“It’s not fair!”: How Stephen Sondheim got angry over a bad review | Stefan Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim may have written memorable songs that got people’s hearts beating, but the composer and lyricist had a sharp temper when it came to criticism of his work, according to the author of a new book.
Paul Salsini, a former editor of the Sondheim reviewa US quarterly magazine dedicated to the composer recalled how the author of I Feel Pretty and Everything’s Coming Up Roses became enraged in 1996 after reading reviews in the publication.
This particular issue covered his lesser-known musical dedication, which was performed at the Queen’s Theater in London after its Broadway success. The article acknowledged that while British critics generally praised Sondheim’s musicals, their reactions to them were mixed dedication from being described as “Piece from the heart” to the new title “Songs to Cut Your Throat By”. The magazine’s own critic said it was “a little self-conscious and often seeks your approval and acceptance.”
Enough was enough for Sondheim, who took his anger out on the magazine’s editor at the time.
“To my surprise, Sondheim didn’t wait to write,” Salsini said. “He called. He was outraged and started right away. I tried to answer, but he kept interrupting me, ‘How could you print that? They didn’t quote the other reviews accurately. That review wasn’t fair. Did the reviewer Ever seen the show in New York? [Your writer] has no credentials to write about musical theater.’”
When dedication Opened in London in 1996, two years after Broadway, it was a big deal, Salsini said. London critics had always loved Sondheim shows and this show was expected to elicit unanimous acclaim. To the surprise of many – including Sondheim – this was not the case.
“Well, if the Sondheim review kept an account that had reservations, he was, in a word, angry. We had spoken on the phone before, but it was always pleasant. I don’t think anyone has ever reported Sondheim’s anger before. I don’t want to say that this happened often, but it shows that artists can deeply protect their work.”
The journal bore the composer’s name, but Sondheim was not formally associated with the publication. Salsini recalls trying in vain to soothe him: “I couldn’t believe he was really ranting – and that’s the only word for it. He later wrote to apologize for his behavior on the phone but not for what he said.”
Salsini thought it was a “balanced” article about a musical based on Ettore Scola’s Italian film passion d’Amore, with a London production starring Michael Ball. Audiences clearly liked it as it ran for 232 performances. He tried to point out to Sondheim that the review had both positive and negative responses, that the reviewer had seen the New York production twice – even brought to tears – and that they were certainly qualified to review musicals, since they were drama directors for a were national theater and assistant director of an opera company.
Sondheim, who died last November at the age of 91, made his name as Leonard Bernstein’s lyricist for 1957 Westside Story. He became the most important composer and lyricist in modern Broadway history and was showered with awards including an Oscar and a Pulitzer. Salsini, in his forthcoming book SOndheim & Me: A Musical Genius Revealed, published by Bancroft Press. It chronicles Salsini’s relationship with Sondheim during his 10-year tenure as editor of the Sondheim reviewwhich he founded in 1994.
Salsini shares his experiences of interviewing and corresponding with the US composer, including dozens of his notes on articles: “Sondheim read the journal cover to cover, perhaps circling or underlining words or sentences, correcting or clarifying something that others might overlook. Every word had to be clear and correct. He was obviously thinking about it Sondheim review important because it would provide a permanent record.”
Sondheim was surprised by the founding of the magazine and wrote to Salsini: ‘I am flattered, embarrassed and delighted by your interest. I can only hope there will be enough news to justify publication.”
Ironically, the Queen’s Theater has been renamed the Sondheim Theater by its owner, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who recognizes his influence on musical theater as ‘unparalleled’. It is one of the historic playhouses that Michael Coveney, former theater critic of the observercontains in his new book on Mackintosh’s theatre, master of the house.