I’ve been enthalled by the work of Stephen Sondheim since my freshman year at Harvard, when a college friend played the LP of A Little Night Music for me in his dorm room many years ago. I had never heard anything like it, and I fell in love. I decided right there that I had to write theatre lyrics–which I still do.
The latest tribute to Sondheim’s genius is the lovely, intimate revue Sondheim on Sondheim, which is notable not only for the wonderful songs and wonderful cast (eight superb performers, including Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, and Tom Wopat), but also for the film clips of Sondheim himself explaining how he does what he does, with tongue firmly in cheek. It’s a don’t-miss evening for any fan of his work.
Seeing Mr. Sondheim talking humorously at length in his own home also brought up wonderful memories of the one time I met him. It was 1982, I was 22, and had just moved to NYC to start my career as a lyricist and performer. I had been told that Mr. Sondheim was very supportive of young writers, and had lots of advice. I mustered up the nerve to write to him to ask for his guidance, and displayed even more nerve by telling him that while I loved his songs in Merrily We Roll Along, I didn’t like the book–and ask if I could take a crack at rewriting it! Ah, youth. I received a courteous but firm hand-typed note on small stationery, saying politely that he liked the book just fine, thank you, but that if I wanted to stop by some afternoon, he’d be glad to speak with me.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading! But I called his assistant and set up a time to visit him at his home. I arrived wearing a summer-weight seersucker 2-piece suit, bowtie, and my best lace-up shoes. He opened the door and looked at me, probably wondering to himself from what planet I had just arrived! He invited me in, and excused himself for a moment to stir some soup he was making. I looked around, still in shock. It was a beautiful room, full of mysterious objects. He came back in, invited me to sit, and started firing career questions at me. I don’t even remember what they were. I just remember that every word out of his mouth was so articulate, so pointed, so penetrating, that it took my breath away. And he was just chatting casually. My answers must have been halting, because he looked at me for a moment, the seersucker deer in headlights, and said: “Would you like a drink?” I answered yes immediately, and sure enough, while I have never been much of a drinker, I started to calm down and breathe after a couple of sips of whisky. We had a fantastic conversation that lasted quite a while, and he recommended both the BMI and ASCAP musical theatre workshops (I went on to attend both). We talked a bit about the project a composer friend of the time and I had been working on (a musical based on The Seagull), and I told him there were so many other ideas out there that I’d encountered that I wasn’t sure where to start. I asked him if he’d ever seen a film called Passione D’Amore by Italian director Ettore Scola. He said he wasn’t familiar with it. I told him my childhood best friend and I had been mesmerized by it recently, and that it seemed perfectly operatic in scale. I had loved the fact that when the repellent heroine finally made love to the hero, she remained ugly. He liked the sound of that. I remember telling him it seemed more suited to opera than musical because of the grand passion, but that it definitely felt like it needed to sing. I suspect the idea was filed away in that brilliant mind of his and forgotten until sometime later. Now, perhaps down the road someone else also mentioned the film, or he came across it on his own having forgotten our discussion. But with his sharp intellect it seems unlikely. And it’s nice to believe that in exchange for all the advice and encouragement he gave me, maybe I gave him something useful, too.
When we were wrapping up, I remember telling him I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by New York City and the challenges that lay ahead. I told him I had always thought I was fearless, but now that I was really in the city on my own, trying to figure out how to build a life in the theatre, I wasn’t so sure anymore. He looked at me and said: “How old are you?” I told him, 22. He said “And you moved from Boston to NYC alone to be in the theatre without knowing a soul here?” I nodded. He looked me in the eyes, smiled, and said “That sounds pretty brave to me.” I have never forgotten those words, and I will never forget his kindness.