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Sondheim & Me: Revealing a Musical Genius
by Paul Salsini
Book Review by Rob Lester

"I read to dream./ I read to live/ In other people's lives ..."

Admirers of Stephen Sondheim's work can dream of living in author Paul Salsini's life when he received letters, phone calls, faxes, and packages from the composer/lyricist whose career he chronicled in The Sondheim Review, a serious-minded quarterly magazine he founded and edited for a decade (1994-2004, before handing the reins to his assistant). Its first cover story concerned the then-new musical Passion. If you are among those of us who read and re-read the periodical, you may find yourself disappointed to find more "déjà vu" than "new" in the newly published Sondheim & Me: Revealing a Musical Genius.

Many articles and visual elements are simply reprinted, in whole or in part, and all that takes up a vast percentage of the book, without much in the way of latter-day reflections or sidebars to benefit from 20/20 hindsight. Salsini lets the recycled material "speak" for itself, beyond set-ups in a no-frills "And then we published ..." style. Those not previously acquainted will be the grateful ideal readers for this guided tour.

"And I know things now/ Many valuable things/ That I hadn't known before ..."

Still, even some of them will recognize basic information, oft-touted opinions, and anecdotes. For every familiar tale I read patiently (like the one about a dialogue rehearsal that inspired writing "Send in the Clowns"), I impatiently wished in vain for unique content from telephone calls that might have stuck in the memoirist's mind. He casually drops the fact he talked to Sondheim on the phone "for hours" a couple of times and even dangles the words "thank goodness for tape recorders" and then changes the subject.

The presumed pièces de résistance reprinted are letters from the songwriter himself–with reactions, corrections, and encouragement–but they tended to be oh-so-tersely businesslike and similar to each other. His penchant for colorful language, elaborating, and generous illustration was reserved for the included interviews with him that suggest the command and precision that show and shine in his lyrics.

Mr. Salsini's own verbiage has an uncluttered, direct style and an even-handed, controlled tone. Facts fill his head, but upon it is the rarely doffed Reporter Hat. It's a familiar fit for this man whose decades-long day jobs were in journalism: writing, researching, editing others' work, and teaching. He comes off as modest, methodical and measured. I felt frustrated at times, hoping for some more unguarded emotion. Could he have been such an unflappable captain of a sturdy ship with nearly uninterrupted smooth sailing? I wonder.

Let's back up to the backstory of when the admiration began.

"Something familiar, something peculiar ..."

The fact that the name of the composer-lyricist seemed only vaguely familiar in 1965 to Mr. Salsini may strike us as peculiar now–and might have surprised the theatre-aware even back then, post-West Side Story, post-Gypsy, post-A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (and shortly after the short-lived Anyone Can Whistle). While seeing Do I Hear a Waltz? that year, his impression of the songs with music by Richard Rodgers was that they "were pleasant enough." It took seeing and being floored by Follies to make him a permanent follower. (Yes, he'd missed attending Company or being converted by its attendant hoopla. Living in Milwaukee likely contributed to being/feeling out of the loop in those pre-internet days.)

"'So Many People' in the world/ Don't know what they've missed."

By 1984, as he recounts engagingly, Sondheim's Johnny-come-lately fan did know what he'd missed. Although he'd devoured the history and scoured resources for everything he could find, he couldn't find much about the score of the Broadway master's unproduced show, Saturday Night from 1955. "So Many People" had appeared on a live tribute's recording, but what about the rest? He wrote a letter to ask and was understandably delighted to get a note in return from the man himself, along with a cassette tape of material from Saturday Night the week Sunday in the Park with George's last songs were being created (it was already in previews, with problems). And so began years of communication, with the magazine to follow–but not for another full decade.

"Bit by bit, 'Putting It Together'..."

Putting together the magazine involved recruiting staff to do essays, news, reviews, interviews with recent and past cast members and other Sondheim associates, etc. Representative contents include: Sondheim's answers to questions posed by the magazine's writers and readers; excerpts from Into the Woods' reviews and analyses of its musical components; a look at the challenge of presenting the works in other languages (with examples of those approximations beside their literal translations); and remarks by Follies cast members (recollections, after a quarter of a century, of some who originated the roles, while a later issue quoted those who were set to open in the 2001 revival, about finding their own ways with the characters).

