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Stephen Sondheim: A Life

4.11  ·  Rating Details ·  503 Ratings  ·  52 Reviews
The first and only full-scale and definitive biography of the most important composer-lyricist in musical theater today.
Drawing on personal conversations with Sondheim himself, as well as interviews with his friends, family, collaborators, and lovers, Secrest offers new insight into the enigmatic and very private Stephen Sondheim. Here, we learn about his childhood on Ne
Paperback, 480 pages
Published October 4th 2011 by Vintage (first published 1998)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Kyle Martin
Aug 18, 2009 Kyle Martin rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I think I finished reading it, but I can't remember. See how this one stuck with me? I tend to remember thinking that his life had been dull for someone who had a biography written about him. Or maybe I just wasn't sufficiently interested, for some reason. Given Sondheim's profession, I would have expect to be interested. But, I wasn't.
Feb 14, 2017 Neil rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The reviews on this are all over the place, some saying it has too many references to his work, some saying there aren't enough, some thinking it tries too hard to psychoanalyze the man, others feeling that personal details are still lacking. In the end, I think that's all a reflection of the fact that something is lacking here.

My review would be about 3.5 stars, because while there is a fair amount of detail, the story feels incomplete. Secrest hints at an interior knowledge of Sondheim, but d
Dec 27, 2010 Martin rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011books
Stephen Sondheim says one of his cardinal rules is that form should follow function, and in that regard this biography falls far short of its subject: it's a clunky, uninteresting look at a sleek and fascinating life. Secrest trudges from birth to the present moment (aka 1998) yet engages in just enough minor temporal toggling and tumbling to confuse; you'll realize all of a sudden that the event she is describing takes place three or four years later than the point in Sondheim's life where you ...more
From what I remember, this was a really well-balanced book with the right amounts of celebrity anecdotes (e.g. Ethel Merman being insane), crazed show-must-go-on last-minute creative-genius anecdotes (e.g. "Comedy Tonight"), insider narratives on how the shows almost went (e.g. the original "Being Alive"), plus hard-to-come-by details about his generally reserved personal life (spoilers: he is a cranky pants, sometimes with rather young boyfriends). It's also made a useful reference book during ...more
Jun 14, 2008 Daniel added it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Someone to prop up an uneven table leg.
Recommended to Daniel by: Self (flagellation)
Too bad the book is near unreadable.

The writer appears to have found some random pics and facts then let her un-nourished imagination take over.

All conjecture. You're lucky if within one full page you'll get one bit of Sondheim knowledge. Not even that.

It's fahrenheit 451.

Burn it and use the heat to warm the cockles of yer 'eart.
Brenda Clough
Sep 11, 2015 Brenda Clough rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There aren't that many biographies of Sondheim, a private man, so this is an important book.
Apr 23, 2012 Emma rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: theatre
One of the only biographies available on Stephen Sondheim. It lacked heart.
Mark Dickson
Absolutely fascinating but extraordinarily dense.

Assumes a background knowledge of the history of musical theatre when referencing contemporary creators, but it's easy to work past if you're able to take the meaning of the reference to them instead of knowing the explicit connection.

Surprisingly easy to fly through given how dry the material would usually be and while it can get distracted and slightly too self-indulgent at times, it's an engaging read from start to finish.

Highly recommended to
Jun 25, 2012 Tristin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: auto-biography, queer
While I appreciated getting a better picture of Mr. Sondheim's background and upbringing, the integration of his personal and artistic lives seemed stilted at times. There were many many things I learned about him; most books i've read have only focused on his artistic process, so I appreciated getting a much more rounded picture of the life of a man I admire so deeply.

Oddly, the timeline would jump around a little; why go from Passion's development and its production in 1994 to his Putting it
Jun 29, 2013 Gwen rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography-memoir
This book is FAR too long--probably because it's really two disjointed books: an actual Sondheim biography (that stops in his early 20s) and an interminable history of Sondheim's music theater works. (I'm sure that in itself could be fascinating, but that's not why I picked up this book.)

The first part of the book was actually interesting and explained how Sondheim's childhood shaped his early adult life, but the second part of the book had very little to do with "Sondheim the man" and all abou
Apr 27, 2010 Nell rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music-etc
I was expecting more musical discussions than this book was planning to offer me. Some of the anecdotes are delightful and are insights into Sondheim's personality and work ethic. I loved the description of a scavenger hunt he devised with Tony Perkins that took four groups of friends all over Manhattan. I forced several friends to listen to it because it was a cute story, but in addition I liked it because it perfectly sums up his love of intricate puzzles, his meticulous if not obsessive atten ...more
Catherine Marjoribanks
Jun 07, 2013 Catherine Marjoribanks rated it it was amazing
Loved this book -- it was exactly what I was hoping for: a volume that would take all the well-known Sondheim facts and anecdotes and put them in a richly detailed comprehensive context. The author has a thesis but allows it to emerge rather than forcing it on to every page. I feel as though I now know more about the subject than he would probably like to divulge, but not a lot more. There's nothing gratuitously titillating or salacious here, nothing that falls into the category "things I wish I ...more
David Mckinnon
Mar 17, 2015 David Mckinnon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography-read
There are many books that analyze the work of the genius who is Stephen Sondheim but there are few that examine the man, who he is and who/what inspired him to creat what is arguably the most progressive body of work to ever grace the Broadway stage. His work is timeless, with even his earliest works as lyricist for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy" are still being performed around the world today.......almost 60 years after they were written.
His life was not a musical comedy though. He certainly ha

I never thought I would finish this book---that being said, I feel like I have just completed a course in the making of a Broadway musical. Stephen Sondheim, my most favorite composer/lyricist, remains a mystery to me, but his brilliance is much clearer. While at times I found the writing to be a bit scattered and flat, if you love Broadway, love Sondheim, and love the inside scoop, this book is a painstakingly detailed account of Sondgeim's life, collaborations, successes and failures. Well wo
May 31, 2012 Barbara rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
This is a clunky, difficult to read biography of one of the world's great lyricists and composers, who has a lifetime achievement Tony Award (along with collaborator Hal Prince) and who is responsible for making me love the song "Finishing the Hat." Secrest traces Sondheim's early life in New York and his childhood friendship with another standout composer, Oscar Hammerstein. However, the book is tedious to get through and we really don't understand how or why Sondheim does what he does so well. ...more
Mar 22, 2007 Jeb rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Sondheimophiles
A more thorough account ye never shall find; I do recall the topic of one post on that was not addressed in the book, and that was, "Does Sondheim have a dog?" Secrest did not go into this, I think only because the answer was "no." If I were Sondheim, I would get red in the face reading this book because it divulges plenty of quite-personal information, like a tabloid. But when you're a legend, your legacy speaks louder. The book creates a holistic, flattering and un- but always (ok ...more
May 05, 2012 WB1 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This is such a disappointing book.
There is so little here about how Sondheim works, how he creates, how he writes music and lyrics, his struggles (I assume he has them) to write songs, how he actually views his work, successful and not successful.
It's a catalogue of what we know about him. The terrible mother. The mentorship by Oscar Hammerstein etc. Nothing new.
How you make Sondheim boring is difficult. But Secrest does. His personal life is glossed over. So is his creative life. Come on. He's
Dan Lalande
Jun 10, 2016 Dan Lalande rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Likely as detailed a portrait one can paint of standoffish songwriter Sondheim, who cooperated with surprising candor. Sondheim, by many admissions (including his own) is a hard-working sad sack, whose deceivingly complex music and analytical lyrics come out of the poisoned privilege of his upbringing. Yes, Freud is here but, as in signature works like "Company," he is just one of the many voices buzzing around the central subject. Thus, this is also a group photo: the high-flyin' fold behind Br ...more
Feb 24, 2013 Surreysmum rated it really liked it
I've been wanting to read a biography of Sondheim for a long while, and this one pleasantly surprises by having more personal detail than I would ever have imagined Sondheim (reputedly very private) allowing. So kudos for that.

