Rick Pender on the Challenge and Opportunity of Summing Up Stephen Sondheim

With tributes to the late Stephen Sondheim coming thick and fast in the wake of his late November death, Rick Pender, author of The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia (Rowman & Littlefield), discusses his new book, his research process, what it was like corresponding with Sondheim, and the enduring appeal of the Broadway composer.

Rick Pender
Rick Pender
Mikki Schaffner Photography

With tributes to the late Stephen Sondheim coming thick and fast in the wake of his late November death, Rick Pender, author of The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia (Rowman & Littlefield), discusses his new book, his research process, what it was like corresponding with Sondheim, and the enduring appeal of the Broadway composer.

What is it about Sondheim that makes him the best known and most admired composer and lyricist of musical theater in the final quarter of the 20th century?

At the most fundamental level, the fact that Sondheim was both composer and lyricist of the majority of his 18 major shows sets him apart from the creators of most musical theater, usually two-person teams. Beyond that, his ability to craft words and music that profoundly revealed characters and advanced complex story lines truly elevated him to the highest level of achievement. His shows had emotional and intellectual depth that were sometimes not initially appreciated by critics or audiences, but over time—thanks to successful revivals in which Sondheim allowed directors to explore material in new ways—his works came to be seen as classics that will continue to be staged for years to come.

What inspired such an ambitious undertaking?

I was approached by an editor at Rowman & Littlefield in late 2017 about writing the Encyclopedia. I had spent 12 years (2004–16) as the editor of the Sondheim Review, a quarterly magazine, managing extensive coverage productions of his shows and his career, as well as interviewing him personally on several occasions. I initially thought I was being asked to coordinate the work of several contributors, but I soon realized the invitation was to be the book’s sole author—with a daunting expectation of a finished product in the range of 300,000 words. Given the subject, I was willing to take on the challenge. I felt well prepared, based on my experience editing the Sondheim Review. I knew it would be a lot of work, but I was retired from full-time work and decided that this would be a meaningful project to undertake..

Stephen Sondheim EncyclopediaTalk in detail about the typical process that went into producing each entry for this book.

For each entry, I assembled critical commentary from published studies, journalistic coverage, and other resources—especially the Sondheim Review. Each show entry offered a freshly crafted synopsis of the show, a list of songs (and sometimes discussion of songs that were cut), comments on recordings by original casts and subsequent revivals, and further information (such as descriptions of film versions). I summarized critical reactions, pro and con, to the original productions, but otherwise endeavored to make the entries broadly objective. My resources were thoroughly footnoted for anyone wishing to read more deeply.

How did you decide what to put in and, perhaps more challenging, what to leave out?

My initial foray to assemble potential entries was wide-ranging, resulting in a list of more than 200 possibilities. In conversation with my editor, we pared that down to 100–125. It was my intention to be as comprehensive as possible: Sondheim had a hand in the creation of 18 significant “major” musicals, a handful of revues assembled from his body of work, as well as projects for movies and television. All of these became distinct entries. Starring performers (many of whom were nominated for Tony Awards) received separate treatment, as well as his creative collaborators—book writers, directors, designers, and orchestrators. The list was reduced somewhat by treating some performers within the context of shows, rather than as stand-alone entries. I also assembled comprehensive lists of Sondheim’s juvenilia, numerous awards, favorite films, and more. Of course, an extensive biographical entry was developed, and several entries detailed his opinions about everything from opera and song writing to paper and pencils.

I endeavored not to leave out anything of importance, but to find ways to include salient but perhaps minor information within more extensive entries.

What was the project time line?

I began research with a trip to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, in January 2018. Senior Music Specialist Mark Eden Horowitz, a regular contributor to the Sondheim Review and the library’s curator for works by numerous creators of music and musical theater, provided me with access to extensive background resources that he had assembled about Sondheim and his shows. Additionally, I had a comprehensive bookshelf of texts about Sondheim and a complete set of the 84 issues of the Sondheim Review. I also spent the first weeks of 2018 brainstorming and identifying various entries that were essential to include.

Writing began in February 2018. I finished—131 entries and approximately 295,000 words later—in October 2019. I submitted my manuscript to Rowman & Littlefield. The original plan was to publish in April 2020; however, the pandemic delayed production and the book was finally released in 2021.

In your book’s introduction, you mentioned that Sondheim took time to respond to your many project-related queries. What was his greatest advice?

My email queries to Sondheim tended to be about details I could not verify from published material. Even though he remained a very busy nearly 90-year-old creator, he always took the time to respond quickly and candidly. He carefully reviewed the biographical entry that I drafted and assured me that it was accurate. I did not seek broad advice from him, but as I mentioned in my introduction, my guiding principles were his mantras, displayed on the end papers of his lyric studies: “Content Dictates Form,” “Less Is More,” and “God Is in the Details.”

Ultimately, what do you think you set out to achieve with this book?

My goal in assembling the Sondheim Encyclopedia was to provide a single comprehensive volume that encompassed his career and creative output, honoring his work and that of his numerous collaborators. I envisioned this book to be attractive to his countless admirers, as well as students and directors of musical theater who might want to delve more deeply into his extensive oeuvre. Additionally, I believe the Encyclopedia is a multifaceted compendium that can be enjoyed by anyone who loves musical theater and is eager to learn more about what is involved in creating productions.

What do you predict for the legacy of Sondheim?

Sondheim preferred not to speculate about his legacy, saying that was for future generations to determine. I’m not reticent: I believe that his shows will be revived and sometimes reinvented—for instance, the current gender-switched rendition of Company—for years to come. I should also add that his mentoring of subsequent generations of creative musical theater and dramatic artists means that his insights, precepts, and advice will continue to have influence, impact, and meaning.

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