Buy the New Sondheim Bio


Side by Side With Meryle Secrest by Bruce Janiga

I spoke with Meryle Secrest in early July 1998, shortly after she returned from a book tour celebrating her new Sondheim biography (Note: You may also be interested in reading our excerpt of the biography, chapter one).

Tell us about yourself.

I was born in Bath, England, which is a town that nobody ever leaves apparently, but I left when I was 18. I was an only child and I went to a grammar school that was run by the government. It was a very interesting system which they don't have anymore. At the age of eleven you were separated into two streams as it was called; you were either going to go into secondary modern as it was called, and you would learn typing and woodworking and the likes, and go into the blue collar professions, or you would go into a secondary grammar school if you passed the exam and then you would learn Latin and French and be groomed for a university. I was there for seven years. By the time I was eighteen, it was after the war and everybody was exhausted; the war had taken so much out of everyone and the future looked bleak. So my mom and dad emigrated to Canada and I went with them and started working on a newspaper when I was eighteen. So basically I've been writing for a living ever since I was eighteen.

You were a reporter first?

Yes I covered police court, city hall, all that kind of thing. I worked on a paper in England for a year and then I married an American. It was my first marriage. We lived in Columbus, Ohio and I worked on a paper there and then with three small children in tow, we moved to Washington. My husband got a political science fellowship to work in Congress for a year and so we came here in the late 50's and never left.

After working freelance for The Washington Post for several years I got a full-time job and I was on the Post for about twelve years full-time. I first worked in the women's department, which was what women had to do at the time. Then the Style section started, which was the arts section basically; by then I had done so much interviewing in the arts and so much reporting because I had gravitated to that, because these things interested me. So I got onto the Star section and did quite a bit of reporting. I really covered everything but my main interests were art, the theater and music. And those are the interests I'm still pursuing. And it's an inexhaustible source of delight for me.

The biographies are really just a logical extension of the journalistic process. In many ways it's very different. I almost had to learn how to write all over again because it requires a different kind of language, a different kind of structure; it's a whole new field. But it's what I like infinitely better than journalism.

So did you decide on your own to become a biographer or did someone ask you to write a biography?

I had always promised myself that by the time I was forty I would have a book in print. I thought it was going to be a novel and that's what I worked on first of all for about five years but I realized it wasn't going to happen. I lack that kind of mind; I kept drifting towards biographical stuff. So at that point I found this incredible story of the life of an artist whose name is Romaine Brooks and I can't tell you what a fascination it was, to have a chance to write about her. So that started me off and after that I really didn't want to do anything else but biography.

How did you come to write Sondheim's biography?

I didn't intend to. It was one of those serendipitous things. I had heard about him from various sources and I had read stuff about him and I was quite apprehensive because I thought, he's going to be on the defensive, he's going to be prickly, he's going to be cantankerous, you know, all the things that you've read about Sondheim. But I had to talk to him because I was doing a biography of Leonard Bernstein ("Leonard Bernstein: A Life") and I thought, well here goes nothing. I went in and started asking questions and some of them were rather obvious questions, but he was so nice about it, so patient. Then we started getting into more detailed questions and he said something very interesting to me. I had been very puzzled why Bernstein's creativity had fallen off so sharply in his later work. Even with Mass, you can see a kind of cliche substituting for those flashes of brilliance that we all saw in the early works. And then with 1600 Pennsylvania and A Quiet Place he just had completely lost it. And Sondheim said, "Well you know, he got a bad case of importantitis." I was so enchanted with that because it never occurred to me but that set me on the right track towards an explanation. So I thought, this man is really interesting.

Were you familiar with his works before you started your book?

I had seen a couple of his things but I was not terribly familiar them, not as familiar as I got.

Did anything stand out for you?

I was very interested in his ability to dramatize as seen through his songs. As I came to understand it, it's an extension of the idea that Hammerstein developed in Carousel with "Soliloquy", the wonderful, extended song that Billy Bigelow, the hero, sings when he's just met Julie Jordan and he's talking about having a boy and how wonderful it would be. Then it sort of hits him, what if it's a girl?! I realized as I was listening to Sunday in the Park in particular that here is a man who had taken this idea and had developed it, polished it to a high luster really. And that interests me about his work very much.

