[First, three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nationpuzzle–solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every clue is explained in detail on the Monday following the online publication of the puzzle.]
Yes, Stephen Sondheim is a giant in the musical theater. But what’s less widely known is that he was second only to Frank Lewis in bringing cryptic crosswords to the United States. Moreover, he was the first to publish variety, bar-diagram cryptics (such as our Puzzle #3218). His puzzles appeared in New York magazine in 1968-69. In fact, the first three were reprinted recently to celebrate the magazine’s forty-year anniversary (get those PDFs here).
Of course, cryptic aficionados are well aware of that history. They will be quick to point out that wordplay is sometimes a significant ingredient in Sondheim lyrics. And what about the fact that SONDHEIM is an anagram of HEDONISM! Here is a clue from our puzzle #3229: Composer with spouse’s child eating chicken—he is in shadowy surroundings (7,8)
All this serves to introduce Mark Halpin, a theater designer, a brilliantly versatile puzzle creator and one of our Nation puzzle test solvers. He has also created many Sondheim-themed cryptic crosswords for The Sondheim Review. We decided to interview Mark (whom we know as Zebraboy in the National Puzzlers’ League) about this project of his. See below for links to the puzzles themselves.
How did you get started making cryptic crosswords?
Cryptic crosswords have long been my favorite type of puzzle to solve. As with normal crosswords, the solving experience is consistently engaging throughout, with every clue being sort of its own mini-puzzle. A good variety cryptic adds to that another level of novelty and discovery as the solver figures out the particular gimmicks the constructor has woven into the puzzle. The Sondheim puzzles that you mention, in fact, were among those that made me fall in love with cryptics and suggested the degree of playfulness that could be incorporated into the type. So I jumped at the first chance I had to work on a cryptic. My friend Darren Rigby had created a brilliant grid for a variety cryptic for an NPL-related publication, and he invited me to do all of the cluing for the grid. I had a lot of fun doing it, and he seemed to like the results, so I’ve enjoyed working on cryptics ever since.
What led you to the idea of a series of Sondheim-themed puzzles?
A few years ago The Sondheim Review, for which I’d already written an article or two, did a special issue commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of West Side Story. Since they were doing all kinds of celebratory stuff, and given Sondheim’s well-known love of games and puzzles, it struck me that a cryptic themed around the show would be a nice fit. Rick Pender, the TSR editor, liked the idea well enough that we decided to make it a regular feature of the magazine. The next issue was primarily about Sunday in the Park with George, so I based a puzzle on that, and after that it just seemed like a natural idea to do a puzzle per show, though the magazine didn’t necessarily have a similar focus each issue.