SONDHEIM FROM A TO Z By Peter Filichia
Three million, seven hundred and ten thousand.
That’s how many entries Google has for Stephen Sondheim.
With that much interest in Broadway’s greatest composer-lyricist, THE STEPHEN SONDHEIM ENCYCLOPEDIA had to be written.
Rick Pender’s 636-page tome will be released mid-April from Rowman & Littlefield. It’s just another honor for the man who’s received more awards than there are people in Satartia, Mississippi (pop. fifty-three, if you’re scoring with us) as well as the only person who has a major theater named after him in both London and New York.
This book is a must for the millions who are just learning that A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC isn’t just a Mozart piece to those who even have a copy of the home movies Sondheim made when he was an unpaid assistant on the 1953 film BEAT THE DEVIL. For us, having every piece of arcana of Sondheim the composer, lyricist, playwright, screenwriter and teacher isn’t enough; we must also have the work of Stephen Sondheim, cinematographer.
Rowman & Littlefield first approached Mark Eden Horowitz, the erudite author of SONDHEIM ON MUSIC, to create the encyclopedia. Alas, he had promised Oxford University Press a book that collected THE LETTERS OF OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II, so he recommended Rick Pender.
Could Pender have ever imagined he’d be the choice when he was growing up in Chardon, Ohio? His introduction to Sondheim came casually, through WEST SIDE STORY and its soundtrack album. “I especially loved ‘Something’s Coming’ with its lyric about the ‘one-handed catch,’” he says, with decades-long admiration oozing from his voice.
The film of FORUM didn’t do much for him (or for very many others), but a mid-seventies production of COMPANY at Baldwin Wallace University: Conservatory of Music as well as A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at a Canton community theater made him pay more attention.
In 1989, a surgery confined him to bed; although similar circumstances had Fosca deciding to read, Pender instead chose to listen to A COLLECTOR’S SONDHEIM. That turned his admiration into full-blown astonishment and admiration.
And yet, in 1995, when Pender went to Chicago, he didn’t see the Art Institute’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” as many Sondheim fans have. He was there to visit his son Geoff, a scenic carpenter at The Goodman Theatre. But after he sauntered into its gift shop, he spotted a copy of THE SONDHEIM REVIEW, a terrific magazine with marvelous reviews, information, disclosures and perceptions on the man who, if all his Broadway accomplishments weren’t enough, also co-authored the greatest mystery movie ever made: THE LAST OF SHEILA. (Watch THAT one and try to figure it out as you go along.)
So, after Pender had seen the 1997 Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park production of SWEENEY TODD, he thought that THE SONDHEIM REVIEW might like a critique. Its editor did, and from then on, every time the Playhouse staged a Sondheim musical, Pender filed a report for the magazine.
In 2004, he became the magazine’s editor-in-chief. One of the perks was speaking to the man himself. “Whenever I asked Sondheim for an interview,” Pender notes, “he made time.”
Pender continued the previous editor’s practice of listing upcoming professional and amateur Sondheim productions. He noticed that INTO THE WOODS and INTO THE WOODS, JR – the version for youngsters that simply offers the first act – have more productions than all other Sondheim shows put together – “probably because of its foundation of fairytales,” he surmises.
So does that make it the greatest Sondheim musical? “That depends on your definition of greatest,” he says. “SWEENEY TODD is probably his most admired. A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is beloved for its wonderful waltz melodies. Many are drawn to ASSASSINS because it’s so inventive and unusual. As for his most intellectual and thought-provoking, I’d nominate SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, which, of course, won the Pulitzer Prize.”
Writing the encyclopedia took him about twenty months (or, to calculate it in Sondheim-time, approximately COMPANY’s original Broadway run). He started in January, 2018, finished in October 2019, and would have seen it launched last year had it not been for the pandemic.
Helming the magazine until it ceased publication in 2016 allowed his many opportunities to form opinions on Sondheim’s work. He fully understands why so many brilliant songs haven’t become mainstream, household-name standards. “Sondheim’s songs are dense and character-driven, so they don’t immediately register with listeners (or they only do so over time). They’re created for specific moments, scenes, characters and themes. But more than anything, I believe it’s his profound grasp of human emotions — love, loss, alienation and irony – that makes his humanity always shine through.”
Of course there IS the hit song that begins “Isn’t it rich?” and has made Sondheim richer. “But even ‘Send in the Clowns’ doesn’t make much sense out of context,” he says. “Sondheim has said that a better title for the song might have been ‘Send in the Fools,’ for what Desirée is saying is ‘Aren’t we foolish?’ But he’s also said that ‘clowns’ is a theater reference: ‘If the show isn’t going well, let’s send in the clowns’ – in other words, ‘Let’s do the jokes.’ Also, that song has a simple, memorable melody that Sondheim wrote for Glynis Johns’ limited vocal range. At a very basic level, ‘everyone’ knows this song because it’s had pop renditions by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins.”
That brings us to the famous criticism “There’s not a tune you can hum” that Sondheim himself sharply parodied in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG: Insists Pender, “Many of his songs have well-known melodies you CAN hum: ‘Comedy Tonight,’ ‘Anyone Can Whistle,’ ‘Broadway Baby,’ ‘Losing My Mind,’ ‘A Weekend in the Country,’ ‘Not While I’m Around,’ ‘Not a Day Goes By,’ ‘Sooner or Later.’”
He finishes his list not because he’s out of examples, but because he wants to spread a fun fact: “In ‘Opening Doors’ (in which MERRILY’s two songwriters are discouraged from writing the way they’d like), Sondheim was poking fun at George Abbott, the director of FORUM, who felt the score didn’t have songs one could hum.”
So for THE STEPHEN SONDHEIM ENCYCLOPEDIA, he was the man for the job – literally. “I assumed that I’d be editing contributions from many writers, which is usually the case with encyclopedias. But Rowman & Littlefield wanted one writer to come up with 300,000 words,” he says, without a trace of agony.
Not every word is pure Pender; many quotations have been sprinkled throughout. Lest some question his objectivity, Pender says that he “endeavored to reflect the opinions of many others, pro and con, about Sondheim and his creative output. Additionally, I drew from articles I had published in the magazine, representing a broad array of opinions. They include ten essays about some of Sondheim’s most important songs, distilled from exhaustive analyses by Mark Eden Horowitz, each called ‘Biography of a Song.’”
Among those thanked in the acknowledgements is Sondheim himself. This was not a mere kissing of the man’s gluteus maximus. Although some years had passed since THE SONDHEIM REVIEW had shuttered, Pender found his subject again willing to talk and corroborate details. “He always responded quickly,” says Pender, who’s certain of the accuracy of what he was told. “Sondheim’s memory is phenomenal for minuscule details in his distant past.”
The result? “It’s not a coffee table book,” he cautions, “but it should be enjoyable reading.”
I’ve read it, and can assure you that something’s coming; something good. But considering that THE STEPHEN SONDHEIM ENCYCLOPEDIA weighs in at 636 pages, you will NOT be able to make a one-handed catch.
Rowman & Littlefield are offering a thirty percent discount to those who use this code: RLFANDF30. That brings the $135 list price to $94.50 and an eBook at $128 to $89.60. Visit www.rowman.com or call 800-462-6420.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.