Stephen Sondheim may have written some memorable songs that lifted people’s hearts, but the composer-lyricist had a quick temper when it came to criticizing his work, according to the author of a new book.
Paul Salsini, former editor-in-chief of Sondheim reviewan American quarterly magazine dedicated to the composer, recalled how the author of I Feel Pretty and Everything’s Coming Up Roses became angry in 1996 after reading criticism in the publication.
This particular edition covered his lesser-known musical Passion, staged at the Queen’s Theater in London after its success on Broadway. The article acknowledged that although British critics generally praised Sondheim’s musicals, their mixed responses to Passion had varied from describing it as a “piece of the heart” to giving it the new title of “Songs to Cut Your Throat By”. The newspaper’s own reviewer thought it was “a little embarrassed, frequently seeking your approval and acceptance”.
Enough was enough for Sondheim, who took out his anger on the newspaper’s editor.
“To my surprise, Sondheim didn’t wait to write,” Salsini said. “He called. He was furious and he started right away. I tried to answer, but he kept interrupting me, ‘How could you print that? You didn’t quote the other reviews accurately. This review wasn’t fair. Did the reviewer even see the show in New York? [Your writer] has no reference for writing about musical theatre.
When Passion opened in London in 1996, two years after Broadway, it was a big deal, Salsini said. London critics had always loved Sondheim’s shows and this show was expected to be unanimously acclaimed. To the surprise of many – including Sondheim – that was not the case.
“So when the Sondheim review ran an account that had reservations, he was, in a word, furious. We had spoken on the phone before, but it had always been pleasant. I don’t think anyone has ever reported Sondheim’s anger before. I don’t mean it was frequent, but it shows that artists can be deeply protective of their work.
The magazine bore the composer’s name but Sondheim was not formally linked to the publication. Salsini remembers trying in vain to soothe him: “I couldn’t believe he was fuming – and that’s the only word for it. He later wrote to apologize for his behavior on the phone, but not for what he said.
Salsini thought it was a “balanced” article on a musical adapted from Ettore Scola’s Italian film Keen of love, with a London production featuring Michael Ball. Audiences clearly enjoyed it, as it ran for 232 performances. He tried to point out to Sondheim that the review was citing both positive and negative responses, that the reviewer had seen the New York staging twice – even while being moved to tears – and that they were certainly qualified. to review musicals, having been a theater manager for a time. national theater and deputy director of an opera company.
Sondheim, who died last November at the age of 91, made a name for himself in 1957 as a lyricist for Leonard Bernstein for West Side Story. He became the most important composer and lyricist in modern Broadway history and was crowned with awards including an Oscar and a Pulitzer. Salsini recalls the dispute in his forthcoming book Sondheim & Me: Revelation of a musical genius, published by Bancroft Press. It chronicles Salsini’s relationship with Sondheim during his 10 years as editor of the Sondheim reviewwhich he founded in 1994.
Salsini shares his experiences interviewing and corresponding with the American composer, including dozens of notes from him on articles: “Sondheim read the magazine from cover to cover, perhaps circling or underlining words or sentences, correcting or clarifying something that others might overlook. Every word had to be clear and correct. He obviously considered the Sondheim review important as this would provide a permanent record.
Sondheim was surprised by the magazine’s creation, writing to Salsini: “I am flattered, embarrassed and delighted by your interest. I can only hope there will be enough news to warrant posting.
Ironically, the Queen’s Theater was renamed the Sondheim Theater by its owner, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who acknowledged its influence on musical theater as having “no equal”. It is among historic theaters that Michael Coveney, former theater critic of the Observerincludes in his new book on Mackintosh theatres, Master of the house.