I will go back to this frequently to get the production history of various shows as I work my way through Sondheim's own words (the last words, obviously) on his lyrics, in his two-volume set. Put together, Sondheim's volumes, this biography and (bless it) you-tube make f
Kim Buck
Feb 05, 2014 Kim Buck rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really relish biographies that read like novels (usually because the subjects are so messed up - Zelda Fitzgerald, anyone?). This isn't one of those, but I really enjoyed reading the back stories behind the creation of some of my favorite musicals, and gaining some insight into the personality of an artist who has touched my heart and imagination more deeply than any other. At times, it felt like an invasion of privacy, despite the author's clearly respectful process.
Aug 11, 2012 Brian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

I'd give this book a 5 for interesting subject matter and style. Sondheim's work is among the most complex and literate in theatre, and his life is very interesting. Secrest's style is enjoyable, witty and highly engaging. My only caveat is that Secrest could have gone a little deeper with Sondheim, both biographically and in terms of insight to his work. That's the only reason I don't give it a perfect rating.
Rachel Simone
May 01, 2016 Rachel Simone rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-harder-2016
Ahh Sondheim. How I love him. He's witty and emotional and brilliant.

The biography was mostly about his work, which is pretty fitting. I would have liked some more depth on parts of his inner life, but she might not have had access to that. His relationship (or non-relationship) with his parents and certain mentors was explored, but not much past that.
Nov 11, 2007 Emily rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I plowed through this book in a couple of sittings, and am completely fascinated by Sondheim-the-man as well as Sondheim-the-composer. Secrest doesn't attempt in-depth musical analysis of his works, which is fine: the personal stories and some insight into his motivations and working style make the book well worth the read.
Princess Debz
Apr 18, 2014 Princess Debz rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've been fascinated with Sondheim for a long time, and this book was for sure interesting. I don't believe I've ever read a full-length biography before, so I have nothing to really compare it to, but writing style aside, I loved poring over the pages and learning more about the man behind the artist!
Really Really good book on sondheim's life. It was a bit of a slow read. It had a lot of interesting information you cant find anywhere else. I did a project on him that led to a 60 page paper and If i had had time I would have written more. This book was my favourite of the many I used.
Aug 15, 2012 Skye rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A really engaging and insightful biography. As a huge Sondheim fan, this book created a lot of connections for me and answered a lot of questions I've always had about his work. Highly recommended reading.
Joseph Sales
Mar 22, 2008 Joseph Sales rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An incisive portrait of one of the giants of American culture. Gossipy but very complete in the area of personal life. I would benefit from formal analysis of works but I would have to turn elsewhere.
Jun 30, 2014 Dru rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The past few bios that I've read have been lackluster at best. This one restores my hope in the genre. The author does a great job recalling and interpreting Sondheim's life in the context of the history of musical theater.
Feb 19, 2012 Danielle rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: my-books, five-stars
Not much about the music, but tons and tons about the man. I really enjoyed it, especially since what attracts me to Sondheim is his lyricism, so I'm more interested in the story behind the words than anything more technical.
Caroline Duffy
Jan 13, 2014 Caroline Duffy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Insightful read that sheds light on the brilliant mind, tender heart and bruised emotions that led to the creation of some of the greatest musicals of our time. He's had such a long career that I now must read "the rest of the story."
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“First take a play that you like and musicalize it. Then take a play that you like but you feel has flaws and try to improve them, and musicalize it,” Sondheim recalled him saying. “Then he said, ‘Take something that is not a play but that somebody else has written, a novel or a short story, so that you don’t have to invent the characters or plot, and musicalize that, make it into a play. Dramatize it. And then finally write an original, your own story, and dramatize that.” 2 likes
“the disappearance of an audience that had supported experimentation and made such works financial, as well as critical, successes. The decline of liberal-arts teaching in schools and colleges meant that the new audience was less cultured and intellectually oriented; wedded to television and movies, it wanted to be entertained rather than challenged.” 1 likes
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