ISU Professor's Book Charts Sondheim From Boyhood To Broadway Legend | WGLT

ISU Professor's Book Charts Sondheim From Boyhood To Broadway Legend

Jan 12, 2017

ISU English Professor's new book explores Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim's influences and legacy.
Credit Judith Valente/GLT News

As a teenager, Robert McLaughlin would go to the public library in the small town in upstate New York where he grew up and check out the cast albums of Broadway musicals. 

One of those musicals was Stephen Sondheim's "Company" from 1970. 

"I knew his name from "West Side Story," but I didn't know this musical, "Company." It started with all these voices overlapping, calling out the name of the main character. I'd never heard anything like that. It was one of those moments when your heart goes whoo. And I was hooked from then on."

Now McLaughlin has a new book out that looks at the artist and the man, called "Stephen Sondheim and the Reinvention of the American Musical." 

Despite writing dozens of musicals, Sondheim could never be accused of falling back on the same tired formulas.

His shows range from the operatic "West Side Story" to light-hearted offerings like "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and shows with risky themes like "Sweeney Todd," about a murderous barber on London's Fleet Street, and "Assassins," his musical exploration of presidential killers. 

At age 86, Sondheim shows no signs of slowing down creatively.

"It's hard to stop writing when that's what you've done all your life," McLaughlin said, speaking on GLT's "Sound Ideas."

"In a lot of his interviews, he talks about how hard it is to get old, how long it takes him to walk up the stairs. He says I wish I could retire, but a just can't. I have all these projects that keep speaking to me."

Indeed, Sondheim is working on a new musical, tentatively titled "All Together Now." McLaughlin said it will be a mash up of two films by Luis Bunel, "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie" and "The Exterminating Angel."

Many of Sondheim's shows explore the mysterious landscape of relationships. "Company" is a prime example, McLaughlin said.

"He is tapping into the culture we live in where we are busy all the time and do we ever really have the chance to let another person's story become our story," McLaughlin said.

Sondheim's early life was marked by abandonment. His father and mother divorced when he was a boy. Both parents worked in the fashion industry in New York.

Although he retained a warm relationship with his father, Sondheim moved from New York with his mother, who was bitter and grieving over the divorce, to Bucks County, PA.

"She took out a lot of this (pain)  on young Steve," McLaughlin said. 

At one point, McLaughlin recounted, Sondheim's mother  was having a pacemaker put in and gave him a letter  to read while she was in surgery.

"He was a grown man at that point," McLaughlin said. "And when he opened the letter it said, 'My only regret in life was having given birth to you.'"

The move to Bucks County proved life-changing for the young Sondheim. There, he became friends with the son of the great Broadway composer Oscar Hammerstein, who was a neighbor. The elder Hammerstein became for him a surrogate father.

"He frequently said if Oscar Hammerstein had been a geologist, I'd be a geolist. As it was, he wrote musicals," McLaughlin said.

At age 14, Sondheim showed Hammerstein a musical he had penned.

Hammerstein asked the teen if he wanted him to treat his work as he would any script and score. 

When Sondheim said yes, Hammerstein responded, "This is the worst thing I've ever read."

Then, McLaughlin said, Hammerstein, "started on page one and explained why it was bad an how it could be made better."

The elder composer began giving his protege assignments: write a musical based on a play you admire, a play you think is flawed, a play based on something entirely original.

Sondheim was once given a piece of valuable advice from Leonard Bernstein with whom he collaborated on "West Side Story." It was a project Sondheim at first wasn't sure he wanted to take on.

Bernstein told the young composer: If you're going to fail, fail big.

"That's where he got his courage to be avant garde," McLaughlin said..

As for Sondheim's legacy, McLaughlin said he has set the bar high for composer-lyricists who come after him. 

Ironically, none of his shows were ever blockbuster hits or money-making machines, the way "Hamilton" or "Phantom of the Opera" or even the Disney musical, "The Lion King" has been, McLaughlin said.

Sondheim shows aim to be an "art form," McLaughlin said.

"People inspired by Sondheim are more interested in looking at subjects that might seem off bounds, but if can they find ways to make them sing, they are willing to explore them."