Past Articles

What's New on the Rialto

How Sondheim Found His Sound
Steve Swayne
Book Review by George Reddick

More ink has been spilled in discussion of Stephen Sondheim and his works than perhaps any other composer of Broadway musicals. It's no wonder, given Sondheim's uncontested position as our greatest living artist of the form. Though few of Sondheim's Broadway shows elicited unanimous praise or substantial runs in their original productions, the prolific and audacious nature of Sondheim's work, particularly during his great reign of Broadway with Hal Prince in the 1970s, remains unmatched. Sondheim also represents one of our last living connections to the Golden Age of Broadway; Sondheim was famously taken under Oscar Hammerstein II's wing at an early age, and in his time collaborated with such giants as Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Jule Styne, and Richard Rodgers.

Writings on Sondheim and his work expand beyond countless magazine and newspaper articles to include a quarterly magazine, The Sondheim Review, now in its eleventh year of publication; Mark Horowitz's Sondheim on Music, which consists of interviews with the composer and an extensive index of his works; Meryle Secrest's biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life; Joanne Gordon's analytic Art Isn't Easy: The Theatre of Stephen Sondheim; Stephen Banfield's more musically focused Sondheim's Broadway Musicals; Martin Gottfried's coffee-table book Sondheim; and Craig Zadan's formative Sondheim & Co; originally published in 1974.

With such a formidable number of works on the subject already in print, it might be difficult to believe that there is much, if anything, left to say about Sondheim. However, Steve Swayne, a Dartmouth professor of music, has found just that and his new book, How Sondheim Found His Sound is exactly what its title suggests. With the composer's cooperation, Swayne has delved into Sondheim's record collection, college studies, and much more, to attempt to map the composer's musical development. It's an interesting journey, for the most part.

The strangest thing about Swayne's book is that, despite the living subject's cooperation and presence in the project, it comes off as a book about a dead guy. The analysis is sometimes quite filled with conjecture and supposition. Intriguing though some of the theories may be, Sondheim is alive, and it's sometimes hard to shake the feeling that it would have been easier just to ask Sondheim directly or to take him at his word, rather than to second guess the composer's own ideas about his development. But Swayne actually takes pride in contradicting Sondheim's own stories and beliefs about his development and tastes. He troubles such familiar stories as Hammerstein's influence on Sondheim's early life and work with the contention that it's an incomplete story; Hammerstein, after all, was not a composer, so young Sondheim's musical development must have been influenced by other factors.

Swayne's project certainly does touch on new ground, even for Sondheim enthusiasts. Seeing the way that Sondheim catalogs his record collection is as interesting as seeing what items are actually in the collection. And, for the first time, some of Sondheim's earliest works like By, George and All That Glitters are discussed in some detail. Swayne also devotes a chapter to Sondheim's interest in films, though he says surprisingly little about film composers that Sondheim credits as heavy influences, such as Bernard Herrmann, focusing instead on overall genre-influence from film noir and the nouvelle vague. Swayne does not comment on Sondheim's well-known general dislike of movie musicals, nor does he discuss much of Sondheim's own work in film, though he does cover the influence of Alain Resnais, who hired Sondheim to score his Stavisky. Swayne posits that Sondheim's interest in films led him to compose with cinematic staging in mind. Though Sondheim himself agrees with this idea, the argument in this chapter is a bit tenuous. But once again, it is the insight into Sondheim's taste, in this case in obscure movies, that provides the most interest.

Exactly how much interest readers will have in Swayne's book will have some relation to their familiarity with music theory and composition as well as the history and literature of music. The first several chapters of the book attempt to find musical similarities between Sondheim's own compositions and that of the composers he has cataloged away in his vast record collection. To readers unfamiliar with the works to which Sondheim's are being compared, the analysis will be of less interest. Nevertheless, there is quite a bit of insight and new information about Sondheim's influences. Ravel, Satie, and particularly Hindemith are cited as early influences.

In a discussion of Broadway composers who influenced Sondheim, Swayne discusses "The Big Six": Kern, Berlin, Rodgers, Porter, Gershwin and Arlen. The Big Six, Swayne tells us, are "American songwriters who created the golden era, if not of Tin Pan Alley, then certainly of Broadway and Hollywood." Sondheim himself cites Arlen as a particular influence. Swayne's dissection of each composer's work is an interesting study, though the somewhat literal comparison of Sondheim's work to the styles of these greats is not always convincing. The comparisons of Sondheim's early classical work to classical composers is an easier discussion to have because Sondheim didn't develop very far as a classical composer himself and his classical influences are more directly, and amateurishly, apparent. As a Broadway composer, his composition grew more and more fluid and sophisticated, and his development and its relation to specific composers becomes harder to track. Also, in this chapter, Swayne discusses the shows that played that Sondheim could have seen as well as the shows that he is on record as having definitely seen. Though it is likely that Sondheim himself won't remember every show he has ever seen, it still seems somewhat odd to speculate and draw conclusions from these speculations.

All in all, Swayne's scholarly work is extremely, one may almost say ostentatiously, researched. With extensive endnotes and a highly detailed bibliography, this will be an excellent source for students and academics. It is generally very accurate, with only a minor error notable here and there. Perhaps the most amusing (and minor) occurs when Swayne corrects Sondheim, inserting a (sic) into a quote in which the composer refers to a song in My Fair Lady as "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man"; Swayne identifies the correct title of the song as "A Hymn For Him." Nice try, but as Albee's George would say, "if you want to get all cute about it," it's actually "A Hymn To Him."

Despite such minor quibbles, Steve Swayne's achievement is certainly commendable. Amid the ever-more-crowded bookshelf of writings on Sondheim, Swayne's analysis of Sondheim's development as a composer stands up as a unique and worthy study. Though it is in part highly specialized, the language is not alienating, even to the musical novice. For the Sondheim aficionados, there are new ideas and new information, and for others, Swayne's How Sondheim Found His Sound will provide an intriguing introduction into the mind of arguably the greatest and most influential living Broadway composer.

How Sondheim Found His Sound
Steve Swayne
Hardcover. 328 pages
University of Michigan Press
Publishing date: September 2005
ISBN: # 0472114972

Past Rialto Columns

Search What's New on the Rialto

Privacy Policy