From my chapter, “Gone but Not Forgotten: Theatre Folk,” in my memoir, 200 Times a Year; My Life In, At and Around the Theatre
If you are reading this, you know by now that Stephen Sondheim has passed away. Instead of writing Yet Another obituary, I would like to tell you about the many times his musicals touched, and influenced, my life.
In 1973, at Christmas/New Year’s, I came to New York as a tourist, accompanied by my wife, Paula. We stayed at the Hotel Piccadilly, a tourist-class hotel in W. 45th Street (alas, torn down to make way for the Marriott Marquis Monstrosity). In those days, out-of-towners purchased tickets in advance by sending a check and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to a theatre’s box office. Tickets were around twelve to fifteen dollars – astounding, I know, but true. My wife and I poured over the ads in the NY Times’ Sunday Arts & Leisure section, selected our dates and sent in our checks several weeks ahead of time. One by one, the SASEs came back with our tickets.
That Christmas, my wife had given me the original cast album of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, so we selected this as our first show. It was at the Shubert Theatre. It had opened the previous spring but, much to our delight, the original cast was still in it: Len Cariou, Glynnis Johns, Patricia Elliot, Hermione Gingold, et al. It was directed by Harold Prince, who I had heard of but of whom I knew relatively little. I knew more about Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricist, because I had seen local productions of WEST SIDE STORY and COMPANY and, when I was a teenager, had been in a production of GYPSY, which made me fall in love with the theatre. I shall never forget hearing that glorious overture for the first time; also, seeing the strippers. Hubba-hubba!
I was a grad student in Theatre at the University of Michigan, which did almost exclusively classics by Shakespeare, Shaw, etc. and had a pipsqueak’s attitude towards the commercial theatre. After the Overture, the curtain at the Shubert Theatre went up, and in five minutes I was hooked, entranced by the exquisite songs (all in ¾ time), wonderful performances and Prince’s staging. We decided to do the whole Broadway nine yards and went over to Sardi’s for dinner figuring, where else to conclude our first Broadway evening? We were seated upstairs because, of course, that’s where they stick the tourists; but this was fine with us. We were at the legendary Sardi’s, surrounded by all the wonderful caricatures of Famous People we only knew from TV or movies but who, for the Broadway community, were friends and colleagues. I said to my wife, “Paula, I have to get here and find some way to be a part of this.” We moved to New York a year and a half later. After kicking around for a while, I finally found my niche at Samuel French, where for many years I was responsible for the firm’s publication of hundreds of plays and musicals. No Sondheim shows, though: his were all handled by our competitor, Music Theatre International.
The more I learned about Sondheim, and the more I heard his songs, I came to realize that he was our greatest lyricist since Cole Porter and, certainly one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century. His lyrics, even the more complex ones, were always perfectly rhymed. No sloppy false rhymes for Mr. Sondheim. He was also one of the theatre’s greatest innovators.
Paula and I saw the Opening Night of PACIFIC OVERTURES at the Winter Garden Theatre and then, sans Paula, I saw every show of his thereafter; three SWEENEY TODDs (the original production with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, the first revival (which started at the York Theatre when it was on the Upper East side, with Bob Gunton as a most memorable Sweeney and which then moved to Circle in The Square), and John Doyle’s pared down, eccentric production with Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone in which all the performers accompanied themselves on musical instruments (LuPone played the tuba). The original remains the best I have seen.
My all-time favorite is FOLLIES, which I have seen three times: two Broadway revivals and the National Theatre’s production which I saw in a large movie theatre. All were great, but I have a particular fondness for the second revival, which starred Bernadette Peters, Danny Burstein and the late Jan Maxwell, with Jane Houdyshell belting out a memorable “Broadway Baby” and Elaine Page giving a wonderful rendition of “I’m Still Here.”
My least favorite was ASSASSINS. I saw the original production at Playwrights Horizons with Victor Garber as Booth, Terry Mann as Leon Czolgosz, Jonathan Hadary as Charles Guiteau, Annie Golden as Squeaky Fromme and Jace Alexander as Lee Harvey Oswald. In this original, Oswald went to the Texas Schoolbook Depository building to kill himself. Booth emerged from the boxes, handed him a rifle and said, “Instead of shooting yourself, why don’t you shoot the President?” As someone who lived through the Kennedy assassination, I was outraged. When the Roundabout revived the show at Studio 54, Sondheim and James Lapine changed the ending, making it less offensive.
Of the many revivals I was privileged to see, the best were Jerry Saks’ revival of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (which was the first show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics), starring Nathan Lane as Pseudolus, (I still laugh when I think of Zaks’ staging of the opening number, “Comedy Tonight);” A production of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC with Catherine Zeta-Jones, perfect as Desireé, and Angela Lansbury as Madame Arnfeldt, also delightful; two productions of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, one by the Roundabout at Studio 54 and the other at the Hudson Theatre. Both made me appreciate more Sondheim’s extraordinary examination of the art of making art, much more than I did when I saw the original production, first at Playwrights Horizons (ACT I only), with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. I have become a theatre geezer. You know you’re a theatre geezer when you start seeing revivals – and you saw the original production.
Well, I could go on and on about having been blessed to see all Sondheim’s shows; but mention must be made of what a kind and generous man he was, legendary for showing up at what must have been hundreds of workshops and small productions, mentoring a younger generation of composers and lyricists. You can see this on full display in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s exquisite film, “Tick, Tick, BOOM.” Bradley Whitford does an amazing Sondheim impersonation, eccentric mannerisms and all. Sondheim’s astute and kind words gave Larson the encouragement to go on after a workshop of his futuristic sci-fi musical at Playwrights Horizons failed to attract any production interest. By the way, that’s actually Sondheim’s voice on Larson’s answering machine.
All in all, I doubt if we shall see Sondheim’s like again.