistically is colored by your sexuality. Couldn't she think of any thing else to say that was relevant? I guess not, but this book is worth reading for die-hard Sondheim fans.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Mysterymaven on July 30, 1998
Format: Hardcover
According to Meryle Secrest, Stephen Sondheim's favorite subject is ambivalence. If Secrest intended to provoke this very reaction in the reader, she has succeeded admirably. Any Sondheim aficionado will be grateful for the first five chapters detailing Sondheim's childhood, school years and early musical compositions. Subsequent chapters primarily contain previously available information about his mature musicals, but only occasionally treat the reader to additional personal details or insights into the character of this most private artist.

Unfortunately, the book never offers any original insight into Sondheim's work and fails to communicate any of the visceral excitement his musicals have created on the stage. In fact, the reader begins to doubt that Secrest has ever seen a Broadway or West End production of a Sondheim musical. I vividly remember the original Broadway productions of "Company" and "Follies" as two of the most exciting, scintillating and boldly original theatrical productions I have ever seen. One would hardly guess this from Secrest's dry summaries. Her descriptions of these two musicals make them sound as dreary and tedious as Sondheim's harshest critics would have one believe.

Overall, the book has a rambling, disjointed quality which proves the New York Times' recent assertion that publishers no longer bother to edit manuscripts in an era when cost cutting and speed reign supreme (apparently even at the venerable house of Knopf). The book ends abruptly, topped off with a dollop of dimestore psychoanalysis.

In addition, the book contains numerous factual errors. Secrest states that "Company" won seven Tony Awards.
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