[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.

You’ve already created twenty Sondheim-themed cryptics. Is there enough raw material in his oeuvre to keep this project going indefinitely?

Well, I’ve run out of shows for the one-show-per-puzzle series. But Sondheim’s work contains so much distinctive material that if I continue basing puzzles on individual songs, I think I have a lot to work with there. Plus there are movies, plays, TV writing etc. that fall outside his Broadway material.

Do you know if Sondheim himself knows about your puzzles, and if so, whether he solves them?

I wondered that myself for a long while! Then out of the blue, right before Christmas in 2008, I got an e-mail from him where he took the trouble to let me know how much he enjoyed the puzzles. As you might imagine, that just blew my mind. I’d been going through a bit of a blue period at the time, but it turns out that having your own work described as “wonderfully ingenious” by Stephen freaking Sondheim is quite the tonic. Since then we’ve corresponded from time to time about the cryptics and other puzzle things, and I was lucky enough to get together with him in person for drinks and conversation one evening earlier this year.

Have you ever designed a set for a Sondheim musical?

Only twice: a small production of Passion, and a full-scale production of Merrily We Roll Along that’s viewable on my website. I’d love to design Sweeney Todd sometime, and Into The Woods probably tops my list of shows I haven’t designed that I’d like to.

Tell us about your construction process.

It’s funny: in many ways I find that my process for constructing puzzles is the same as my process for designing a set, or for writing a song for that matter. I always start with the end effect, or the payoff. With a set it’s some window into the world of the play; with a puzzle it may be some particular verbal surprise or punch line. A lot of time and thought goes into designing the mechanical structure that will ultimately deliver the intended effect. After that comes the fun part: designing all the details that disguise the mechanical structure so that the whole thing hopefully feels effortless and graceful. I’d like the solver to be having an entertaining experience without being aware of all the contrivances involved, so that when the payoff finally comes it feels like a nice surprise, not something labored.

Give us a few favorite clues from your puzzles.

In terms of being short and sweet, my favorite might be this &lit. clue: Little animal Mary blithely leads! (4) Otherwise, some of my favorite clues are those that use certain elements in a playful sense that isn’t obvious at first reading. Here are a few of those:
   Person suspected at first has criminal charge (12)
   Is vessel getting an overhaul? (6)
   …in hindsight, empty gallery is old-fashioned and dull (6)

Answers and explanations:
LAMB (initial letters. &lit); MANSLAUGHTER (man + s[uspected] + laughter [“ha”s]); SELVES (anagram of “vessel‚” definition = “I”); STODGY (“dots” reversed + g[aller]y)


It was my pleasure!

Download Mark Halpin’s Sondheim-themed puzzles here

Are there Sondheim fans among Nation puzzle solvers? Let us know below, and feel free to share comments, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle.