Cultural Geography and Mutual Enthusiasm: A Late Conversation with Stephen Sondheim
DT Max in Conversation with the Musical Theater Genius Toward the End of His Life
You know how when you meet someone you think you’re going to like, you both first kind of dance around to see if what they read or watch is what you read or watch? The Crown or Squid Game? Audre Lorde or Anthony Powell, that kind of thing? It’s not that you can’t be friends if you disagree over whether Abel Ganz or Dorothy Arzner was the more important early filmmaker, it will just be harder. Well, actually, maybe in fact you can’t.
So that’s what this excerpt from Finale: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim, essentially is. It’s early in our first meeting, 2016. We are at his gorgeous Turtle Bay Manhattan townhouse full of puzzles and mysterious tchotchkes that I intuit are connected to his immense footprint in the cultural world—wooden playing cards, tiny prosceniums sort of thing. We have been given wine and we are testing each other—or maybe, really, he’s just testing me, because after all, he is Stephen Sondheim, the greatest genius of 20th century musical theater. And the townhouse is his.
But that’s not the vibe. This was part of Sondheim’s gift. The vibe is just two people who might like each other, feeling each other out, piano piano, trying to figure out if we do like each other. His list of books is dizzying—Salinger? Ok. Light in August? Ok. But Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh? I still don’t get that one. And he’s gracious about my opinions—and every so often we hit on an obscure gem that we both love and, this being our first time in a room together, we maybe express even more love for it than we might actually feel.This was part of Sondheim’s gift. The vibe is just two people who might like each other, feeling each other out, piano piano, trying to figure out if we do like each other.
The metaphor I use in the book for my conversations with Sondheim is that we both are like guests at a wedding. Someone has seated us next to each other because they think we might like each other. And, when this game of cultural geography is over, I think—OK, hope!—it’s pretty clear we do. –DT Max
DT Max: Are you a big filmgoer?
Stephen Sondheim: Yeah, I grew up on movies. As a matter of fact, in my early twenties, I was going to be a contestant on The $64,000 Question on the subject of movies. The final test before I could be a contestant was to name ten movies directed by John Ford between Stagecoach and The Searchers, out of fourteen.
DTM: I love The Searchers.
SS: That’s on my list of overrated. I like to say to people, “What’s the most overrated book? What’s the most overrated movie?”
DTM: I love that movie! How can you not love that movie? I mean, it’s a free country . . .
SS: I didn’t say I hated it!
DTM: What would your favorite John Ford be?
SS: That’s an interesting question. Grapes of Wrath.
DTM: We’re just different.
SS: I love Westerns! The Searchers has just been overpraised.
DTM: Yeah, but that’s not his fault. You of all people should know that you can’t control if people love something or not.
SS: No, of course not. But if it’s a B+ on my scale and it’s an A+ on yours, that’s all fine, you know.
DTM: It’s also how you see John Ford’s movies. His movies are movies you want to see in a movie theater, because you watch them on any other screen—
SS: A lot of it has to do with spectacle, no question. John Ford does not do intimate movies. I’m not talking about scenery. I mean, Grapes of Wrath is not an intimate movie. It’s a character movie.
DTM: So what’s your most—
SS: Overrated movie ever?
DTM: It’s funny, I was gonna say I think it’s Hitchcock, but I thought you won’t say it’s Hitchcock, because you love Hitchcock.
SS: Oh, I love good Hitchcock. Shadow of a Doubt is one of my top ten movies, and Vertigo is the most overrated piece of shit.
DTM: Is that because it’s overpraised?
SS: No, it’s because nothing happens in it, and it’s endless, and it’s slow, and one more shot of James Stewart driving the car through the empty streets of San Francisco…
DTM: I feel that way about most of Hitchcock, but I’m also kind of weird. I tend to like the less-loved sibling.
SS: That’s slightly perverse; I know that.
DTM: It is. I can’t help it! And with writers I’m the exact same way. With Steinbeck, if you put a gun to my head, I would not reread Grapes of Wrath. I would rather take the bullet.
SS: I gotcha. I gotcha.
DTM: But if you gave me those late books, when he was probably an alcoholic, and it cost him so much just to get anything out… Why don’t you read much?
SS: I think it’s partly because I was brought up exposed to movies, which, first of all, you don’t have to do any work, and second, they go by fast. And that may be my attention-span problem. But to this day, it takes me about three times as long to read the New York Times as it does you.
DTM: But you do poke around.
SS: I just am a very slow reader, and therefore I never got into the habit. And boy, I took every novel course at Williams College—which is where I went—on American novels, and European novels, and curiously enough, none of them really made me want to read another one. Except I took a six-week course on Ulysses, and I thought, “Ooh, well, this is different. This is different!” Because of course there’s Ulysses and there’s everything else. But I love The Way of All Flesh.
DTM: Samuel Butler?
SS: Mm-hmm. I thought it was screamingly funny.
DTM: I haven’t read it in years.
SS: You know, I haven’t either, but I thought, “Oh, this is working.”
