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Posted July 25, 2000
A Thorough and Insightful Composer Biography--Minus the Music
It is evident from the first page of Stephen Sondheim: A Life, that the author is a seasoned biographer possessing an eye for detail, a penchant for uncovering and presenting all available facts, and the right kind of insight that can bring these facts together to provide the reader with a glimpse of the subject both as a person and the creative mind within. And having already to her credit the biographies of such creative geniuses as Salvador Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright and Leonard Bernstein, Meryle Secrest has clearly mastered the intricacies of biographical research, which involve first and foremost the gaining of intimate trust of the subject, together with an exhaustive search of contacts, undertaking endless interviews, dealing with ethical issues that are of concern to all contributors of information, and organizing the masses of material into a coherent whole that engages the reader. I was entirely engrossed in this book from the moment I picked it up. It is written lucidly and unpretentiously in straightforward language, and generously illustrated with nearly 100 photographs placed accurately throughout the book at precisely where one would wish to see them as they relate to the text. The life story is told in linear fashion, presenting a clear chronology from Sondheim's parentage, through his birth and childhood, studies, early career, and his gradual rise (with both triumphs and a share of disappointments) to become the foremost figure in American musical theater today. We also learn of his personal life concerning his family, friends and loves. While following Secrest's journey of Sondheim's life and meteoric career, I soon began to ask myself what constitutes greatness in artists such as Sondheim. In reading Secrest's account, one can certainly observe how he arrived at his stature of pre-eminence as a composer, but I was still left with a question as to why he was able to do so. To gain this perception, we need to examine the art itself. While Secrest does cite several excerpts from Sondheim's lyrics, they are discussed mainly in relation to events in Sondheim's personal life, but do not receive any kind of critical treatment that is necessary to explore the creative achievement. My biggest objection to the book, however, is that it contains not one single musical example. Is this because the author does not have sufficient musical background to discuss the music? If not, why undertake a composer biography, where discussion of musical examples is crucial to the understanding of the subject on a personal and professional level? This reservation aside, I recommend this book to anyone interested in American musical theater, and in the shaping of an American master.
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