Friday Book: The smartest man on Broadway

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: A LIFE

BY MERYLE SECREST, BLOOMSBURY, pounds 17.99

A FUNNY thing happened to Stephen Sondheim on the way to manhood. He met Oscar Hammerstein, a family friend who also wrote the words to Oklahoma!: not a bad start for the leading composer-lyricist in musical theatre today. But, as Meryle Secrest points out, Hammerstein's encouragement was not the only intimation of musical immortality for young Stevie. His father taught him piano, and, by the time he had learnt to shave, Stephen was writing satirical songs.

A much more important factor was a privileged but emotionally barren childhood. In her compendium of Sondheim's life, Secrest starts off with his grandparents: eastern European Jews migrating to New York, surviving economic slumps, making dosh. Born in 1930, Sondheim was brought up in a swanky New York apartment, but had no brothers or sisters and, most of the time, no parents.

The biggest blow came when he was 10. His father traded his wife, the pretentious and vain Foxy, for a younger model, and Stevie was left with a mother who never got over the divorce. He is convinced that she used to flash her knickers and her cleavage at him. On this point, Secrest's bits of explanatory psychobabble are less revealing than her anecdotes of Sondheim's later "Don't touch me" attitude to women.

Although, when told about his homosexuality, Princess Alexandra once called him "rather a sad man", Sondheim does not appear to have had many problems with his sexual, as opposed to his emotional, orientation. In a series of sensitive discussions with Secrest, he talks frankly about his feelings of remoteness as well as his romantic crushes.

Secrest thinks that Sondheim's turbulent relationship with Foxy explains his wary attitude to women, though it probably just explains his general fear of any kind of emotional exposure. When Sondheim fell deeply in love with Peter Jones, a much younger man, it was a year before he gave him his private telephone number. At this stage, Sondheim was no callow youth: he was in his sixties.

Clearly, Sondheim has been married to Mummy for his much of his life. Only once their relationship degenerated - when he was in his forties - did he make a decisive break with Foxy. Even then, it took a letter from her which said "The only regret I have in life is giving you birth" to provoke the split. Ever dutiful, he gave her $80,000 a year until she died in 1992, but he claims not to know where she is buried.

A privileged childhood devoid of warmth, buffs might argue, helps if you want to write cool, satirical musicals. In Company, the lyrics of "The Little Things You Do Together" include "the children you destroy together" and "getting a divorce together". But other aspects of Sondheim's personality are equally important. In Sunday in the Park with George, the protagonist, the painter Georges Seurat, is shown as a rebel against artistic convention, sharing with his creator a fierce desire to break new ground. Sondheim's work depended as much on iron wit as on irony.

Not for him the schmaltz of traditional musicals, though his lyrics can be lush. Just think of "Someone in a Tree" from Pacific Overtures or "Tonight" from West Side Story. With a public persona that is suave and sophisticated, Sondheim has invariably attracted labels such as "smart" and "intellectual". But few writers have worked so hard at their talent. With painstaking detail, Secrest shows just how much perspiration went into his 800 songs.

After Sondheim met Hal Prince at a 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein premiere, they created the concept musical - though Secrest has little to say about how culturally innovative this was. The wicked mix of parody and social comment in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, and Assassins does not escape her, but her commentary on creativity can seem a bit trite.

Behind the mask of urbane artistry, Secrest reveals an unhappy man. Colleagues call him "surly", "bitter" and "aloof" - and perhaps other things that cannot be printed. He used to drink heavily, though his drug-taking (pot, LSD and coke) was more discreet and controlled than his temper and his tears. Predictably, success made him quite the poor little rich boy

Based on solid research and extensive conversations with Sondheim, his family, friends and lovers, this is the best book about his life so far. Some of the anecdotes may be familiar, but - with its scores of telling photographs - this is an amusing and readable account of the man and his work. Odd to think that Sondheim, a 68-year-old master musician, still can't whistle. His 1964 flop, Anyone Can Whistle, gives us a clue as to why. The heroine is unable to whistle because she won't "lower my guard" and "learn to be free". Come on, Stephen: there's still time to learn.

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