DTM: Funny as in “accidentally funny”?
SS: No, no, witty! And then, the first half of Light in August. I thought, “OK, now I get it.” It’s weird, because obviously I’m really interested in language, and I love style, and I love all of that. But what happens—and it’s unfair—is, if in the second paragraph of a book I think a sentence is out of style, I think, “Oh, fuck this.”
SS: That kind of impatience.
DTM: Well, lyrics have to be so tight.
SS: That’s right, ’cause sixty words is your limit, so to speak.
DTM: It has to be “Flight 18”; it can’t be “Flight 19.”
SS: Yeah, exactly. I’m used to that compression. When I have enjoyed a book, I enjoy the expansion, and I remember reading The Caine Mutiny, not in college but on an airplane, and it was much longer, but by page twenty, I got into what was happening. And I knew exactly what I was reading. I knew I was reading a high-class potboiler, but I got into it. And I used to read detective novels, because I like puzzles. But I just have trouble reading. And I have tried to train myself—I really did. I read everything that the college offered, and a few books got me. A Passage to India got me.I took a six-week course on Ulysses, and I thought, “Ooh, well, this is different. This is different!” Because of course there’s Ulysses and there’s everything else.
DTM: That’s a beautiful book.
DTM: Have you ever seen the manuscript? It was written with an unusual colored ink. It’s physically very striking to look at.
SS: Have you ever seen the Brontës’ writing? Jesus. I’ve never read their books, but I went to the Morgan—
DTM: If you’re in England, you should go to their house. You’ve probably seen the portrait, the one with the boy—he made the portrait, and he’s the one who’s whited out of the portrait.
SS: Oh, oh, oh! Branwell.
DTM: Yes, Branwell, right!
SS: I’ll tell you, the book I have most enjoyed—at least, if you said, “Quick, what’s the book you’ve most enjoyed?”: Catcher in the Rye. Again, I started the first sentence, and I was crying. I just thought, “Oh man, oh man, oh man.” I just think about that. “Old Phoebe, he said Old Phoebe!” I don’t get that from reading. I don’t get it from prose.
DTM: Have you read it since you were young?
SS: No, and I don’t intend to. [Laughs]
DTM: I think that’s smart.
SS: My point is I can get caught by prose, but I have resistance. It’s an unusual book because it can talk to you in a way that almost no—Well, you see what it is, it’s theater. Because it’s a character, and it’s related to plays. I read plays all throughout my teens. Didn’t read any novels, but—
DTM: I meant to ask you—you may have slightly known my uncle. He was roughly your age, and he was a playwright in the Phoenix Theatre group. His name was Jerome Max.
SS: Yes, indeed, I certainly do. And I saw—oh, my memory…
DTM: No, it’s been a long time.
SS: I saw something of his, and/or read it. But he wrote something odd.
DTM: He wrote a number of odd things.
SS: Name me some!
DTM: The first thing he wrote was a play called The Exhaustion of Our Son’s Love, which was very well reviewed. It opened at some theater downtown. The week of the newspaper strike! And this is my uncle’s story for years—but I admired him. That was, in a funny way, the acme of his career. But he told one story—not about you, but about your mother, from years ago.
DTM: No, not that kind of story! I don’t know the context of this. He said that your mother at one point was in the box office at one of your productions. This must be very early—
SS: It’s unlikely.
DTM: Unlikely? Impossible?
SS: Pretty impossible. She wouldn’t go to the box office. But go ahead.
DTM: She wouldn’t have worked in the box office?
SS: Oh no, no…… that would be low-class for her. She’d think, “Those are the grubby workers.”
DTM: I don’t think she did it to fill the job, I thought it was kind of also to connect with you—
SS: Yeah, but that’s my point. She wouldn’t play in the box office. She would have played with either the patrons or a celebrity As George Furth would say, “It doesn’t compute.”
DTM: You know, he was a playwright; he made things up.
[I back down, though I am pretty sure of the anecdote if not of the context. Besides, his mother’s character is not something Sondheim is open to negotiating on.]
Anyway, I’m trying to think of the names of his plays. If you had some connection to the Phoenix crowd—he got very experimental, I think, in interesting and courageous ways.
SS: That’s where I know him from: experimental theater.
DTM: Yeah. But I don’t think anyone ever really—
SS: See, I read reviews like crazy.
DTM: Anyway, I only brought it up because there was that one story that doesn’t compute.
SS: No, doesn’t compute at all. Not my mother! She never hung around the theater. It was completely—
DTM: Well, he died, so I can’t ask him.
SS: There’s no possible way. If he ran into her, I don’t know, at Sardi’s, that would be a different thing.
DTM: No, no—it was his way of showing me how even in the theater when you were a success, you still needed your family, basically. That was the point of the story, maybe. I don’t know.
SS: Really naive.
DTM: Maybe it was his mother.
[Sondheim laughing seems the right note to leave on, and I tell him it’s time for me to go.]
Adapted from Finale: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim by D.T. Max. Copyright © 2022. Used with permission of the publisher, Harper.