Alex Beam

Stephen Sondheim — he’s still here

Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim waves after accepting the Edward MacDowell Medal for lifetime achievement at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., Sunday. Sondheim’s work includes “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “A Little Night Music.”
Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe
Sondheim’s work includes “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “A Little Night Music.”

Six years ago I wrote a bizarre column expressing the hope that three people would live forever: Michael Dukakis, the writer Jan Morris, and Stephen Sondheim. Behold the talismanic power of the columnist! Each of them lives, breathes, and — I hope — prospers as I now write.

Last Sunday was Stephen Sondheim appreciation day at the MacDowell Colony, the famous arts retreat in Peterborough, N.H. With a blue sky — never write “azure” when you can write “blue” is a Sondheim-ism — cool breeze and perfect sunlight. It was indeed “the most beautiful day in history,” as Frank Rich told the assembled crowd. The former New York Times drama critic, who had panned a couple of Sondheim musicals in his time, came now to praise the unrivaled master of America’s native art form; “No other culture, and that includes Britain, has ever come close to matching it.”

It seemed as if everyone on the podium and among the 2,000 or so attendees felt a direct connection to Sondheim. Rich reviewed the Boston tryout of “Follies” for the Harvard Crimson, and received an encouraging note from the composer-lyricist. MacDowell President Susan Austin recalled her parents hauling her off to some odd play about a painting, which became one of her favorite musicals, “Sunday in the Park with George.”


Similarly, a friend dragged me kicking and screaming to the opening run of “Pacific Overtures” in 1976. Holy cow. To have written one play like that would be a lifetime accomplishment. To have written, what — 10? 15? — plays like that? Words fail me, as they so rarely have Mr. Sondheim.

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MacDowell Chairman Michael Chabon indulged us “raging Sondheimians” as we lavished ovation after ovation on our hero. The 83-year-old Sondheim, resplendent in a tatty sportcoat, chinos, and muddy brown Merrell slip-ons, had journeyed north from his New York lair to receive the MacDowell Medal, never before awarded to a star of musical comedy.

Chabon, a successful novelist in real life, bears a separated-at-birth resemblance to the Atlantic magazine writer Corby Kummer, another raging Sondheimian. Many years ago Kummer approached Sondheim and expressed his undying admiration for the blindingly talented music man.

Sondheim’s response: “You’ll get over it.”

Sondheim has a dark side, all right. He is hard on himself, and hard on others. In his memoir, “Finishing the Hat,” he writes that “Do I Hear a Waltz?”, his collaboration with Richard Rodgers, “shouldn’t have been written in the first place.” When Stephen Sondheim doesn’t like you, you know it. His disdain for Gilbert and Sullivan operettas is legendary. “It baffles me when I hear an audience laugh at a Gilbert and Sullivan song,” he wrote. And don’t get him started on Noel Coward, “the master of blather.”


Sondheim famously unloaded on the American Repertory Theatre’s re-staging of “Porgy and Bess,” accusing director Diane Paulus of “willful ignorance” in reworking elements of the classic opera. In a lengthy letter to The New York Times, Sondheim also trashed singer Audra McDonald, one of his most faithful interpreters who appeared in a lavish PBS 80th birthday tribute to the composer. “If he likes something, he’ll send you a note,’’ she commented at the Provincetown Art House last month. “And if he doesn’t, he sends a note to The New York Times.’’

You know what they say: Genius doesn’t care who owns it.

In brief remarks on Sunday, Sondheim flirted with the distinction between being a genius, like Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky, and being “merely” gifted. Picasso and Stravinsky produced brilliant works through the last days of their lives, he said. He seemed to be asking out loud if the same could be said of himself. I think the answer is yes.

Jan Morris, one of my other would-be immortals, once decried the “nightmare hiatus” of being alive. “Surely the only logical response would be to stand on a bridge and scream? But no, self-deception sees us through.” I think that’s a line Stephen Sondheim could have written, and probably did.

At birthdays, Poles sing the song, “Sto lat,” wishing for 100 years of happiness and good health. And a second hundred for you, Stephen. After all, you’re still here.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.