The Writer Cannot Share Himself
Sondheim's interviews; Cynthia Ozick on the secret self
Note: I have a short story in Electric Lit! Actual fiction! It’s good, I promise.
Half-way through the documentary Six by Sondheim, someone named Jarvis Cocker shows up and tries to ruin the movie. The film is an almost unending montage of intercut Stephen Sondheim interviews—from the earliest days of his career to his time as elder statesman—and uses his half-dozen best-known, or at least most-telling, tunes to anchor the narrative. One of those is “I’m Still Here” from the musical Follies. Based explicitly on the career of Joan Crawford—silent film star, talkie crossover, and eventually B-movie, camp queen—it’s a poignant show-stopper. And for some reason the filmmakers decided a humanoid cooked in England for too long, “Jarvis Cocker,” should cover it.
Besides the basic travesty of Cocker’s performance,I was annoyed that such a clueless, artless decision was allowed to interrupt an otherwise excellent documentary. Sondheim is a wonderful talker, a concise and crystalline thinker, and apparently he’s been somewhat consistent on his themes for decades. The editing of the documentary, minus the musical numbers, is top-notch. Long-haired, middle-aged Sondheim will begin a thought that, as if it was always the same sentence, is continued by clean-cut, twenty-five-year old Sondheim. Grandfatherly, playful Sondheim often completes the sentence, and just as seamlessly.
The ability to discuss your work in a way that is helpful to an audience, much less other writers, is a gift completely separate from writing well. Few people possess both, in my opinion. Sondheim’s knack is that he keeps it simple and concrete. To be clear, I’m no playwright. I have written exactly one play that was staged, and (ahem) that was in high school. But one afternoon, my best friend, Christy Kleppinger, and I were working out the dialogue, and we kept talking about how it needed to be written less extravagantly than a novel’s. “So much of the shape and meaning,” we discussed, “will come from the performance.” It was probably my only moment of precocity, and even that was because Christy was there to have it for me.
Sondheim, gratifyingly, discusses a similar need to underwrite lyrics. He compares the experience with poetry because an interviewer accuses him of being a poet. This is a charge no one takes lightly. Greater reputations than his have been ruined by such slander. But Sondheim’s not a poet. A poem, he explains, is a feat of concentration, a sort of impossible container crammed (if so desired) with meaning. A good poem is generally meant to be encountered without other distractions, and often only shows its full range after being re-read.
In other words, the experience is exactly the opposite of watching a musical. An actor’s expressions, the lighting, the staging, to say nothing of the music, all distract from the words. A lyric must land on the first try, and in real time. It’s excellence is always partly a matter of restraint. I feel like this insight is even more profound from the man who wrote, “It's a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension.”
Six by Sondheim’s focus on his craft—centering both his songs and his discussion of the music—is the best way to get anything authentic about the writer on screen. An inner authenticity, I mean. Sondheim’s gotten used to discussing his work and like any famous creative has his standby anecdotes. But even his childhood is about the family connection with the Hammersteins. That is, it’s not really about his family, but his writing.
I want more documentaries like this, please. The approach reminded me of an essay by Cynthia Ozick I read last year. She’s writing about fame and the ability to know authors, and uses a short story by Henry James to make her point. I’m going to quote at length:
In a story called “The Private Life,” Clare Vawdrey, a writer burdened by one of those peculiar Jamesian names (rhyming perhaps not accidentally with “tawdry”), is visible everywhere in every conceivable social situation. He is always available for a conversation or a stroll, always accessible, always pleasantly anecdotal, never remote or preoccupied. He has a light-minded bourgeois affability: “He talks, he circulates,” James's narrator informs us, “he's awfully popular, he flirts with you.” His work, as it happens, is the very opposite of his visible character: it is steeped in unalloyed greatness. One evening, while Vawdrey is loitering outdoors on a terrace, exchanging banalities with a companion, the narrator steals into Vawdrey's room —only to discover him seated at his writing table in the dark, feverishly driving his pen. Since it is physically impossible for a material body to be in two places simultaneously, the narrator concludes that the social Vawdrey is a phantom, while the writer working in the dark is the real Vawdrey. “One is the genius,” he explains, “the other's the bourgeois, and it's only the bourgeois whom we personally know.”
Part of that description could be thrown at Sondheim, or at least laid at his feet, particularly the “always anecdotal.” In fact, I was almost amused by the easiness of Sondheim’s manner. His work is light enough when it wants, but I think “unalloyed greatness” about covers his oeuvre. Having known his greatness first—his musicals—encountering the public man is, well, almost a lesser experience. The interviews are fun, insightful, but it’s still his social ghost.
It’s also why Jarvis Cocker deserves jail time. The songs are Sondheim’s truest public self, and deserve their fullest expression.
Let me repeat: I have a short story in Electric Literature. It is a good story, and I hope you read it.
In January, my review of a book on technological fatalism went up in The New Atlantis.
I just finished James Salter’s Don’t Save Anything. I want to think about him some more, and maybe read a few of his novels, but the collection was simply his bread-and-butter journalism, and I really enjoyed it. He’s a dogged, athletic sort of romantic, an aesthete even, that I feel is a less common type than it used to be.
I love you all.
It really is terrible. He sounds bad. It’s supposed to be some kind of purposeful parody, I think, a sort of cheap, lazy subverting of expectations. The scene features closeups of aging beauties, all meant to be effected by this moron on stage. Why anyone would attempt to transfer the emotion from singer to audience is beyond me, and a total bust. Although to be honest, a few of the other inserted covers were also… not of the highest quality.
I found this piece in the excellent collection Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, & Other Literary Essays.