Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

With great power comes great incomprehensibility

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So I’m deep into the first volume of Stephen Sondheim’s spellbinding memoir Finishing the Hat, which reprints the collected lyrics from the first half of his career, along with “attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes.” I’m not even that well up on my Sondheim—my exposure to his work consists of West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, and a handful of songs from other shows—but as a writer, albeit of a very different kind, I find his candor and insight irresistible. (For a sample, see my recent post here.)

As is often the case when writers talk about their craft (William Goldman comes to mind), Sondheim is rather more interesting when discussing his failures than his successes. At the moment, I’m working my way through the chapter on Anyone Can Whistle, the ill-fated musical satire that Sondheim created in collaboration with Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book and directed. Especially intriguing is the revelation that David Merrick, the most famous theatrical impresario of his time, passed on producing the show because he didn’t want Laurents to serve as both writer and director. Sondheim writes:

[Merrick] claimed, astutely, that authors, especially authors of musicals, shouldn’t direct the initial productions of their own works. Without a director to argue with, egoistic self-ingulgence might color everything, he claimed…The blessing of a writer serving as his own director is that one vision emerges, there being no outsider to contradict him. The curse, inevitably, is that the vision may turn out to be myopic, there being no outsider to contradict him.

Now, I defy anyone who has been following the latest news from Broadway to read these lines and not think at once of Julie Taymor. The most recent of the many New York Times articles on the ongoing train wreck of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark expresses the theater world’s reservations about Taymor, who was given what amounted to a blank check as the musical’s director and co-writer, in strikingly similar terms:

Julie Taymor signed on as director and co-writer of the script, a dual role that many on Broadway consider risky. Rather than take a strong hand in managing the production, as producers usually do, Mr. [Michael] Cohl [the lead producer of the show] saw his job as aiding and abetting her vision.

The result has been making headlines for months: a visually spellbinding but narratively incoherent show that is already the most expensive musical in the history of Broadway. (In all fairness, I haven’t seen the show yet, and won’t anytime soon, unless I happen to be in New York on a week that TKTS seats are on sale.) And it seems fairly clear, especially after Taymor’s unceremonious departure from the show, that if the director had been subjected to a stronger controlling hand—as she was with The Lion King—the outcome might have been very different.

The lesson here, obviously, is that all artists, even the most creative and idiosyncratic, need someone around to keep them in line. It’s why there are surprisingly few truly great writer-directors in film, and the ones who do exist usually produce their best work with a forceful collaborator pushing back at every step of the way—witness Powell and Pressburger. And it’s why every writer needs strong readers and editors. Without such constraints, you occasionally get a Kubrick, yes, but more often, you wind up with the recent career of George Lucas. Or, it seems, a Julie Taymor. So it’s best to let Sondheim have the last word: “In today’s musical theater, there are two kinds of directors: those who are writers and those who want to be, or, more ominously, think they are.”

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