Stephen Sondheim’s different job: crossword setter | Crosswords

Michael Crawford is way from the one individual from the world of musical theatre …

… to have expressed this thought recently. The identical goes, in a quieter means, for the world of crosswords. Crosswords, that’s, of a selected sort.

Stephen Sondheim – playful, intelligently demotic – was no fan of the American-style puzzle, regardless of its being playful and intelligently demotic at its greatest. This may occasionally or will not be as a result of he had a puzzle rejected by the New York Instances when he was “14 or 15”; the reply letter described him as “clearly precocious”, which is how he realized that adjective.

In 1968, he urged readers of the New York journal to as an alternative search the British-style cryptic:

clue can provide you all of the pleasures of being duped {that a} thriller story can. It has floor innocence, shock, the revelation of a hid which means, and the catharsis of answer.

Let’s be somewhat extra exact. In the course of the pandemic, we’ve got mentioned in these pages a selected form of cryptic crossword: the type you discover at weekends that lacks black squares and repeatedly sends the solver to the dictionary, the place the crammed grid could also be not more than the place to begin for a startling endgame. We might euphemistically name these beasts “the engrossing puzzles” – it was to those that Sondheim was addicted within the Nineteen Fifties.

Steven Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein take a break from crosswords to rehearse West Facet Story, 1957. {Photograph}: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Is “addicted” too robust a phrase? No: Sondheim’s behavior was to purchase (or, as he in any other case advised it, retrieve from an inbound steamship) a replica of the BBC’s Listener journal on a Thursday on the way in which to fulfill up with a colleague to put in writing a musical, and the Listener’s puzzle (now adopted by the Saturday Instances) is probably essentially the most engrossing of all.

“I obtained Leonard Bernstein hooked,” he recalled in 2004. “Thursday afternoons, no work obtained executed on West Facet Story. We have been doing the puzzle.” They could even have managed to rationalise this as not bunking off, given Sondheim’s description of composition: “You make a sample out of a collection of discrete bits of knowledge and attempt to make it swish so that you gained’t really feel the hassle behind it. In that sense, lyric writing is a puzzle.”

Right here he’s explaining what he thinks is the “good factor about doing a crossword puzzle”:

Academy of Achievement, class of 2005.

Bernstein and Sondheim have been among the many fortunate few to obtain the privately circulated Apex (“a puzzle each Xmas”), additionally from the engrossing finish of the crosswording spectrum. It was set by retired carpenter Eric Chalkley and is now the purview of one other setter (“a Phi each Xmas”). Phi (who you may get to know right here) has shared the 2010 Apex for these not within the distribution record. You’ll be able to absolutely guess its theme, and you may learn Sondheim’s letter in reply to Phi right here.

On the subject of puzzles about Sondheim, his eighty fifth birthday in 2015 was properly celebrated by Guardian setters. Arachne (who you may get to know right here) set an exquisite prize puzzle (with annotated options) …

19a Two idiots stripped Mini’s bumpers off (9)
[ definition: ones who bump off ]
[ wordplay: synonym for ‘idiot’, repeated + MINI without first & last letters (“stripped”) + S ]
[ ASS & ASS + IN + S ]

… to which Sondheim replied:

I sit up for avoiding work with the intention to remedy it.
Steve S

Sondheim signed off as Steve! I didn’t see that coming. On the similar time, the Sondheim Society commissioned Enigmatist (who you may get to know right here) to create a customized puzzle. The society’s beneficiant Craig Glenday has allowed us to share the extraordinary puzzle right here. Craig additionally shared a titbit: he mentioned with Sondheim a puzzle/musical/online game hybrid, however it didn’t come to be.

Of Enigmatist’s tribute, Sondheim mentioned: “I’m decided to not sort out the puzzle till I end the opening variety of the brand new present, however it will likely be onerous to withstand (significantly because it seems to be reasonably straightforward.)” He can have discovered later that it isn’t straightforward.

I’ll additionally point out an Enigmatic Variations puzzle from July by Sea-Kale titled The North American One, which I hope reached its topic, and an earlier entry in the identical collection: Resident Jokers by Owzat.

I’ve loved all these immensely and can be spending Christmas lastly going by way of the entire puzzles that resulted when Sondheim put his cash the place his mouth was, and set puzzles for the remainder of us to resolve. This was, he mentioned later, to assist a brand new publication to which his good friend, Gloria Steinem, was a contributor.

Dedicated Dodecahedron by Stephen Sondheim.
Devoted Dodecahedron by Stephen Sondheim.

As illustrated by the giddying grid accompanying this paragraph, they too are … engrossing. Forty-two of the beasts appeared in the New York journal till his different job (particularly Firm) diverted him from public setting, although I perceive his get together friends tended to be regaled with other forms of puzzle. Right here’s a pattern, an instance of New York content material in a British form of clue:

5. Mixtures of fully Yiddish sighs? (6)
[ definition: mixtures ]
[ wordplay: synonym of “completely” + Yiddish expressions of woe ]
[ ALL + OYS ]

The journal celebrated its fortieth birthday by reprinting the primary three; the others have been digitised by Google Books. Animator Galen Fott has assiduously collated the related hyperlinks in a blogpost and composer Colm Molloy has executed likewise in a Twitter thread.

I’m not alone in diving into Sondheim’s puzzles as this wretched 12 months ends. We are able to hope that the swell of enthusiasm may immediate whomever owns the related rights to republish the hens’-teeth assortment in e book type.

Let’s end by making a psychological be aware to look at the whodunnit Sondheim co-wrote with Anthony Perkins – and returning to Firm with an addition to our collaborative playlist, Therapeutic Music Recorded in 2020-21 to Accompany a Clear up or Even Hear To:

The Women Who Lunch: Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald.

Right here’s a set of all our explainers, interviews and different useful ins and outs.

The Delivery Forecast Puzzle Guide by Alan Connor, which is partly however not predominantly cryptic, might be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop.

Crossword weblog will resume on 13 December.

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