If you’re in a bridge tournament and play a Jack – only to see your opponent put a King on the table – you may hear the trick-taker say, “Don’t send a boy out to do a man’s job.”
That, however, is what The New Yorker did when assigning D. T. Max to interview Stephen Sondheim. Because Max has been forthright in publishing his straightforward transcriptions of five Q-and-As in his book FINALE, we see that he was astonishingly ignorant about so much of Sondheim’s life and career.
Max admits up front that he was neither critic nor maven – “just a listener.” He’s apparently been a very casual one, for his unfamiliarity of the territory shows that he hasn’t remotely done enough listening, let alone researching.
We lose confidence in both him and his editor at Harper on page 15. There the first official chapter is dated “January 2016” but the first sentence starts “So one day in January 2017.”
Would you expect that by the third interview Max would be asking, “You’re a teenager in what decade?” Considering that Google now offers “about 5,990,000” Sondheim entries, many of them must list March 22, 1930.
“I’m sorry not to know,” he admitted. Your readers are sorry, too, D. T.
Max didn’t know that Sondheim had expanded “The Glamorous Life” for the film version of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. He hadn’t heard of FORUM’s well-documented torturous tryout in DC and had no idea when ASSASSINS was produced. That famous story of Katharine Hepburn reacting to Sondheim’s late-night composing? It has “around 40,500 Google” references, but Max missed around 40,500 of them.
Given that 15 months passed between his first and second interaction with Sondheim, wouldn’t you assume that he’d be so embarrassed by what he didn’t know that by Round Two he’d have spent endless hours learning all he could so he wouldn’t again come across as an ignoramus?
Not at all. After Sondheim complained that cast albums must be made quickly, an informed interviewer would have seized the chance to hear what Sondheim had to say about the famous COMPANY session and Elaine Stritch’s problems – if he knew about them. Here’s betting that Max didn’t.
Still, we must admire Max for saying an honest “I don’t know” when Sondheim asks if he’s aware of certain properties (such as SHADOW OF A DOUBT). Many in his position would lie, bluff or nod to indicate knowledge. Sondheim, we read, was very indulgent with him, as if he came to terms long ago with people a third of a century younger than he who can’t be expected to know much.
What Max doesn’t know is less flabbergasting than his apparent lack of curiosity involving BUÑUEL, the musical adaptation of THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE and THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL that Sondheim was creating with book writer David Ives.
If you were interviewing Sondheim and he mentioned that they had “started another thing and then dropped that because another show was being done that had a vaguely similar notion,” wouldn’t you ask what it was?
Max didn’t. Three months later – in July 2017 – Sondheim even more specifically referred to that aborted project, which had been scuttled by a show that had “only lasted two days.” Once again, Max didn’t ask what it was. Did Sondheim literally mean “two days”? KIMBERLY AKIMBO reminds us that “no one gets a second chance in life,” but Max did – and still he didn’t ask a question or two.
Only by Interview Four did Max’s curiosity finally rise to the point where he decided to ask about that original project. Better late than never, yes – but better earlier than late.
After Sondheim said that “I was going to be a contestant on The $64,000 Question” if he could name “ten out of the fourteen movies that John Ford had directed between STAGECOACH and THE SEARCHERS,” wouldn’t you ask how many, if any, he was able to get?
Instead, Max said, “I love THE SEARCHERS.”
The interview isn’t about you, D. T.
Max also lacks historical context. When Sondheim mentioned that he had attended the first birthday party for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF – which would have been on or around September 22, 1965 – an interviewer who knew his stuff would have asked Sondheim how he felt at being at such a celebratory event during the month that DO I HEAR A WALTZ? was closing.
After ANYONE CAN WHISTLE and WALTZ, did Sondheim doubt or fear that he’d ever have another hit, or even another production? As it turned out, after that party Sondheim wouldn’t have a new musical on Broadway for another 55 months. How discouraged was he, if at all? Considering that his opening song for the 1966 TV musical EVENING PRIMROSE included the phrase “If you can find me, I’m here,” did he think anyone would ever be interested in looking for him? Inquiring minds want to know.
We’re lucky that Sondheim on his own offered information we may not have heard before. See what line he inspired in the book of GYPSY. (Considering what he felt about his mother, no wonder he did such a good job with Rose’s lyrics.) He tells why the John Doyle revival of PACIFIC OVERTURES dropped “Chrysanthemum Tea.” A funny story involves his going to a gym when it was across the street from his home but once the gym moved, he made no effort to find another one. Sondheim also revealed the occupation he would have chosen had he been born decades later. The adjective he used to describe his feelings for Facebook yielded another word that begins with F.
And speaking of profanity, Sondheim mentioned that “Krup you” was not his first choice when writing WEST SIDE STORY. There was Max’s opening to ask, “Now that time has passed and profanity rarely now evokes outrage, do you ever think of rewriting and giving the Jets and Sharks more realistic words than ‘bugging’ and expressions than ‘the spit hit the fan’?”
And despite being warned in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (which Max established that he knew) that the tritest of questions is “What comes first – the music or the lyrics?” – he asks it. We’d understand if he’d couched it with “Forgive me, for I know in MERRILY …” he might have got a smile out of Sondheim (and us).
But the worst lost opportunity, which would make any serious musical theater enthusiast shriek as shrilly as the whistle that starts SWEENEY TODD, came after Sondheim mentioned Galt MacDermot.
“He wrote TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA. The one with John Guare. The one that won the Tony.”
Yes, the one that beat out FOLLIES. Don’t you want to know what Sondheim felt about that, even in 2017? We can guess that Max would, too, if he’d only known the results of the 1971-72 Best Musical Tony race. Inferring that he didn’t doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Sondheim would eventually decide that he didn’t want Max to write a piece on him. Could Sondheim’s real reason have been that he feared Max’s ignorance would result in a feature riddled with errors and omissions? Max’s theory on why Sondheim killed it: “Ambivalence was as prominent part of his character as the characters he created.”
That’s a terrific sentence that demonstrates Max’s abilities as a fine and tasteful writer. He noted that the way Sondheim signed each “S” in his name greatly resembled to “two treble clefs.” At a PEN event-cum-concert that honored Sondheim, Max inferred that “this is an ordinary occurrence for him – to hear his own music as if it’s wind in the air.” Add to these strong perceptions (“People who are interviewed often settle on a shtick, a way just to get through it”) and skillful euphemisms (“his mother’s character is not something Sondheim is open to discussing”). He did wonder what feelings Sondheim had when “people interrupt his conversation with ‘I-once-met-yous.’” He’s not afraid to ask tough questions (“Do you think about death a lot?”) and his knowledge of the nuts and bolts of musicology is impressive as well.
Max gives us some nice nuggets, too. Sondheim seemed to enjoy saying that he “lived my entire life in 20 square blocks.” He relates Sondheim’s disdain for a certain lyric in KISS ME, KATE as well as his favorite line in MERRILY’s “Opening Doors.” We appreciate Sondheim’s wit when he wryly commented on a school project that Alexander Gemignani had written. He gave us some favorable opinions on Scott Rudin, although he did insert the word “volatile” in the midst of his compliments. We also learn that Sondheim loved THE WAY OF ALL FLESH as much as Ilona’s optometrist Paul.
So, just as we’re appreciating all those, Max also shows that he doesn’t have the ear to determine perfect rhymes from false ones. After Sondheim says, “Some people think ‘phone’ and ‘home’ rhyme,” Max says, “And you don’t?”
After Sondheim gave a great many reasons why perfect rhymes are essential to musicals, wouldn’t you ask why he’d been so enthusiastic about HAMILTON, which has many false rhymes?
Sondheim’s explanations apparently fell on tone-deaf ears. Some time later, Max wrote Sondheim and asked if “cavil” rhymes with “Advil.”
Sondheim’s response? “You must be kidding.”
Although we can give Max credit for being self-aware enough to admit that “Maybe I was the wrong man for the job,” we must give him no credit for seeming to lack any inclination to learn more about his subject during the 26 months that he dealt with him. By the time that Sondheim mentioned E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and our interviewer didn’t recognize the name, we have learned that D.T. Max not only doesn’t know Yip; he doesn’t know zip.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon. See him do his one-man show PETE’s THEATRICAL ADVENTURES for free on Feb. 19 and 26 at 4 p.m. at Theatre 555 at 555 West 42nd Street; make a reservation at [email protected]