Side by side over Sondheim, a Montclair conversation
Watchung Booksellers has hosted book talks for years. Authors such as Hillary Clinton,
David Sedaris and Linda Villarosa have come to the Montclair bookstore to engage with readers directly.
The store’s owner, Margot Sage-EL, believes every book talk has its own character and feel. The speakers’ personal reflections about their work shape how the conversation unfolds and how readers respond to the writing.
On Nov. 29, two Montclairians, journalist D.T. Max and Montclair State University theater professor Peter Flynn, came together to discuss Max’s latest book, “Finale, Late Conversations With Stephen Sondheim.”
“Finale” details the last four years of composer and lyricist Sondheim’s life. It traces Max’s attempt to get an understanding of who Sondheim really was inside and outside the theater. Between 2017 and 2021, Max and Sondheim had five long free-form conversations, all of which are retold in “Finale.”
The distinctive element of the conversation at Watchung Booksellers was that both Max and Flynn knew Sondheim, but their relationships with him varied drastically. Max viewed Sondheim from the perspective of a journalist; Flynn saw him from the perspective of a theater director.
The most symbolic example of their contrasting relationship was how they referred to Sondheim.
“You call him Steve. I don’t,” Max said to Flynn about midway through the talk. Max saw Sondheim as a profile subject. Flynn viewed him as a mentor in his field from whom he could learn.
While Max had long appreciated Sondheim’s music and plays, he did not obsess over him as many fans do. He didn’t even know Sondheim’s biographical information.
When he admitted that he did not know where Sondheim was born or where he went to college, Flynn muttered “New York City” and “Williams College” under his breath.
“I could not remember the most basic things about him,” Max said. “I was just going there to be a listener.”
He found that his approach worked well because Sondheim was resistant to interlopers and intrusions.
“Sondheim was not waiting for my criticism, so I would not be a critic,” Max said. “I wanted to keep the conversation as non-interviewy as possible … I do like to nurture in interviews. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but I do it.”
Max also described having a playful rivalry with Sondheim.
“Sondheim and I had a certain competitiveness,” he said. “At a dinner with Meryl Streep, he kept trying to put me down. It was important to show her that he was more impressive than me. It was fun. I would get some jabs in at him, too.”
Flynn was surprised by the nature of Max and Sondheim’s relationship. He was impressed by what Max felt confident enough to ask Sondheim about.
“I was impressed by your gutsy questions,” Flynn said to Max in the opening of their conversation.
The first time Flynn ever met Sondheim was at the first script reading of his play “Lily.” His writing partner, Brooks Ashmanskas, asked if it was OK to bring a friend to the event. Flynn was shocked when Ashmanskas’ friend turned out to be Sondheim.
Flynn had deep respect for Sondheim’s opinion of their script.
“I had one eye on my cast, crew and writing partner,” Flynn said. “The other eye was devoted solely to Sondheim.”
When the script reading was done, Sondheim had two pages full of questions for Flynn and Ashmanskas to contemplate.
Max felt this heavy participation was perfectly in line with Sondheim’s character.
“He loved being involved in the creative process,” he said. “He tried to guide me on how to write” the book.
After the script reading, Sondheim left Flynn with one piece of advice.
“Write down your questions about what you have written even if it’s at 3:30 a.m.,” Flynn recalled. “That’s where you’ll begin working tomorrow.”
Flynn still asks himself questions about his writing, especially now that he’s a theater professor.
“I see it as my job to help people understand the music and lyrics as best they can,” he said.
There was one moment where Max’s competitiveness and Flynn’s desire to teach clashed.
In one of their five interviews, Max and Sondheim began to debate who was the better rhymer. Max felt that many of Sondheim’s lyrics were “groan-worthy” and that he could do a better job.
“Once for Purim, I rhymed ‘babka’ with ‘vodka’ for the performance. I thought it was pretty good,” recalled Max, “but Sondheim was offended by it. Sondheim said, ‘Off-rhymes are fun if you like singing off-key.’”
Max retroactively tried to respond to Sondheim.
“I never told him this, but I don’t like the opening lines of Sweeney Todd,” Max said with a laugh. Then, he recited the lines.
“‘Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. His skin was pale and his eye was odd.’ His eye was odd? That feels forced,” Max said. “I would have written ‘fear of God.’”
Flynn interjected, theorizing that “the odd eye” isn’t a physical description of Sweeney Todd. Instead, it is a stage note for the actors.
“It tells actors that this character is suspicious,” Flynn explained. “Sweeney Todd is looking for who wronged him. … Ultimately, that odd eye helps connect us to Sweeney Todd’s motivation.”
Max was taken aback. He was visibly impressed by both Sondheim’s lyrics and Flynn’s explanation. The audience at Watchung Booksellers got a glimpse of how Max interacted with Sondheim in their meetings.
“That’s a good answer,” Max said. “I am glad I didn’t mention it to Sondheim.”
In the closing moments of the book talk, Flynn mentioned what the writer Anna Quindlen said at Sondheim’s memorial. Quindlen expressed the feeling that Sondheim’s music will always be with us, but that she would miss the person himself.
“This is the guy,” Flynn said. “This book shows the guy who hangs out and talks with people. That’s the through line with ‘Finale.’”