I usually spend March 22 merrily celebrating Sondheimas — the birthday of the most exalted Stephen Sondheim — but this week, I've been thinking a lot about a recent quote of his that just made me go “ugh.” (It was in this "Talk of the Town" piece in the 3/18/19 New Yorker .) Describing his admiration for his longtime collaborator, music director Paul Gemignani, Sondheim said "When Paul gets in front of an orchestra, he does something I've never seen a conductor do, which is he fucks the orchestra, and the result is remarkable."
Now, I’ve spent some time interrogating my initial "ugh" reaction to this quote. Maybe I'm just a prude. Maybe I ought to read it in a more positive light, because sexual energy can be beautiful, joyful, powerful, creative. But I like to think that for the most part, those benefits only happen in a consensual, equal commingling. Yet to talk of "fucking the orchestra" makes it sound like the orchestra is having something done to it, possibly against its will. Or, even if it’s consensual, the language still conjures an image of a passive, naive orchestra that is suddenly able to have an orgasm when a Great Man stands before it and moves his fingers in just the right way.
And I was especially struck when, on the very next page of my New Yorker, I read this Karl Lagerfeld quote about his attitude toward the venerable House of Chanel: "You have to treat an institution like a whore. Then you get something out of her." Don't these two quotes seem to spring from the same attitude, namely, in order for an institution or group to put forth its best work, what it needs is for a man to come in, throw it down, and fuck it?
Sondheim and Lagerfeld are from the same generation (Sondheim is 89 today; Lagerfeld died this year at 85), so it shouldn’t be surprising that they display a similar attitude toward creative genius—one that now seems outmoded. I guess the difference is that Lagerfeld was always known for being kind of a jerk who said deliberately offensive or provocative things, whereas Sondheim doesn't have that reputation. Lagerfeld consciously cultivated a Great Man image; Sondheim always seems a bit uncomfortable with being revered as the Greatest Man of American musical theater. But Great Man attitudes die hard, all the same.
Anyway! Stephen Sondheim, despite my complaints about what you said in your latest interview, I do still think you are a living genius, and nearly everything else you’ve ever written has a special place in my heart and my mind and my sense of my own humanity. I'm genuinely glad that you’ve lived long enough to disappoint me! Happy birthday!