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As a book blogger, I was approached by the publisher of this book to receive a review copy. Though I said yes, I didn’t really plan to read it. I planned to give it to my dear friend who loves everything Sondheim. But then the book arrived and I opened it. And as I started to read, I found the story so compelling that I read the whole darn thing! I’m glad I did because three different story lines appealed to me from the book. The first two were intended by the author, but maybe not the third.
Thus, I learned the fascinating story of how the author, Paul Salsini – a man in Milwaukee – came to have a decades-long friendship with Stephen Sondheim. I learned many details of Sondheim’s work – and was wowed by it. But beyond that, as a writer, I got some tips about the creative life.
Learning about the Salsini /Sondheim friendship – or how this book came to be:
Author Paul Salsini has a degree in journalism and worked for the Milwaukee Journal for thirty-seven years. He is also a person with interest in musical theater. Through the years, he came to admire Sondheim’s work and in 1994 he decided to publish a quarterly magazine devoted to Sondheim’s work (as opposed to Sondheim the man). Given his background, he planned for it to include solid journalism – news articles about current and upcoming productions, reviews, interviews, and essays.
This was a unique idea! There had never been a publication devoted to a living artist. Thus, The Sondheim Review (TSR) was born. But here’s the deal. Perhaps the idea was crazy! Could he pull this off from Milwaukee?
Originally, he thought it would be a newsletter. Perhaps eight page long. Perhaps sent out twice a year. He expected to attract a hundred subscribers. But before even putting out the first edition, many writers and editors in New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and beyond chose to take part in the venture, even without getting paid. Thus, a slick quarterly magazine – full of great photographs – was born. Salsini was at the helm for the first ten years of its existence.
As we learn in the book, Salsini had already established a correspondence with Stephen Sondheim through the years, just writing to him as a fan. By the time TSR published its first edition, the two men were on a first name basis. Indeed, for many of the early years of TSR, Sondheim seemed to read each edition from cover to cover and send Salsini additions and corrections – which he called “emendations.” Sondheim’s stated reason for doing this tells us a lot about the quality of TSR. He said he offered the corrections “in the interest of accuracy, knowing that the care and authenticity of the articles and reports in the magazine will be used as the basis for future scholarship about the shows.”
Learning about Sondheim’s work:
Salsini does a great job of telling about Sondheim’s work, so I will leave it to him with just one fascinating exception. A chapter in the book is dedicated to translations of Sondheim’s work and gives this mind-boggling tidbit: “Due to the peculiarities of Japanese pronunciation, words and phrases tend to be longer than their English counterparts; for example, ‘Sondheim’ in Japanese is six syllables…meaning that only about half the information in an English song can be conveyed in Japanese.”
Tips for the creative life. There were many. I’ll just give a handful:
- Salsini’s first letter to Sondheim was in 1984. He said he had read a lot about Sondheim’s shows and seen many of them and asked a question about a never-produced show of Sondheim’s, Saturday Night: Was the score ever recorded? A week later, he got a response. Stephen Sondheim wrote in part, “Thanks for the lovely letter. It helps the ego no end, and at a time when ego-building is of the essence.” So here we have Sondheim, decades into his amazing career, still having the need for ego building! Great validation for all struggling artists!
- I should mention that in response to Salsini’s question, Sondheim sent him a cassette recording of the show! Life lesson: No matter how famous you become, it’s still important to be a nice guy!
- In a lengthy interview about Sondheim’s Passion, Sondheim says that in previews, the audience laughed in twenty places that were not intended. He says this in a matter of fact way teaching the core lesson that the first draft of any piece has a way to go until it is the final draft. Even for Sondheim!
- Indeed, the need for lots of drafts becomes understandable when Sondheim tells us – in discussing Sweeney Todd – that “[he] rarely discovers what the show is about until halfway through.”
- To reiterate the thrill of praise for creative folks, Broadway star Elaine Stritch has this to say about a note she received from Stephen Sondheim, “He wrote me a note that I still have after I sang ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ in front of this small audience of big shots, and he told me that I had turned a song that might be sung after hours in a piano bar into a piece of theater. So what do you do with that kind of compliment? I remember I celebrated that letter by having four martinis before dinner.”
A hearty recommendation:
Clearly, I liked this book! It is chockful of Sondheim facts and anecdotes. It has a twenty-four-page chronology of his work, a sixty-four-page photo insert, and a six-page index to easily find topics of interest.
As Sondheim said to Salsini, “You probably know more about my life than I do.” Great news: As a reader of this terrific book, you will soon be as knowledgeable as Salsini!
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