Do you have any favorite composers or shows? What sort of shows attract you?

In the musical theater I'm tremendously fond of the Rodgers and Hart shows. Also, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin. Rodgers and Hammerstein were tremendously important for me because they came along at a very impressionable age, when I was a teenager. Carousel is perhaps my favorite show of all time, but I'd have to mention Showboat, West Side Story, Hello, Dolly. I saw them all and I loved them all.

What about a Sondheim favorite?

A Sondheim favorite for me would be Sunday in the Park. Though I'm really torn between that and Sweeney Todd because I think Sweeney is such a grand work. It's operatic material. It's breathtaking I think.

Sondheim in the past has been reluctant to address the issue of his own biography. Why do you think he changed his mind? Did he give you any idea?

People ask me that a lot and I honestly don't know. One would have to ask him, really. I think, making a rough guess, he is in his sixties now and he's looking back on his life and feeling in an elegiac mood perhaps. I think his friends persuaded him that somebody would eventually do it.

And you were the right person.

Well less wrong than most.

At least you came along at the right time.

Yes, I guess I did. You know in the field of biography you appoint yourself. You say, "I'm going to be Leonard Bernstein's biographer," and as long as you can get a publishing advance, you're Leonard Bernstein's biographer, whether he likes it or not.

Do you start by researching or interviewing or both?

I do everything you can think of. Because you never know where you can find things. I usually like to start by interviewing because you interview the obvious people if they'll put up with you and they will suggest people and then those people suggest people and they'll suggest books and it goes on like that. I think interviewing is the most important thing that I do, that I think anyone can do who wants to do a really thorough job. You've got to look everywhere. I look at the clippings. Right now I'm working on Richard Rodgers' biography and I'm looking at the scrapbooks. When I worked on Sondheim's biography I looked at his scrapbooks. He gave me a list of a hundred friends though not all of them were willing to be interviewed. I went to the libraries, and to Lincoln Center. I just do everything.

Did you read scripts of his shows?

Yes. And I watched the Lincoln Center tapes of the shows. I think I turned over every stone that I could find. Which doesn't mean, you know, that you find everything. That's another thing that I think is important to state. When I first started biography, I wrote a book that I did in 1979 which was nominated for a Pulitzer, it was a biography of Bernard Berenson ("Being Bernard Berenson"),. That's an enormous study too because Berenson was a sort of cult figure, 40's and 50's, he did a lot of writing himself, and he knew everybody. It was an exhaustive study to try and find all of this information and some people wouldn't talk to me and I got upset and I thought, well I can't write a book about Berenson if so and so won't talk to me. And I finally decided, that's what biography is, you're not going to get everything and you're never going to find everybody but you've got to do the best you can and hope that you're getting somewhere approximately close to the truth.

How long did the whole thing take, from your first notes to when you submitted it to the publishers?

It took three years. That's not long for a biography; some people take ten years. I have to confess I couldn't do that. I couldn't spend ten years with one person. Apart from everything else I think my husband would divorce me.

How did you work together?

Well, I live in the outskirts of Washington, D.C. and about once a month or so I'd come up to New York. I'd do back to back interviews like two hours on Thursday and two hours on Friday. And it's amazing how much ground you can cover. Particularly with someone like him because he's very focused. He will hone in on exactly the topic at hand without any small talk. Everything you get from him, in the old journalistic term, is "usable stuff."

Was it more questions and answers or conversations?

Conversations really. I'd have a general idea of which way I wanted to go. It was mostly chronological and then some answers would give rise to other questions. But I think that in this kind of a project it helps if the questions aren't too strictly structured, because basically what you want is a conversation.

I've done one other living subject but everyone else I've written about had already died, so I was very aware that, well, it's getting to know someone; you're getting to know him, he's getting to know you and everything depends on trust ultimately. Because if he decides he doesn't like you, that's the end of that idea.

Whom else did you interview that perhaps was very significant to the book?

There were really an awful lot of people...

Did anyone stand out?

