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Stephen Sondheim: A Life Paperback – June 8, 1999

3.5 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From the Inside Flap

In the first full-scale life of the most
important composer-lyricist at work in musical theatre today, Meryle Secrest, the biographer of Frank Lloyd Wright and Leonard Bernstein, draws on her extended conversations with Stephen Sondheim as well as on her interviews with his friends, family, collaborators, and lovers to bring us not only the artist--as a master of
modernist compositional style--but also the private man.
Beginning with his early childhood on New York's prosperous Upper West Side, Secrest describes how Sondheim was taught to play the piano by his father, a successful dress manufacturer and amateur musician. She writes about Sondheim's early ambition to become a concert pianist, about the effect on him of his parents' divorce when he was ten, about his years in military and private schools. She writes about his feelings of loneliness and abandonment, about the refuge he found in the home of Oscar and Dorothy Hammerstein, and his determination to become just like Oscar.
Secrest describes the years when Sondheim was struggling to gain a foothold in the theatre, his attempts at scriptwriting (in his early twenties in Rome on the
set of Beat the Devil with Bogart and Huston, and later in Hollywood as a co-writer with George Oppenheimer for the TV series Topper), living the Hollywood life.
Here is Sondheim's ascent to the peaks of the Broadway musical, from his chance meeting with play-
wright Arthur Laurents, which led to his first success--
as co-lyricist with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story--to his collaboration with Laurents on Gypsy, to his first full Broadway score, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And Secrest writes about his first big success as composer, lyricist, writer in the 1960s with Company, an innovative and sophisticated musical that examined marriage à la mode. It was the start of an almost-twenty-year collaboration with producer and director Hal Prince that resulted in such shows as Follies, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, and
A Little Night Music.
We see Sondheim at work with composers, producers, directors, co-writers, actors, the greats of his time and ours, among them Leonard Bernstein, Ethel Merman, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Robbins, Zero Mostel, Bernadette Peters, and Lee Remick (with whom it was said he was in love, and she with him), as Secrest vividly re-creates the energy, the passion, the despair, the excitement, the genius, that went into the making of show after Sondheim show.
A biography that is sure to become the standard work on Sondheim's life and art.


From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Meryle Secrest was born and educated in Bath, England. She has written biographies of Romaine Brooks, Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, Salvador Dalí, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Leonard Bernstein.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Delta; 1st edition (June 8, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385334125
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385334129
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,934,720 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Secrest has written a book on Sondheim that skims the surface and gives a broad overview. It rarely has insights, however, except a few "anaylses" of the musicals themselves that often border on the ludicrous (such as how many references to S&M there are in his works). There are misspellings of people's names, wrong dates, and some confused plot descriptions as well. But most of all, she seems too polite and distanced from her subject, offering facts but not insight or exploration. I'm not asking for National Enquirer-style dirt, but there is more on the inner-workings and intrigue of such works as "Merrily" in Craig Zadan's "Sondheim & Company," which unfortuantely is out of print, I believe. Furthermore, Secrest is often a confusing writer. She switches pronouns without always making it clear who is now doing the talking, or includes an out-of-context quote without explaining its meaning or context. She also repeats herself in several spots, making me think she revised one segment while forgetting what she had written just a page later or earlier. In short, this book needed an editor, as well as a more probing and insightful author. Most biographies suffer from excessive speculation. This one has just the opposite flaw.
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Format: Paperback
The prospective purchaser of "Stephen Sondheim: A Life" is likely to be misled by this remark: "people seem to be missing the point--this isn't a critical biography, but a personal one". In fact, until she undertook to write it, the author of this book had no personal or professional relationship with its subject whatsoever. It is a thing anyone sufficiently motivated could throw together, and I can't in good conscience recommend it. I can and do recommend Craig Zadan's "Sondheim & Company", and for those interested in musical theatre in general, Richard Rodgers's "Musical Stages" and Alan Jay Lerner's "The Street Where I Live".
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By A Customer on June 14, 1999
Format: Paperback
It's very sad to see Craig Zadan's "Sondheim & Company" out of print and in its stead this plodding pastiche. Ms. Secrest has no training in, experience with, or especial knowledge of theatre or music, yet she feels obliged to bore us with her theatrical obiter dicta, to critique each of Sondheim's works. Ms. Secrest has no training in, experience with, or especial knowledge of pschology, yet she feels obliged to psychoanalyze her subject. The result is not enlightening.
recommended: PENTATONIC SCALES FOR THE JAZZ-ROCK KEYBOARDIST by Jeff Burns.
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Format: Paperback
If you want to learn about Sondheim's life in detail, this is the most thorough account. Although there are books that are mostly about his work in which you can also find biographical information, this is the first and (thus far) only biography. That's the only reason why I'm giving three stars to this generally shoddy book.
What's wrong? First, there is an astounding number of factual errors.
In addition to the outright errors, Secrest also makes many misleading, imprecise, or incomplete statements. Loose ends and chronological confusions abound.
Some of the people Secrest quotes also make statements that are factually incorrect, and neither she nor her editors (who must take a good share of the blame) caught these mistakes. All of this suggests that she knows little about musical theatre in general or Sondheim's work in particular. She actually gets major plot details of Sondheim's shows wrong. Unbelievable.
There are also numerous places where she makes statements that contradict what she writes elsewhere.
All these problems seriously call into question how much of the material here that isn't public knowledge can be trusted. You end up wondering how someone who is so clearly unqualified persuaded the people at Knopf to give her this assignment, much less how she got Sondheim to cooperate. She must talk well, but she certainly doesn't write well.
Which brings us to the final problem: She isn't a very good writer.
Still, if you want a Sondheim bio, this is it. Since Secrest had access to Sondheim and to many of his friends and associates, I'm sure that some of what she writes is accurate. But if you read this, you should just realize that a good deal of what is here is unquestionably wrong.
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Format: Paperback
Meryle Secrest's book is one of a kind (so far): a story of Stephen Sondheim, the man, rather than simply Stephen Sondheim, the artist. No other book has attempted to do this, and Secrest does a fine job. This book is an absolute feast for Sondheim fans, because the Great Man himself reveals several illuminating insights into his own life, conflicted personality and peerless work. I read the other reviews here at Amazon, and people seem to be missing the point--this isn't a critical biography, but a personal one. And it is one of the very best books written about this enigmatic, thoroughly fascinating man.
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Format: Paperback
Secrest's bio is still unfortunately indispensible for any student of the man behind the musicals, but its plodding style, many irrelevant asides, and total lack of imagination, wit, or geniune personal insight makes it a difficult read. Recommended only for the serious student of Sondheim.
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