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Some Achieve Greatness

Even a genius like Stephen Sondheim is bound to have some false starts in his career before hitting his stride. logo
The young Stephen Sondheim
(Photo detail from cover image of PS Classics CD
Sondheim Sings, Volume II: 1946-1960)
On the occasion of Stephen Sondheim's 76th birthday, may I share something with you that I discovered while reading Steve Swayne's How Sondheim Found His Sound? I became overwhelmed on page xiii. That's right: The book hadn't even officially started, and already I was full of admiration. On pages xiii through xvi, Swayne gives "A Chronology of Sondheim's Creative Career." It starts with 1946 and Sondheim's contributions to By George (the show he wrote with two other classmates at the George School), then continues right through 2004, concluding with The Frogs and Opening Doors.

I was particularly intrigued by what I found on the first three pages of the five-page list. I learned that in 1949 -- when Sondheim was 19 -- he finished All That Glitters, a musical version of Kaufman and Connelly's Beggar on Horseback, but also tried his hand at adapting a novel called Bequest. According to Swayne, the first went unproduced and the second was "abandoned." The following year, Sondheim tried adapting Mary Poppins as a stage musical. (Not a bad idea, is it?) "Abandoned," writes Swayne -- the same word he uses to categorize Sondheim's 1951 stab at musicalizing Maxwell Anderson's High Tor. But Sondheim did complete an original musical titled Climb High in 1952. Its fate? "Unproduced."

Granted, all four shows were spurred by Oscar Hammerstein II's urging Sondheim to complete four "exercises": adapting a play he liked, a play he didn't like, a novel or short story, and creating an original. Although one could argue that Sondheim never wrote these with an eye toward production, you and I know that there must have been plenty of times while he was working on at least one of them when said to himself, "This one's gonna get on."

In 1953, Sondheim had his first professional success, selling scripts to the Topper TV series; but Swayne mentions that he additionally wrote a television special called The Man with the Squeaky Shoes, which also went "unproduced." A 1954 television musical called The Lady or the Tiger? "Unproduced." The same year came Saturday Night, and just in case you don't know what happened to that, I'll tell you that it was not abandoned and was indeed produced -- 43 years later! Swayne then informs us that Sondheim spent 1955 working on a musical version of The Madwoman of Chaillot but that he ultimately "abandoned" it. (I wonder if Jerry Herman ever wishes he'd done the same with his version?) Sondheim also took time out to compose a song for a play called A Mighty Man Is He, which didn't make it to Broadway until 1960 -- and, when it did, the song wasn't used in the production.

In 1956, however, the song that Sondheim wrote for the play The Girls of Summer was used in that production and thus marked his Broadway debut. While that alone is quite impressive for someone who was just 26, he also spent that year writing a song for I Believe in You, a TV play that didn't get produced; and a musical, The Last Resorts, which he eventually (can you guess?) "abandoned."

Of course, Sondheim's fortunes improved considerably the following year, when West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden on September 26, 1957. He also spent part of that year working on a musical version of Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon, which he later "abandoned." The following two years, he spent time writing two musicals intended for TV production, The Jet-Propelled Couch ("abandoned" in 1958) and Happily Ever After ("abandoned" in 1959).

Then came Gypsy, and then all the other shows that we know and love. Swayne, cataloguing from 1960 through 2004, lists 45 shows to which Sondheim contributed, ranging from incidental music (Invitation to a March) to stock shows (The World According to Jules Feiffer) to doctoring assignments (Hot Spot) to TV musicals (Evening Primrose) to films (The Last of Sheila) to scores for films (Stavisky) to plays (Getting Away with Murder). Of those 45, a staggering 42 were produced -- 19 of them on Broadway. For those who are interested in the projects that didn't come to fruition, Swayne lists 1968's The Exception to the Rule (sometimes called The Race to Urga and A Pray by Blecht), for which he wrote lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's music (John Guare was the book writer); and The Thing of It Is (1969), a movie that went unproduced -- the same fate that Singing Out Loud met in 1992.

So, the first 11 years that Sondheim was trying to write professionally and the years after West Side Story were markedly different for him. The lesson to be learned here is that more than a decade passed before Stephen Sondheim became an "overnight success." Others have had to wait even longer for success. I can still see Sylvia Herscher, Jule Styne's right-hand woman for decades, smiling as Bo Goldman won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "I knew him when he was Robert Goldman, one of the writers of First Impressions," she told me -- a fact that I didn't know at the time. Then, with a smart but serious look on her face, Sylvia added: "I'll tell you, in this business, you've got to have resiliency. Talent's terrific, but resiliency is what you really need."

Each and every one of you budding writers out there need to be reminded of that. How many times I've talked to writers who tell me about that wonderful, promising show they're writing, and then, when I see them a few months later, they're sheepishly admitting that they've dropped the property. That's when I tell them, "This set-back is going to add drama to your biography. Take a look at any successful writer's track record, and you'll see plenty of early failures." What I didn't quite realize until I read Steve Swayne's chronology of Sondheim's career is that it's also true of the musical theater's reigning genius.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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