Stephen Sondheim's New Book Look, I Made a Hat Unloads on Theater Critics With Both Barrels. Here's Where He's Wrong

If you thought the week's top story had anything to do with mass protests on the streets of Cairo or the collapse of the deficit-reduction "super committee" in the halls of Congress, consider yourselves members of that misguided majority who inhabit what has wryly been called "the real world."

For the rest of us -- that is, those whose geopolitical horizons are roughly bounded by the blocks that straddle Broadway from 42nd St. to Lincoln Center in NYC -- it is today's breathlessly awaited arrival in the bookstores of Look, I Made a Hat, the second and final volume of Stephen Sondheim's collected lyrics.

And, true to form, the tart-tongued, octogenarian enfant terrible of the American musical theater does not disappoint. In a sneak excerpt of one of the 480-page tome's "sidebars" published in Sunday's Guardian, the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning composer takes withering aim at that lowest life form of the stage, the professional theater critic.

"It takes a long time to learn not to pay attention to critics, or at least not to let them distract you," the maestro muses. "When you're a young writer, critics have you both ways. The praise makes you overestimate yourself, whereas anything less can often leave you disappointed, or angry and impotent. Writing a letter to the newspaper or magazine that has wounded you will only -- and always -- sound like the whine of a sore loser, again in public. Worse, it encourages critics to think you take them seriously.... That's the most pernicious thing about critics: they cause you to waste your time.

"A good critic," Sondheim goes on to say, "is someone who recognizes and acknowledges the artist's intentions and the work's aspirations, and judges the work by them, not by what his own objectives would have been."

Unless you're Stephen Sondheim, he might have added. Earlier this summer, Sondheim famously doffed his composer's hat for that of the theater critic's snap-brim fedora in a sarcastic, sight-unseen broadside published in the New York Times against ART's revival of Porgy and Bess, then in rehearsal. The excoriation convinced director Diane Paulus to back down from bowdlerizing the Gershwin classic with a new, happier ending penned by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Sondheim's pernicious time-waster proved to be theater's gain.

Admittedly, Sondheim's critique of critics is on the whole absolutely right -- or would be if the raison d'être of theater critics were simply to serve as after-the-fact dramaturges for the artist. But, of course, it isn't. Theater critics are supposed to be articulate and thoughtful and, yes, entertaining advocates for the theatergoing public -- proverbial canaries in the mineshaft, whose sole purpose is to endure the unsightly and cringing toxicity of the stage slag in order to safely guide the actual ticket buyer to whatever rich, Sondheim-grade ore that might be out there.

So I'll make a deal with Mr. Sondheim: I'll agree to refrain from composing show tunes if he'll agree to keep to his side of the great, critic-artist divide.

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