"It's not that nothing went wrong:/ Some angry moments, of course/ But just a few ..."

They had a "Good Thing Going," but there were a couple of incidents when things did not merrily roll along. Sondheim took issue with one issue's unflattering review of the London mounting of Passion and his displeasure spurred him to vehemently vent by telephone. Salsini stood up for the reviewer's qualifications and right to express his opinion, but edits out the names of staff members when they are criticized, replacing their names with "xxxxxxxxxx." Another time, the songwriter was upset about unauthorized inclusion of certain lyrics of his, mostly dating from his school days. With some diplomacy but a lingering sense of being gobsmacked, the memoirist puts these in perspective as formidable fits that were exceptions to the rule. Grudges were not held on either side.

"Give us more to see ..."

Scrapbook-style visual content in the book takes up a mighty total of 64 consecutive pages, 15 full-cover reproductions of the quarterly's covers, posters from shows, photos of people in the orbit (posed, candids, performance shots), scans of notes from the man who was the raison d'ĂȘtre, and more. There's a puzzle, Hirschfeld caricatures, and pics from lower-profile regional productions.

"Bring down the curtain, la la la!/ Bring up the curtain, la la la!/ Hi-ho, the glamorous life!"

Another multi-page feature, as an appendix, is a "Chronology," in list form, of dates when the curtain went up for original and key revival productions, sometimes with its stars or a quick fact mentioned, plus notations indicating dates of concerts, awards, films debuts, books published, and when projects destined to be abandoned were begun, even start dates for schools, piano lessons, and earliest jobs. There's even a list of 20 questions designed to stimulate discussions for book clubs. (Sample: "Sondheim went out of his way to send Salsini items such as sheet music and videotapes. What do you think this says about his character?") There's also an index, but it's far from comprehensive and it is not of use if you want to determine if/where something or someone is among the subjects in those 64 pages of captioned pictures, as those pages aren't numbered. Some names referenced in the text don't appear at all in the index and some folks mentioned more than once in the chronology don't get all the relevant pages indicated. And there is some atypical alphabetizing.

"People make mistakes ..."

The errors in this book by an expert on his admired subject are mostly about spelling. While it's acceptable to spell one of our favorite words two different ways when it's used as a common noun, when venues choose and use the spelling Theatre, as many do, we should do the same when referring to them. But this book consistently uses the "Theater" spelling for the Winter Garden Theatre, as well as the Goodman, Bridewell, Plymouth (now the Schoenfeld), Signature, York, Broadhurst, and, um, the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. The very first orthographic oops is on page one, where Sondheim neighbor Katharine Hepburn's first name is written with one of the spellings others with the same name use. Others with spelling problems: Sian Phillips becomes Sean; Cameron Mackintosh is presented as MacIntosh; Laurence Guittard gets a "W" instead of the "U" in his first name; on the back cover, one of the pull quotes praising the book comes from fellow writer Peter Filichia, but his surname gets an accidental extra letter.

"'The Road You Didn't Take' hardly comes to mind. Does it?"

The book's subtitle announces its premise and promise about Revealing a Musical Genius, and should belatedly do that for those readers who are late to the party and the vast body of evidence. Sondheim & Me reveals less about the discreet gentleman to the right of the ampersand. Paul Salsini traveled to many places to see new productions and other events, though, unless he's holding out on us, meeting his hero face to face at last apparently never happened. Not to even mention seeking, missing, or purposely avoiding the opportunity strikes me as a glaringly intentional absence. Did he have regrets, belated realizations after passing the Sondheim Review torch, missing what was left behind and any behind-the-scenes challenges? There's nary a hint of what never made it to print. Does he miss his massive collection donated to a library? Were there symptoms of Sondheim Obsession Withdrawal Syndrome? Such questions remain unanswered. Always sorry, always grateful, we Sondheim mavens may regret what's not addressed, but can be thankful for the preserved and reignited memories.

Sondheim & Me: Revealing a Musical Genius
By Paul Salsini
221 numbered pages, plus 64 (unnumbered) pages of illustrations
Bancroft Press
Publication Date: October 18, 2022
ISBN: 978-1610885928
Available in Hardcover, Kindle Edition, and Audible Audiobook.