Penguin Random House: Stephen Sondheim, Musical Theater Legend and Knopf Author, Dies at 91

When Stephen Sondheim died last Friday at the age of 91, he left behind a treasure trove of music and lyrics that forever changed American theater and beguiled and delighted audiences far and wide. Those lyrics, which were collected in two separate volumes – FINISHING THE HAT and LOOK, I MADE A HAT – were published by Knopf in 2010 and 2011. And a third book, the pocket-sized SONDHEIM: Lyrics, was published by Everyman’s Library just last year.

Peter Gethers was Sondheim’s editor at Knopf. “Steve’s lyrics and plays are brilliant, funny, emotional, and complicated,” Gethers said. “That basically describes our working editorial relationship. He could make me laugh, think, feel insecure (never intentionally), and make me re-examine everything I thought I knew. He was also generous, demanding, and a perfectionist. In my career, I have worked with several people who were actual geniuses. Steve was the genius of geniuses.”

In addition to the lyrics in the two original books, Sondheim also wrote about his process for crafting a song. And he recalled stories behind the shows he worked on and offered his own views about how he felt the songs he wrote had held up over time. It was the closest he ever came to writing a memoir.

Because Sondheim was a reluctant promoter, it fell to Kathy Zuckerman, Publicity Director at Knopf, to convince him an interview was worthwhile when each new book was released. One television host and die-hard Sondheim fan proved to be particularly persistent.

“When we published FINISHING THE HAT,” Zuckerman recalled, “Steve agreed to take part in a few interviews, but he turned down the idea of being on the satirical ‘Colbert Report’ on Comedy Central, because he didn’t want to be made fun of, even mildly. The producers were so keen to have him on they created a DVD of previous interviews that kept all the snark to a minimum. Steve watched it, but he called back to say he would still pass. Later that same night, I found a clip of Stephen Colbert’s interview with Tony Bennett—a reverential celebration of the man and his music—and I sent it to Steve. In a half hour, Steve phoned and said ‘okay.’ When Colbert found out, he said ‘it’s like having William Shakespeare on the show!’ It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that even led to Steve inviting Colbert to appear in ‘Company’ and a second interview with Colbert for the publication of LOOK, I MADE A HAT.”

Here’s that now-beloved interview clip (in which Colbert writes new lyrics to Send in the Clowns).

In 1998, Knopf published SONDHEIM: A Life, a biography written by Meryle Secrest.

And for the ultimate Sondheim fan, Knopf also produced THE HAT BOX, a special edition of the two original books, packaged together, side by side.

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