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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews


By Drew Pisarra

  How Sondheim Found His Sound, University of Michigan Press, 336 pages $18.95

Biographers have looked to unearth the inner lives of their subjects by delving into a variety of source materials: diary entries, mailed correspondence, work histories, family bloodlines, interviews with friends/colleagues, and even places of residence, religious practices, psychiatric records, and handwriting analysis. Yet in How Sondheim Found His Sound, musicologist Steve Swaynel looks to reveal the man behind the music by way of an unexpected body of information: the composer's extensive record collection. The idea isn't as crazy as it first seems. Think about it.

People define themselves nowadays by the music they listen to as much as by the clothes they wear, the politics they espouse, or the careers they pursue. With the advent of the Ipod and the MP3 player, some people are literally carrying the soundtracks of their lives in their pockets wherever they go. If nothing else, Swayne should be given his due for approaching a canonical Broadway composer (of whom much has been said repeatedly) from such an oddly of-the-moment angle.

No. The problem with How Sondheim Found His Sound isn't its starting point.

(That may be its one inspired idea.) The problem is where the author takes his concept from there. Swayne's specious analysis-a quantitative comparison of recordings by different if that were the whole story-is built on a logic that might make sense on paper but falls apart on further inspection. Take a quick look at your own stack of vinyl or your towers of CDs or your playlist of downloaded songs and you'll swiftly see the fallacy in such a line of thinking. For while we have a tendency to gravitate towards certain artists time and again, we're also likely to be deeply moved, sometimes in life-altering ways, by a single, isolated work of an artist who otherwise holds little interest for us. According a composer represented by fewer recordings with lesser meaning may be an obvious choice but it isn't a particularly agreeable one. Tack on a lot of technical jargon and you've just alienated the lay readers willing to forgive your flawed methodology.

Swayne also has a hard time selling his notion of Sondheim as the torch-bearer of a very Eurocentric tradition in music. It's not that it doesn't ring as true. It's that his theory is tainted by an antiquated disdain for pop, a now-expired nostalgia for the concert hall that reads as snobbery-an anachronistic belief that something must be highbrow to merit being called art. This is a biographer deadest on celebrating the man behind Follies, Passion, and Sweeney Todd without acknowledging the groundwork that got him there, through his collaborative efforts as a lyricist on Gypsy, West Side Story and Allegro. Swayne isn't the first to distinguish between Sondheim the lyricist and Sondheim the composer-lyricist but to belittle lessons learned from Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein, and Richard Rodgers is to bypass some pretty major influences. (It also seems improbably that director Harold Prince didn't push him in new directions at times, too!) Yes, the musicals in which Sondheim serves as both composer and lyricist are distinct from the other, earlier ones but divorcing the artist from his apprenticeships downplays the formative years that should be this book's core. If Sondheim found his sound at a different time-like his undergraduate years at Williams College which the hagiography fixates somewhat exhaustingly-Swayne never comes close to proving so.

We can thank a handful of anecdotes from Mary Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein for giving us at least a glimpse of how Sondheim's career and artistry were shaped during the early years. Most of the time, Swayne's really just rhapsodizing about the great one. It's as if he ultimately perceived Sondheim as an autochthonous being, a prophetic creature<


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