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.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower