New Yorker writer D.T. Max conducted a series of interviews with Stephen Sondheim for a magazine profile that never appeared, except for a couple of Talk of the Town pieces.
Intially receptive to the extensive New Yorker piece, Sondheim eventually turned against its publication, fearing it would expose too much of his private life.
But Sondheim fans can glimpse the late composer's generally warm yet prickly personality in Max's "Finale: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim," a compilation of interview transcripts, along with Max's commentaries.
Recorded at Sondheim's townhome at New York City's Turtle Bay and his home in Connecticut, where the musical theater giant died at age 91 in late 2021, the casual interviews reveal a generous, urbane man who fiercely defends his artistic standards.
Sondheim as if talking to the reader gives engaging recollections of his career as a major figure in musical theater, recalling producers, librettists, actors and the production of shows such as "Sweeney Todd," "Company," "Follies," and "Sunday in the Park With George."
Along with theater lore and gossip, Sondheim discusses his composing techniques, fascinating even for those with little understanding of musical theory. Those in a variety of creative fields can benefit from his artistic practices.
In the most entertaining chapter, Max presents a journalistic account of accompanying Sondheim to a PEN writers organization event where Sondheim received an award, presented by Meryl Streep. In the piece, Streep and Sondheim talk about their long friendship, which began when Streep was a drama student at Yale.
Opening a curtain on the sophisticated social life of theatrical artists, Streep and Sonheim look back on enchanted evenings playing charades and other parlor games, some invented by Sondheim. The interviews disclose that Sondheim delighted in puzzles, and once wrote crossword puzzles for New York magazine.
He also loved old movies, classical show tunes, literature and Broadway plays. He was devoted to working each day. At the time of the interviews, he was working on several projects.
While Sondheim comes across as mainly genial and open, he bristles a few times when defending his rigorous standards, such as always using exact rhymes instead of slant rhymes. He even castigated celebrated lyricists like Lorenz Hart for their inexact constructions. In one interview, Sondheim criticizes Cole Porter for what he considers an egregious line in "The Taming of the Shrew."
Sondheim didn't even like his own lyrics written for Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," believing they were too artificially theatrical.
Max's conversations with Sondheim reveal a man who sought the best in his daily life and his illustrious work. Sondheim's music was his gift to the world.
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