I would say that William Goldman was marvelously helpful. He did a book called "The Season" which was ostensibly about a season in the life of Broadway Theater, the 1969 season. But actually he took it as a point of departure for an examination of the state of American theater. I don't think anyone has equaled that to this very day. And John Guare - playwrights are wonderful because they're so insightful. Boy, do they put their finger on the issue. One of the things he said to me was, "There's a point in life in which you feel the ground has been cut out from under you; that's something Steve understands." That just jumped out at me. It was something I went back to again and again.

And Arthur Laurents, who is a dear friend of Steve and has known him for forever, since West Side Story in the 1950s. Very interesting, very helpful, sometimes controversial but very insightful comments. Also Mary Rodgers, Sondheim's friend. And some of the family members; his cousins were very wonderful in helping me putting together the emotional atmosphere in the family. I'm a great one for family dynamics. I had a considerable amount of family therapy myself and I always look for that: the atmosphere in the family, the recurring patterns, the social legacy that we each got from our family background.

Sondheim's sexual orientation has never been addressed in public before as much as it has in your book. Was there any reservation on his part in discussing this?

No. I can't remember who brought it up, I think he brought it up. But to tell you the truth I'm amazed that people are surprised about this. It seems to me that if this kind of book had been written twenty years ago maybe there would be reason for surprise but now it seems to me it's old hat this idea of a prominent homosexual finally saying he's a homosexual. Are we surprised about this anymore?

Is there anyone you would have liked to interview but couldn't because they didn't want to give an interview, couldn't fit you in or because they're not around anymore?

I'd loved to have interviewed Oscar Hammerstein. And I would love to have interviewed Richard Rodgers because he and Steve had a real falling out and I'd love to have gotten his point of view about that. I also would have loved to interviewed Angela Lansbury. I did try but she was filming or too busy or wasn't available. For one reason or another it didn't happen and I'm really sad about that. I would loved to have talked to Judy Prince, who is Hal Prince's wife, and is a very close friend of Steve's but she didn't want to be interviewed. There are a few people out there I would have loved to have talked to but to get back to my earlier point, you can't do it all.

What was Steve's response to the book?

It's hard to know. One of the things about him that I tend to forget is that he has spent his life as a collaborator. As a collaborator he's very able to stand back from a work and look at it dispassionately. As far as I could see he was standing back from this book and looking at it with the eye of someone who wasn't involved in this life that I'm talking about. Because he made a couple of comments about it. He called me up and he said, "I read it all the way to the end to find out if I died." Then when we were talking about the structure of the book he said, "Now Meryle, it does seem to sag a bit in the middle." And I said, "Well, you know, it's very hard to keep a book of this length from doing that. It's bound to sag a bit in the middle." And he said, "The ending is a rather throw-away ending." And I said to him, "Yes but you're still alive." But I know he liked it because I heard from other people that he did. What he did do, and I'm just amazed that he did this: we had agreed informally that he would see it for factual errors; we never had anything in writing it was kind of a gentlemen's agreement. I was very apprehensive about this, because as I said I had written one previous book in which the subject was still alive, it was the British artist Kenneth Clark and we had had the same kind of agreement and when he saw the book it wasn't the factual errors he worried about. So that was really bad. So I was very nervous. But I have to say that Sondheim was as good as his word. He was absolutely a dragon about factual errors, but not about anything else. He was just extraordinary.

Later on in the book, with the more recent shows, there seems to be less and less exposition of the shows. Was that deliberate or was it because you had already covered the material earlier in the book?

I think so. Some of the shows had more interest for me than some of the others. I thought the early work really needed to be looked at in fine detail because after all you're establishing a pattern in your reader's mind. But I thought that I had gone into Passion in some detail. I thought it was a very interesting show for a lot of reasons, the most biographical in terms of Sondheim's life at that time.

Do you have a favorite Sondheim anecdote either from the book or something that never made it into the book?

