Have theatergoers stayed away because Sondheim's melodies can be as elusive as anything Leonard Bernstein ever wrote? Yet he can also compose tunes that a stone could hum: "Send in the Clowns," for example, a melody heard in elevators and restaurants around the world.
It's not an on-again-off-again talent that explains Sondheim's strange duality. Instead, the evidence suggests that there are two Sondheims, a mainstream artist and a contrarian, with a willfully perverse wish not to appeal to the general public. That second Sondheim has been in the ascendant for many years.
Yet he owed a great deal to one member of his mother's bunch—Oscar Hammerstein II. Her Bucks County neighbor provided the most important creative influence in Stephen's career. In early adolescence, Sondheim befriended Oscar's son, Jimmy, and began hanging around the Hammerstein house. When the Broadway pro learned that his young visitor wanted to write musicals, he offered avuncular encouragement and advice.
At 15, Stephen thought he was ready for the Big Time. He composed a score for his school musical and showed it to Oscar. In Sondheim & Co., biographer Craig Zadan quotes Stephen's account of that epochal meeting: "He said, 'Now you want my opinion as though I didn't really know you? Well, it's the worst thing I've ever read.' " As the youth's lower lip trembled, Oscar went on: "Now, I didn't say that it was untalented, I said it was terrible. And if you want to know why it was terrible, I'll tell you."
Hammerstein proceeded to rip apart every detail, from stage directions to rhymes. Recalled Sondheim, "At the risk of hyperbole, I'd say in that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime." Never did the man talk down to the boy. Slowly, deliberately, Oscar spoke of structure and the value of each word; how essential simplicity was; how to introduce character; the interrelationship of music and rhyme. "He was at least as good a critic as he was a writer. Most people think of Oscar as a kind of affable, idealistic lunkhead. Instead, he was a very sophisticated, sharp-tongued, articulate man," Sondheim noted.
Yet it was the New York Times's influential Sunday critic, Walter Kerr, who kept his cool and made the most discerning comments. After praising the cast, the direction, and Sondheim's "sophisticated and pertinacious" work, he concluded, "Now ask me if I liked the show. I didn't like it. I admired it. . . . Personally, I'm sorry-grateful."