An evening with George Gershwin, as his dear friend Oscar Levant remarked, was a George Gershwin evening, but the collected lyrics of Stephen Sondheim (though disguised from the casual browser by their Dr. Seuss titles) are more than a lavish display of talent. His explanations of why he wrote a lyric the way he did, why he rewrote it, and what he thinks of other lyricists are, as he says, the collected wisdom of a master craftsman. But are they not also the defensiveness and vindictiveness of someone who wants the last word? No one could deny the first, but readers who are not members of the Sondheim fan cult may see more than a few signs of the second.
As Sondheim should know by now, describing oneself as "meticulous," as he does several times, is asking for trouble. He stumbles as early as page 6 of volume one, boasting of his rhyme of "California" and "Ochi chornya." He was beaten to it, however, by Ira Gershwin (Girl Crazy, 1930), who included it in a book Sondheim has read. The lapse of memory would matter less if he hadn't called Gershwin's work "convoluted" and "rhyming poison." His essays on Lorenz Hart, Alan Jay Lerner and Noel Coward are similarly, in the word he uses for Coward's output, "disdainful." Any teacher, as he describes himself, points out flaws, but kindly old Professor Sondheim (who says he would never criticise living writers, it's so ... hurtful) doesn't want to just pass on his knowledge to the young but to enroll more members in his club.
Along with explaining his shows so he can get credit for his intentions, he writes as if the flaws of other lyricists overshadowed, indeed poisoned, everything good about them. He is forming, for his acolytes, their opinions of several of the men with whom he is often – unfavourably – compared. But the section on West Side Story doesn't mention how Sondheim thought up "Gee, Officer Krupke." Could it have been Coward's "Three Juvenile Delinquents" of seven years earlier? Sondheim's lyric is a hundred times better, but doesn't Coward deserve at least a nod for the idea?
Though Sondheim explains that Assassins is, apart from one brief passage, "perfect," Sweeney Todd better fits that description. The passage in that case is at the end, when the cast points at the audience and denounces them as Sweeneys, not only overstating but undercutting the point of the play. When a character in Assassinspoints a gun at the audience, when they are told, in "Anyone Can Whistle," that they're indistinguishable from lunatics, it's clear what Sondheim thinks of them. In volume two, he says that some criticisms of volume one are not worth a response, but he will answer those who objected to his comments on Coward – their anger is "understandable." There's a word (or several) for someone who thinks his condescension more gracious than silence.
This arrogance/bitchiness/narcissism permeates and spoils much of Sondheim's work. Music is as much of a language as words, says Sondheim, so listen to a form he uses over and over – a solo, duet or ensemble number whose long lines end in a harshly emphasised masculine rhyme; the song ends with a short line of one-syllable words (the prologue of The Frogs, which ends, "We start;" the museum number in Sunday in the Park with George, which ends, "The state of the art!" "Could I Leave You?" in Follies). At times that ending is simply a flourish, a "ta-da!" that delights us with its cleverness the first time we hear it, and in the second such song, though perhaps not so much in the third song where he uses it, and by the fourth song. ... At other times, the line bustles along, simmering with resentment, then explodes in anger that he flings at the unloved audience.
These tantrums are often entertaining; Sondheim's other characteristic use of one-syllable words is merely embarrassing. A sort of fairy godmother appears at the end of Sunday to tell the troubled hero, "Anything you do,/Let it come from you./Then it will be new." Or consider the wisdom of "There's a lot to do,/But you'll see it through/If your road stays true." Both could have come from a lesson plan in teaching self-esteem to four-year-olds. The latter is in fact from one of the four versions of Sondheim's musical about the Mizner brothers. Each is carefully presented here, so that we may follow every step of the creative process, such as his three versions of a wife's smirking reference to her husband's penis.
Ever since Company, Sondheim complains that his work has been called "cold" by critics who know nothing about music and who are made uneasy by his brilliance. Actually, these detractors have been kind. The word that better suits Sondheim's work once he cut free of equally gifted collaborators is "nasty" or "ugly." Sondheim is full of hatred (when he isn't expressing its obverse, a bully's sentimentality), and he wonders why audiences have stopped liking him? We're not so dumb.