On Tuesday, September 19 at 5 pm, D.T. (Daniel) Max will be joining us for a Casual Conversation on Zoom. Mr. Max is a staff writer for The New Yorker and has been in that position for the last 13 years. His most recent book is Finale: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim (Harper 2002) ISBN 978-0-06-327981-0.
In addition to his latest book, Mr. Max has published the first biography of David Foster Wallace and his struggle with mental illness, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: The Life of David Foster Wallace, and a book about the search for the cause of brain-wasting diseases: The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery. This is D.T. Max’s bio page at The New Yorker:
Mr. Max is on the council of the Authors Guild, which seeks to protect the interests of writers: https://authorsguild.org/ . Take some time to read the material. Almost all of our guests have been speaking with us about their books, and I have purchased each and every one of them in hard copy. I use the printed version to take notes by making marginalia. I would hope that each of you has contributed to the welfare of our writers by buying their work.
While all of his work is open to conversation, including his bio of David Foster Wallace (and through him a discussion of crippling mental illness), the principal focus will be on his most recent book about his interviews with Stephen Sondheim in the last years before his death at age 91 from cardiovascular disease. Every single one of you will know of Sondheim through his musicals. His lyrics for West Side Story are part of our culture. Many of you will have seen a performance of A Funny Thing on the Way to the Forum, for which Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics. (The movie is regrettably bad, and a humiliation of Buster Keaton.) And Gypsy, with the film starring Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood, along with TV versions with Bette Midler and Imelda Staunton (Great Performances). Into the Woods (music and lyrics by Sondheim) was also made into a movie with Meryl Streep (one of the Dartmouth women exchange students in the program before full coeducation) in a leading role, as was Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (music and lyrics) with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.
Of course, all of these musicals started on the stage where they are still performed, frequently, throughout this country. As are Sondheim’s other great works, all with his music and lyrics:Company, Follies, A Little Music (“Send in the Clowns”), Assassins, Merrily We Roll Along, Pacific Overtures, Assassins, Passion, Frogs (first performed in the Yale University swimming pool with Meryl Streep in the cast), Bounce, and Anyone Can Whistle, his glorious flop. (I am leaving out the movie The Last of Sheila on purpose, as well as the TV series Topper. Then there are those of us, a dwindling few unfortunately, who find pleasure in Sondheim’s lyrics in Do I Hear a Waltz?)
This book may be about Stephen Sondheim (and I admit to being a passionate, but cleareyed, devotee of his work), but also about much more, and much that should be of interest to all of us in our mid-70s, where the end is in sight, our personal eschaton. What of our being is left when the things we do and have helped define us leave us, as they will if we live long enough? This is how Mr. Max writes what he saw after Sondheim ended the series of interviews with “I do not want to be looked at. . . . I don’t want to be watched”:
That moment in the house made me worry for the one and only time about Sondheim, how old he was, how fragile, how much of his life depended on an effort of will on his part that derived from his titanic talent, how repulsive failure must seem to him. Around his unique gift his world spun; absent that this house would disintegrate.
Sondheim did fail in one important respect: Mr. Max gets to the core of Sondheim, and in Sondheim’s determination to hide himself, to not be looked at or watched, Sondheim reveals despite all his efforts.
If you love Sondheim, join us.
If you love terrific writing and the art of biography, join us.
If the theory and technique of musical composition interest you, join us, and learn about Sondheim’s training by Milton Babbitt (!!) and tonicization. And underscoring.
If you want to learn more about old age and the battle (and, yes, rage) against decline, join us.
If you love theater and want to hear about Jerry Robbins, George Abbott, Zero Mostel, Leonard Bernstein, and the best 6-7 minutes in show biz, join us.
Finally, if you want to learn more about the man who described art’s great principle as “making things surprising, but inevitable,” you must join us.
Usual rules apply. If you want to join this Casual Conversation with D.T. Max on Tuesday, September 19 at 5 pm, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org by Sunday, September 17.
P.S. This is our second New Yorker staff writer to take time to be with us, the first being Margaret Talbot who discussed her book on her actor father, Lyle Talbot, and the American entertainment industry in the last century.