The writer who rhyme-timed with Stephen Sondheim

The writer who rhyme-timed with Stephen Sondheim

Daniel T. Max
Daniel T. Max

You have to give Daniel T. Max of Montclair credit for chutzpah.

You need more than a dollop of it to try to show off your lyric-writing ability to Stephen Sondheim.

Yes, that Stephen Sondheim, the composer of musical classics such as “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Sunday in the Park With George” — to name a few.

On the other hand, there is Mr. Max, who, when he talked to his idol in 2017, had just completed the lyrics to — wait for it — the annual Purim play for the Montclair Jewish Workshop, a group of otherwise unaffiliated Jews. This one was a parody of “Hamilton.”

Still, DT (as he is known) was not to be dissuaded.

The pair had been discussing rhyme and Mr. Max told Mr. Sondheim: “I managed to rhyme ‘Ashi, Ashi, Ashi Ashareus’ with ‘I don’t know how to say this.’”

Perhaps DT expected a pat on the back, but it was not to be. After a brief pause, SS (as he was not called) offered only, “Not great.”

Mr. Max admitted that “I was hopeful” about receiving a more positive response. “But it was also just a way of relating to him.” So, undeterred, he plowed forward again: “You’ll appreciate this. Also in the parody, I rhymed vodka with babka.”

Director Steven Spielberg and actress Rita Moreno as Valentina on the set of “West Side Story” in 2021, shortly before Mr. Sondheim died. (Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios)

This is the rest of the conversation, as he recalled it.

SS: [Less pleased] “It doesn’t rhyme.”

DT: “I know it doesn’t. You’re so harsh!”

SS: “It’s a near rhyme. That’s my point. If you want to do near-rhyme, don’t boast about it. Don’t say, ‘I’m good at rhymes’ and then do near rhymes.”

This exchange took place during the second of five sessions of varying lengths DT had with the composer, part of what originally was intended to be a profile for the New Yorker, where Max is a staff writer.

Their meetings took place at Mr. Sondheim’s New York City townhouse, his country home in Connecticut, and even at a PEN dinner where he was being honored. (He was accompanied at that one by Meryl Streep, who introduced him.)

The hook for the New Yorker story was a new musical Sondheim was working on, based on two films of surrealist director Louis Buñuel. Mr. Max and his editors were interested in discovering his process as well as “the connection between Sondheim the person and the artist.” Also, while the theater world was filled with Sondheim revivals, he hadn’t had a significant new work in years.

But the based-on-Buñuel play never materialized, and the number of interviews Mr. Max needed to get the full picture of the man was cut short, in part by Mr. Sondheim’s irascibility, in part by covid, but ultimately by his death at 91 last year (Mr. Sondheim died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, on November 26, 2021.)

Ironically, although he wasn’t able to proceed on the New Yorker story, Mr. Max recorded enough fascinating details of their conversations to produce a book: “Finale: Late Conversations With Stephen Sondheim.”

Like Mr. Sondheim, DT grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a largely secular Jewish home. The family celebrated the Jewish holidays. Dan attended Hebrew school, “and I personally was very much interested in Judaism and wanted to get bar mitzvahed.”

The household was certainly culturally Jewish, and it was filled with music. His father, a lawyer (mom was a homemaker), loved Dave Brubeck, and the musician’s “Take Five” was a constant on the family record player. Young Max took clarinet lessons and was an irregular attendee at Broadways shows.

He recalls particularly enjoying the musical “A Chorus Line.” He loved the score so much that he bought the album, which immediately joined Brubeck on the turntable.

The Jewish creators of “West Side Story,” Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents, on the opening night of the original Broadway musical, September 26, 1957. (Ben Martin/Getty Images)

But all that changed when his mother came home from a benefit for an off-Broadway theater group. In her goodie bag was a signed two-record album of “Side by Side by Sondheim.” Young DT was immediately entranced and switched loyalties from Marvin Hamlisch to Sondheim.

“I soon understood that Sondheim’s songs were special in a way that those from ‘A Chorus Line were not,’” Mr. Max remembers in “Finale.” “True, they weren’t as easily singable and definitely not as whistleable… This complexity extended to the music itself, which sometimes filled with tricky rhythms and harmonic improbabilities.”

Mr. Max met Mr. Sondheim for what he calls an audition in January of 2017. They made largely agreeable small talk. Mr. Sondheim ultimately turned down Mr. Max’s request to sit in on the Buñuel creative meetings, but said he hoped their paths would cross again.

The opportunity arose the following April, when Mr. Max sat with Ms. Streep and Mr. Sondheim at the PEN gala. During the festivities, the two mentioned a project they might be collaborating on, but they didn’t go into detail about it. “You know, the kiss of death for a new project is to talk about it before it becomes a thing,” Streep said. “It’s a kinahora.” (She taps the table.) “You don’t buy a crib.”

To which Mr. Sondheim added: “And you don’t tell everybody ‘I’m pregnant.’”

Mr. Max wrote a New Yorker Talk of the Town piece about the evening, and Mr. Sondheim liked it enough to agree to another meeting, and then another. But ultimately SS pulled back, in part because the Buñuel project was not going well. And perhaps there was the kinahora factor. Talking about it wouldn’t make it happen.

“I felt he was a pro,” Mr. Max said. “I don’t think he’d want a profile to run without something he can sell, without having a project to put tushes into seats.”

Still, the two continued to correspond and Mr. Max continued to “think the piece was ongoing.

“Until he died.”

One of Mr. Max’s goals when he was starting out was to try to determine what impact being gay and Jewish had on Mr. Sondheim’s career and life. These were subjects “where he had attained by now almost a reflexive level of deflection,” he said.

His Jewishness came up only once during his meetings with Mr. Sondheim, when SS said: “Well, you’re talking to somebody — I didn’t grow up Reform or anything. I didn’t go to a temple until I was 22. I know nothing whatsoever. What I can tell you is I haven’t been to Passover since Lenny [Bernstein]. And that was a pretty long time ago.”

Mr. Max thought him “not unlike my own father, a secular Jew who was culturally aware of his Jewish heritage and proud of it.”

Mr. Max was a bit less certain about this next logical step, but he believes Mr. Sondheim was a “Jewish composer. It’s a little hard to say how you make the case, but one easy way is to compare him to Cole Porter — the internality, the ambivalence, the complexity of the lyrics, the emphasis on the worth of each being.”

Jewish or not, Mr. Sondheim’s philosophy was simple: “Write what you want to write. Don’t write what you think people want you to write.”

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