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
) 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
, 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
. 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.
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.
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