Meryle Secrest, biographer of such cultural giants as Leonard Bernstein, Kenneth Clark, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Salvadore Dali, examines Stephen Sondheim’s rise to critical acclaim in the American musical theater. Quoting extensively from Sondheim and other dramatic and cinematic figures, she portrays Sondheim as a composer and lyricist who succeeded in spite of his dysfunctional family and a theatrical public that was unprepared for the radical changes he made in the musical. While she does not provide scholarly analyses of Sondheim’s works, she does use the scholarship of others to create parallels between Sondheim’s life and his work, which she regards as mostly autobiographical. Sondheim’s early years, she suggests, provided him with the themes of revenge, abandonment, and failed hopes and expectations.
Sondheim’s description of himself as an “institutionalized child” provides the title of Secrest’s first chapter and sets the tone of the book, which treats Sondheim as both victim and victor. The “villain” of Secrest’s book is Sondheim’s mother, Foxy, whom Secrest describes as the prototype of the incestuous mother, domineering, controlling, and overpossessive, especially after her husband left her to marry Alicia Babe, a younger woman. For Secrest, Foxy Sondheim damaged her son’s sense of trust and his “sense of emerging sexuality,” causing him to “maintain a safe psychic distance” from women. Poisoning his image of his father, feigning illness to get attention, and simultaneously criticizing him and acting provocatively, Foxy eventually drove Sondheim to leave her when he was sixteen and to move in with his father. Secrest adds to the image of Sondheim as victim by discussing the implications of his status and place in his father’s New York City household: Because his wife had her young sons with her, there was little room for Sondheim, who slept on the living-room sofa. Since he was a freshman at Williams College and living on campus, Sondheim’s occasional overnights at his father’s house hardly seem to assume the importance Secrest gives them.
If he was an “institutionalized child,” the institutions he attended certainly had a positive effect on him. As a youngster, he belonged to what he called “The Group,” children playing together so that their parents could avoid them; but while he was a bit of a loner, he made friends, enjoyed his success at school, attended summer camp, a military school, a preparatory school, and Williams. At every school he attended, he received some musical training, fostering the musical aptitude Secrest implies was inherited from his father. Intent on linking childhood events to adult successes, Secrest points to his early “ability to identify record albums by recognizing the pattern the words made on the spine”—this she sees as an early alliance between words and music, significant for the future composer/lyricist. While many of her childhood/adulthood links seem to have some merit, this one seems forced.
There is nothing forced, however, in Secrest’s discussion of the role Oscar Hammerstein II played in Sondheim’s life. Hammerstein, described by Secrest as Sondheim’s surrogate father, met Sondheim at the Hammerstein home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the young Sondheim spent some summer vacations. When he transferred from a military school to the George School, Sondheim’s flair for drama flourished. After he wrote By George, a musical review, he showed the script to Hammerstein, who tempered his criticism with advice (songs seamlessly intertwined with action, the necessity of “singable” songs, the balance between saying too much and too little) that Sondheim never forgot. In a sense, Hammerstein also shaped Sondheim’s career by telling him to write three musicals: an adaptation of a play he liked, one of a play he did not like, and one from a novel or short story.
During these years, Sondheim was also writing fiction that Secrest regards as autobiographical. Both “The Brass Goddess” and Bequest concern protagonists who desire to take center stage and whose destructive rage causes them to sacrifice themselves for their art. The most telling comment Secrest offers concerns what she terms the “sexual metaphor of the box tied with red ribbon. ” Although she shies away from an explanation of that metaphor, she does imply that the box reflects Sondheim’s anxiety over a subject she does not explicitly state. The anxiety is, of course, sexual; and Secrest seems to imply that Sondheim’s homosexuality, which is seldom mentioned until Secrest has to deal with his affair with Peter Jones, is the result of Foxy’s behavior, not of a biological predisposition.
Following his theatrical successes at the George School,...
(The entire section is 1962 words.)