The Arty Semite

Stephen Sondheim’s Little Night Kvetching

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

Culminating over a year of 80th birthday commemorations, the Broadway lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim recently had a Manhattan theater named after him.

Yet a self-annotated volume of his lyrics due out October 29 from Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, “Finishing the Hat,” still seethes with resentment. The book’s subtitle, “Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes,” should have the words “grudges” and “whines” printed in boldface capitals.

Reviews from decades ago still gall Sondheim, who attacks such now-venerable critics as Robert Brustein (dismissed as “condescending”) and Arlene Croce, with the latter accused of displaying “willful bitchery or natural stupidity” in a review of “Follies” (1971). Even more surprising is Sondheim’s contempt for past great lyricists, such as Ira Gershwin, “too often convoluted and [Lorenz] Hart too often sloppy.” Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics, according to Sondheim, “lack energy and flavor and passion.”

Claiming to favor simplicity and hate fanciness, Sondheim repeats an inexactly translated statement by a German Jewish poet: “In the words of Else Lasker-Schüler,” Sondheim writes, “‘A true poet does not say ‘azure,’ a true poet says ‘blue.’” In a letter to the half-Jewish German dramatist Carl Zuckmayer, Lasker-Schüler (1869 –1945) actually stated: “Azure? A poet writes ‘blue’!” (“Azur? Ein Dichter schreibt ‘Blau’!”)

Even without the tacked-on pompous formulation about a “true poet,” Lasker-Schüler’s informal edict ignores Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem “L’Azur” (Azure) which concludes: “I am haunted. Azure! Azure! Azure! Azure!” (Je suis hanté. L’Azur ! l’Azur ! l’Azur ! l’Azur !) With a type of sloppiness for which he reproaches Hart, Sondheim may have found this Lasker-Schüler paraphrase in a 1998 New York Times Book Review article by California-born novelist Leslie Epstein, (Epstein repeated the same formulation in the May 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest Magazine.)

Sondheim is cogent on the genesis of his own works, but not as a guide to others’ creations. He claims hyperbolically that Oscar Hammerstein’s “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’” sounds as “profoundly simple… as something by Robert Frost.” Mark Eden Horowitz’s “Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions,” the second edition of which appeared on September 28 from The Scarecrow Press, is a more reliable guide to the composer’s influences than “Finishing the Hat,” which asserts bafflingly that “Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ is more interesting than Verdi’s,” and confesses that Sondheim’s favorite example of the musical form of theme and variations is Rachmaninoff’s syrupy “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”

Watch Liberace playing Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” with appropriate buffoonery.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Stephen Sondheim, Stephane Mallarme, Shakespeare, Robert Brustein, Else Lasker-Schüler, Oscar Hammerstein, Arlene Croce, Alan Jay Lerner, Verdi

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.