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“Sondheim & Me: Revealing a Musical Genius,” by Paul Salsini



Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) is one of the most recognizable names among composers of musical theatre, and with such shows as “Company” and “Follies,” he is given much of the credit for bringing musicals out of the realm of pretty music and costumes, into a dramatic form that looks at modern and mature issues. Paul Salsini started out strictly as a fan of Sondheim, after seeing a production of “Follies.” He was already a journalist and editor in Milwaukee, but not a national name. When his fan letter to Sondheim received a typed, signed letter in return, an unlikely friendship in correspondence began.

It was some years later that Salsini decided to start a journal to discuss and critique all aspects of Sondheim’s works, and the Sondheim Review was published 1994-2016, with Salsini serving as editor until 2004. While overall the excerpts from the journal often seem like something written by a true fan, Salsini did not shy away from posting some negative opinions if he was disappointed by a show or performance, or including critical commentary from other contributors. It is obvious from the letters reproduced in the illustrations that Sondheim read the journal, and if he was pleased by something, he would send a brief typed letter about it, but, if he was unhappy or found any small errors, such as the wrong name on a caption or in a story, he would write at much greater length. Salsini never expected to have a publication that would draw this much attention from Sondheim, or from the theatre world in general, but critics and editors in the cities important to the theatre industry subscribed and often offered to write for the journal early on, so it became a quarterly with color photos and covers from important stagings of Sondheim’s works.

Sondheim was Jewish, as were many of his collaborators, such as Leonard Bernstein, Hal Prince, and Mandy Patinkin. Judaism was never the main theme in Sondheim’s works, yet the Jewish sensibilities of debating the meaning of things, and worrying about the little details of life are often present. And while many of his characters seem like they could be Jewish, the only one who unquestionably is, is Paul in “Company,” whose fiancee in the show refers to him as her “very own Jew.” His shows rarely end with a neatly tied up story where everyone lives happily ever after –- more often the ambiguities that drove the plot are still not resolved, similar to the still unfinished story of the Jewish people. It was not until late in Sondheim’s life that Salsini thought to ask him why Judaism was never a central topic in either his shows or his interviews, and Sondheim replied that his upbringing at home was mainly secular and didn’t include regular attendance at any kind of religious services, so, it was not a focal point of his life.

The book covers background information on many of Sondheim’s hit shows, as well as some that are lesser known or were not particularly successful. One of these, “Passion,” resulted in one of the few heated exchanges between the two, when Salsini published detailed criticism of the version of the musical that opened in England. Sondheim was quite upset to read about it, and there were a few agitated phone calls and e-mails. Salsini never figured out why this one thing in particular incensed Sondheim to that extent –- they never did discuss it in later years. “Passion” is still a difficult musical for audiences, somewhat in the style of an opera with dialogue, lacking familiar tunes that one is likely to remember, and so it is rarely staged. Sondheim never stopped exploring the boundaries of the musical theatre form, even as he reached the age of 90. He talked about a new musical he was writing when on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, only two months before his death at age 91. On that show he said the title would be “Square One,” though in another interview that year, he perhaps jokingly said it would be called “Fat Chance.”

The sixty four page insert of illustrations is one of the highlights of the book, with photographs, letters, theatre programs, and many covers from the Sondheim Review reproduced in color. There are some programs from early productions, including a few from works Sondheim wrote in high school, and which he objected to being brought to the attention of the public so many years later. There are photographs of Sondheim in later life, when he was a celebrity who could fill an auditorium just by sitting onstage in a chair and taking questions.

If you were to read only one book on Sondheim, this would not be it. Sondheim himself wrote a two volume autobiography, and several detailed biographies have been published during and after his lifetime. This is a great supplemental book, with photographs and personal tidbits not available to other authors who never knew Sondheim personally. If you are a Sondheim fan, “Sondheim & Me” will satisfy your curiosity about a more personal side of a musical theatre icon.

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