I have a great anecdote. I think it's fun though it didn't make it into the book. He had seen the text and we'd gone over all the factual errors in numbing detail. And finally the book is put together and he hasn't seen the cover, he's seen the pictures but he hasn't seen the whole thing together. In my world you get a copy of the book and then you get ten free copies which come a couple of weeks later. I was sitting here one day and I thought, I've just got to get this to Steve, what if somebody sees this book in the bookshop and calls him up and says, "I saw your book in the bookshop yesterday" and he hasn't seen it?! So at that point I got frantic and I called his secretary, Steve Clar, and I said, "I've got to see Steve, don't tell him why, but I've got to see him." So he said, "I'll see what I can do." Well the best that we could come up with. because Steve was then going to London where he was taking part in this salute to Cameron Mackintosh, so the best we could work out was that I would go to the recording session for the Paper Mill Playhouse Follies. So I came up to New York and as I was going into the hotel he's coming down the steps with a friend. And he said, "Hi Meryle, come on in." And they're going into the bar and we sat around the bar and Steve is next to me and his friend is on the other side. Finally I've got it all wrapped up and I give it to him and I say, "Here Steve, here's your book." And without a second of hesitation, he turns to this guy next to him and he says, "Oh it's my book today, it was hers yesterday. She must have had a bad review."

So how has the book been received?

Really well. It's gone into its second printing already.

What does that mean? How many copies?

It means about twenty-five thousand copies. So I'm really thrilled. I just came back from a tour and it's actually very interesting because I got to meet people who are interested in that subject. I met one young man and he was clutching three copies: one he's giving to a friend and one he read on the plane which he wants me to autograph and the other one is a brand new copy because the one he read on the plane he sort of thumbed through.

What are people asking you on this book tour? Anything interesting?

I didn't get too many questions. What I got was a lot of people who are really happy about it because I think that, I can't really emphasize this enough: the kind of impression you get from magazine articles and newspaper articles is so superficial. People like to paint profiles with a very blunt instrument, there are nuances and things like this. But the people who love Sondheim's work and who are aware that there is a tremendous amount of feeling in his work, want to be able to think that behind the facade is a warm human being and they seem to get that from my book and they seem to be grateful for it. I've said to him, "You've become a role model for a lot of aspiring young authors and not just people who want to get into the theater, the creative fringe of our society." He sort of shuddered over the phone but it's true. There are a lot of people who are saying, well if somebody like this with all these kinds of emotional problems can make it then there's hope for me too.

Absolutely. The story of his growing up, his family, is certainly one that makes him appear heroic to have survived it.

I think so. I just don't know how he did it. He has this view of himself as someone who's led an uneventful life. I don't know why he thinks that. He's very modest at the base of it all. He's a very complicated mixture. I don't pretend to understand him.

Is there anything that was left out of the book that you can share? Any stories?

Here's one, it's sort of a minor story but it's one that comes to mind. One of the things that Bernstein was going to do at the end of his life was write his autobiography. He did start on it but he never got very far. The title of the autobiography was Blue Ink. I remember talking to his sister, Shirley Bernstein who just died recently, about what was the meaning of the title, Blue Ink. And she didn't know. They'd all tried anagrams to see if it spelled something else and no one could figure out what "blue ink" referred to. So I didn't know and I think I made a reference to the fact that it was Blue Ink and nobody knew what it referred to. Then one day I was listening to the song "I Remember" from Evening Primrose, "I remember sky, it was blue as ink, or at least I think..." and I thought, that's it! That's the reference. When you think about it, this song is all about memories of the past. So I talked to Steve about it and said, "Don't you think that was it?" and he said, "No, no," in his usual kind of modest way. I didn't put it in the book but I still think that was the reference.

Is there anything that you'd ask him now if you had the opportunity that you may have missed before?

I think I would ask him what are they doing with the Mizner story. There's a sort of code we had between us. He didn't ask me how the work was going so that I didn't feel that I could do it with him apropos the Mizners. So it's been two years and it has been a great big question hanging over my thoughts, what are they doing with Mizners? What are the problems they are having? How are they resolving them? I'm consumed with curiosity about this. I'd love to add another chapter in my book once this musical comes out because , apart from anything else, it's something he's wanted to do for forty years. So I really want to know about that and I hope that this works its way through in the next six or eight months.

You've only written one other biography of a person who was still living while you worked on it, are there any plans, or is it too early to ask, for doing a second edition of this book somewhere down the line?

