A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Broadway

Putting It Together 20, 2000

a revue by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Eric D. Schaeffer and 1999-February at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York, November 21

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim; drawing by David Levine

A few years ago I took a trip to the Galápagos Islands and heard the sad tale of Lonesome George. No one knows how old George is, though he’s clearly getting on in years. George is a giant tortoise of a subspecies found only on Pinta Island—apparently the last remaining Pinta tortoise on the planet. When he was discovered, back in 1971, scientists hoped that a mate for him might soon be located—and that a pair of these creaky, winsome, deliberative creatures, an armored Adam and Eve, would repopulate the world in their own image. No mate was found.

I suppose there are different ways to view George’s fate. He might be regarded as a victor of sorts. These days, as another hell-bent American presidential campaign heats up, we’re repeatedly informed that the goal is to be the “last man standing.” Well, George is the last Pinta tortoise standing. Even so, one imagines it couldn’t be much fun for George to contemplate a day when the last Pinta shell will be as cold and lifeless as the surface of the moon.

A similar ambivalence attends the career of Stephen Sondheim, the Lonesome George of American musical theater. A quarter of a century ago, Leonard Bernstein said of him, “On Broadway, he’s now the most important theater man writing.” Succeeding decades have only confirmed and solidified Sondheim’s position, as an older generation of composers and lyricists have retired or died. He is the unquestioned monarch of an increasingly depopulated terrain.

It’s startling to contemplate how altered is the scene since Sondheim entered it half a century ago. When he graduated from Williams at the age of twenty, in 1950, he already knew what he wanted to do. He’d grown up under the wing of the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, a family friend who served as both mentor and “surrogate father,” and young Stephen quickly gravitated toward Broadway. By 1955 he’d completed his first full-scale musical, Saturday Night, the romantic tale of an ambitious, appealingly slick young man seeking to make his millions as the 1929 stock market collapse approaches. (For complicated reasons, Saturday Night went unproduced, and Sondheim himself eventually dismissed it as apprentice work.* But last summer I caught a resuscitated production by the fine Pegasus Players in Chicago, and was struck by how winning and precociously adroit was this piece of old-fashioned juvenilia.)

Back in 1955, as Sondheim went about plotting and polishing Saturday Night, he must have envisioned himself as laboring in a crowded and illustrious field. Rodgers and Hammerstein were bustling along, with Okla-homa! and South Pacific behind them and The Sound of Music ahead. Irving Berlin, that good businessman whose business was the manufacturing of hits, was still marching off to the office every day. Cole Porter’s greatest—in every sense—triumph, Kiss Me, Kate, was only seven years old and Can-Can less than two. Lerner and Loewe, whose…

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