Their Show of Shows

Backstage with a troubled, now legendary Sondheim musical

Last spring, as I left a Chicago theater where a new musical had just previewed, I saw Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the score, walk jauntily down the street with John Weidman, who wrote the book. The musical was called Bounce, but it might as well have been called The New Sondheim Show. Harold Prince, the director, had just ducked into a car after huddling in a hallway with members of the production staff. Everyone looked revved up, ready to spend an hour—or all night—working on the problems the performance had brought out. In show business, this process is synonymous with hell. "If Hitler's alive," the playwright Larry Gelbart is often quoted as saying, "I hope he's out of town with a musical." But Sondheim and Prince, who are both in their seventies, looked positively rejuvenated.

This was, of course, akin to spotting Picasso and Braque on their way to a Montmartre studio to rethink Cubism—though given the relatively modest ambitions of the show, which the collaborators repeatedly said wants to do nothing more than entertain, it was doubtful that Sondheim and Weidman were off to alter the face of an art form. Still, as I watched them disappear into a nondescript hotel, I felt sure they would be making some sort of history.

Thirty years ago, before Sondheim and Prince were faces on Mount Rushmore (as a cast member of Bounce kept calling them in interviews), they were restless men just entering their forties who had achieved an extraordinary amount in less than two decades. They knew every square inch of musical comedy, and they wanted to change it. In Company and Follies, two collaborations that, amazingly, reached Broadway less than a year apart, Sondheim, Prince, and the late choreographer-director Michael Bennett treated subjects that musical theater had never dealt with before—fear of emotional commitment and the rough and tumble of marriage in Company, fear of aging and facing up to the mistakes of youth in Follies—in ways that brought new depth and resilience to a form widely thought to be in its death throes. In Everything Was Possible, Ted Chapin shows what it was like to be around them when they did it.

Sondheim and Prince, the pathbreakers who would bring about a revolution, turned out to be sui generis. However exciting their innovations, they would spark no new golden age of the kind that formed them, perhaps because they were innovating almost alone. Yet seeing Company and Follies did change many lives. Sondheim has received every cultural award this country bestows, and is the subject of several worshipful Web sites; his brilliance is by now a given. At the time it still had the force of a slap.

Sondheim's lyrics mixed jaded sophistication with global yearning, cocksure confidence with raw vulnerability and hope almost too painful to express. He spoke directly to adolescents, that is, and with an urgency and fiendish cleverness several steps ahead of all those who aspired to be a part of New York life. Sondheim had been an especially brilliant adolescent himself—one who had the good fortune to be taken under the wing of the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who became both tutor and surrogate father to him. His lyrics for his first produced shows, West Side Story and Gypsy, made poetry of the anger and lonely longing of youth, and he was always unusually supportive of young people. In the late 1970s he conceived of the Young Playwrights Festival, and he helped advance the careers of many fledgling composers, including Jonathan Larson, who sent him the first draft of Rent. In the recent Camp, a movie about gifted, mostly misfit teenagers at a musical-theater camp, Sondheim is the reigning god, an icon whose handsome photograph appears on one camper's nightstand and who actually appears at a finale benefit performance. He does this sort of thing often in real life—though presumably not trailed by the screaming young people who in the film dog his every step and are subdued only by his disappearance through glass doors.

Sondheim is a famously responsive and acute correspondent. I was one of many beneficiaries of this generosity, when I was starting high school and the Broadway productions of Company and Follies imprinted themselves indelibly on my consciousness. Ted Chapin, whose parents were members of Sondheim's social circle, was also deeply imprinted by Company ("Suddenly there seemed to be an interesting future for the musical theater"), and he, too, received gently acerbic letters from Sondheim. But he actually experienced what the many young people who had already formed a pre-Web Sondheim cult could only dream of: becoming general factotum to Sondheim, Prince, and all the other creators of Follies during its rehearsals and through its opening. Chapin was then a Connecticut College junior uncertain about his future, though he knew he wanted somehow to be in the theater. He came up with the idea of turning rehearsal observations into a thesis, and largely because of his family connections he secured Prince's consent. Three decades later Chapin, who is now the director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, a bland-sounding group that is central to the production of musical theater all over the country, went back to his notes, re-interviewed Sondheim, and wrote his account.

In Everything Was Possible, Chapin manages to be at once the starry-eyed, insecure, yet remarkably precise observer he was then and the seasoned theater professional he is now. The book is a behind-the-scenes chronicle of a landmark artistic collaboration, and also an education in the business of Broadway. Reading it will be a pleasure for anyone interested in the theater, and thrilling to anyone who has ever heard himself in a Sondheim song—thrilling enough to make it impossible to resent the connections that got the author his catbird seat.

Presented by

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In