Brazenly entertaining ... The crackle of [this] book has everything to do with the zingy forthrightness of [its] title character ... Sondheim’s inability to finish the work gives Max’s book a faint air of Waiting for Godot. Yet failure proves illuminating, as Sondheim dissects the routine of his stymied creative process, until he pulls the plug on Max, explaining that he’d rather not be profiled after all. The death of Sondheim last year increased the value of these sharp-witted conversations and enabled Max to publish them ... Sondheim is, of course, top-drawer throughout. Broadway’s god of mixed emotions, he is captured in Max’s set of interviews and spare commentaries in all his irascible tenderness — his chumminess on display along with his crabbiness ... Max’s method results in a curiously touching miniature ... It summons to the page a Broadway voice like no other.
A lot of what Sondheim said was familiar to people who know and love his work, but there were also some poignant new insights, like how much trouble he was having finding words and music for the Buñuel ... The implicit promise of Finale is that there’s plenty more great stuff where that came from. Alas, the nearly 9,000 words in the magazine were enough to soak up just about all of Mr. Max’s top-shelf material. Which is not to say that the book, which is about five times longer, lacks surprises—some pleasant, some less so ... Mr. Max keeps popping up to tell us how his experiment is unfolding, and what his next move will be. At times, the effect is like watching a narrated nature documentary ... If you have affection for Sondheim, this voiceover is likely to run afoul of your sympathies. Not to get all Janet Malcolm about it, but it’s hard to watch a journalist try again and again to cajole a subject into giving access he doesn’t want to give ... This book does make some facts about Sondheim newly clear. That he was—at the end, as at the beginning—too smart and self-protective to....be disarmed by a genial journalist genially quoting his lyrics back to him.
Max...mixes his own commentary with the raw and revealing transcripts from his conversations with Stephen Sondheim (1930–2021) near the end of the composer’s life, conducted for what became a posthumous profile ... Interspersed throughout are Max’s insightful reflections on the delicacy required for interviews ... Max paints a nuanced and sympathetic portrait of a notoriously private figure, enhanced with his own astute and earnest perspective.