Yes, if my publisher is interested. I think that would be marvelous. And it could well be that it could work out. After all, Craig Zadan has periodically updated "Sondheim & Company", hasn't he? Craig's book on Steve came out in 1972 and I think its still in print and he's updated it. That's the nice thing about having a subject who's still alive-the story's still going on. I know just where I'm going to put this Mizner stuff if I can get my hands on it. I know just where the insert is going to go.

Would you then at this point continue to follow the story and interview people, or would you wait until you get a go ahead from the publisher to do a revision and then do the work?

We're going to have to see how the book works out and how it's received and all the rest of it. Everyone's pretty pleased about it right now. They're very excited. It's selling very well. It's not that there's been much publicity though: The Times hasn't reviewed it, the Washington Post hasn't reviewed it, the L.A. Times hasn't reviewed it. These are all papers which have a big influence the book's future.

Are those reviews scheduled?

We don't know. They don't let you know.

Tell us about your next project a little bit.

The Bernstein book led me in two directions. It led to the Sondheim study and also it led to my getting to know Richard Rodgers' daughter Mary, she had worked for Leonard Bernstein, and his other daughter Linda. They asked me sometime after the Bernstein book came out in '94 would I do a biography of their father. And I was thrilled at the idea of doing it because of my admiration of Rodgers and Hammerstein. But by then I had signed a contract to work on the Sondheim book and I asked them if they would be willing to let me do it after Sondheim and they said they would. So I've been working on that for the last six or eight months. It's going to be a very interesting book because there's a great deal about him that no one knows at all that I'm getting from the family for the first time. I won't spoil it by telling you what but let me tell you it's complicated, very complicated and an interesting story. And his wife is an equally interesting and complicated person. It's a family drama if ever there was one, it's almost Gothic. I'm thrilled at the chance to get my hands on it. It's also the kind of ideal that a biographer dreams of. It's so seldom in my world as a biographer to have someone like Sondheim say, "Yes, I'll let you write about me and you have the right to say what you want to say." And no money is changing hands, don't forget. That's another factor. Don't forget a lot of times biographers have to pay for information. And the same thing is happening with Linda and Mary. They've said, "We will help you in any way we can and you have complete control over your manuscript." These are ideal circumstances. Usually you have to fight tooth and nail. I've had some miserable experiences. So I feel as if I've died and gone to heaven.

Tell me why it's not an authorized biography or even an unauthorized biography.

This is a biography in which my subject cooperated. It's not authorized, i.e. what an authorized biography usually means is that the family has authorized its version of events.

So Rodgers' biography wouldn't be authorized either?


So you'd just call it a biography?

Well, you can call it the definitive one if you'd like. I don't know how definitive it will be. To get back to my earlier thought I don't think any biography can be definitive. But let's say for the sake of argument that it's going to be as complete and exhaustive as I can make it. But it won't be authorized and I'm very happy about that and, bless their hearts, they are too.

Tell me about the Bertrand Russel quote at the beginning of the book.

What do you think about that? Do you think it bears any reference to what I did? I sort of thought it did, " heart has built a precious shrine for the ashes of dead hopes."

It's beautiful.

Yes, I loved it too. I think it refers to the way in which childhood experiences influence the kind of people we become. There is a part of one's makeup, one's pain, that translates itself into the hope and longing that somehow one will come out alright in the end. That is what I'm trying to say.

Is there anything else that we need to know? If you were interviewing you, what would you ask?

I think I'd ask me why I do this. And I ask myself that question often.

And the answer?

I think it's because I wish I had been a creative person and since I'm not a creative person, I'm infinitely fascinated by the process itself. Because after all this is a God-given. But what I want to know is what does it mean to be a creative person and what is the price to be paid and what happens when the moment of creativity comes? And of course one can't ever really know. But that doesn't stop me from asking.

And I must say that another reason that I keep doing it is because I learn so much. When you get someone like Sondheim you learn a lot because he's a natural born teacher. I think he likes people who don't know much about his field. It's a kind of excuse for him to start telling you about it. I really learned so much. So you could say its a selfish business. I'm doing it because I love to learn.

But then you share it with so many other people and that's not selfish. And we are grateful for that. As I am for this interview.

I'm so pleased to have had a chance to talk with you.

Buy the New Sondheim

Now that you've read about the author, read
the SSS's book excerpt, chapter one of
"Stephen Sondheim - A Life".


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