On November 26, Stephen Sondheim, one of Broadway’s most celebrated composers and librettists, died at the age of ninety-one—by coincidence, just as a Hollywood has released a new adaptation of West Side Story, the most famous of his plays. Sondheim, John Podhoretz notes, was part of a generation of Jews that made enormous contributions to American literature and arts; and indeed he finds parallels between Sondheim’s work and that of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. But this leads Podhoretz to the obvious question:
What role, if any, did Sondheim’s Jewishness play in his work? He was raised by a first-generation Lithuanian Jewish mother who had herself been raised in a traditional household but later preposterously claimed to have been educated at a convent. Janet Sondheim (known as Foxy) designed dresses her husband manufactured—which meant that they were basically in the shmatte business. They divorced when Herbert Sondheim fell in love with a Catholic—and after marrying his second wife, Herbert never told his two subsequent sons he was a Jew. Sondheim’s biographer Meryle Secrest reports Stephen did not have a bar mitzvah and first entered a synagogue at age nineteen.
And yet, and yet. From an early age, Sondheim was hungry for entry not into a world of Gentile gentility, but one entirely dominated by Jewish men. And he would spend half a century almost entirely in Jewish company. His collaborators on West Side Story were Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, the librettist Arthur Laurents, and the producer Harold Prince. . . . All in all, in a career spanning 51 years and nineteen shows, Sondheim worked with two Gentile librettists and one Gentile director—and that was it.
But to judge by the subject matter he chose, Judaism and the Jewish experience were of limited interest to him. . . . The same cannot be said of his most distinguished collaborators. Robbins’s greatest triumph came with Fiddler on the Roof, which was produced by Harold Prince. Arthur Laurents’s first Broadway success was a play about anti-Semitism in the military called Home of the Brave. Bernstein was obsessed with Jewish subject matter; among other works, he wrote a symphony inspired by the kaddish, . . . and set three Psalms to music in Hebrew.
And yet, like Sondheim, they were mostly deracinated. The problem for them was that true deracination was not yet really possible. Until the 1950s, socially ambitious American Jews were denied places in country clubs, white-shoe law firms, and upper corporate management, and were subject to strict academic quotas. America was the most welcoming place Jews had ever lived, but Jews were still a people apart even if they never set foot inside a shul or they pretended to have gone to Catholic school.
Indeed, the life story of Stephen Sondheim is a testament to how everything was and is possible in America.