My Life with Stephen Sondheim and His Friends

I love the performing arts – all of them.  Grand opera transports me; light comedy makes me laugh; serious drama makes me think; ballet makes me want to pirouette. Little, however, compares to how I feel when I’m watching a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s work.  I discovered Sondheim a bit late, considering that by the time I saw my first Sondheim show, he’d had several hits – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music -- produced successfully on Broadway.  I went to see a production of A Little Night Music starring Jean Simmons when I was in London in 1975 and I was hooked.  I mean, I love the music of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.  But I’d never heard anything like this -- the intricacies of Sondheim’s music (in this case, waltzes written in ¾ time), and the intelligence of his lyrics captivated me and I wanted to absorb anything of his that I could get my hands on.  I bought original cast recordings of as many of his shows as I could find and listened to them until the records wore out.

Not long after returning from London, I began a second job ushering at the Kennedy Center.  Very quickly I was working seven performances a week, which means I was spending most of my life with people who loved theatre as much as I did.  And I could talk about Sondheim and his genius to my heart’s content because many of my fellow ushers were huge Sondheim fans, too.  Few of my non-theatre friends – and none of my colleagues in my day job -- had any idea what I was talking about when I mentioned Stephen Sondheim.

I had been ushering a few months when a new Sondheim show, Pacific Overtures, opened a pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center.  I saw almost every performance in its 4-week run.  This story of the opening of Japan to the West translated into a Broadway musical fascinated me.  The show was performed semi-kabuki style – until the very last number, all the roles were performed by men.  And there were some incredibly clever songs:  Chrysanthemum Tea, Someone in a Tree, Détente, to name a few.

Around this time – and I’m not sure how it happened – I managed to obtain Mr. Sondheim’s personal address.  I wrote him a short note telling him how much I appreciated his work.  And he wrote back.  Over the next several years, I wrote him several times.  He always wrote back.  During my years ushering at the Center, he often visited for the opening of a show or other event.  On one of these visits, he stood alone in a corner of the Opera House lobby and one of my fellow ushers said to me, “Go introduce yourself.  He’s going to know who you are.”  I’d never before been presented with this opportunity and I realized that I couldn’t imagine actually talking to him.  I knew that I didn’t want to know that he could walk and talk like the rest of us.  I think having a conversation with him would have changed things for me.  I needed to keep him on that pedestal.

In 1979, Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway.  One of my usher friends and I got tickets to see the show.  By now, I knew enough about Sondheim’s work and how involved it was to know that it was important not to go in “cold”; it was best to do one’s homework.  The original cast recording was released pretty soon after the show’s opening, so I bought it as soon as it came out and listened to it regularly.  By the time I saw the show, I knew the score.  It enhanced my appreciation.  I thought it was brilliant.  I told Sondheim in the note I sent him, “I feel everything you’ve written has led you to this work.”

Now, I realize that not everyone is going to enjoy a show about an avenging barber who slashes the throats of his customers and, along with his accomplice, grinds the bodies into meat pies.  But the fact that he would even come up with this crazy idea for a Broadway musical is what fascinates me about Stephen Sondheim.  I, too, enjoy the easy Broadway musicals that portray love and desire and are light and funny and romantic, but what I love about Sondheim is that he looks at the other side of people – some would say the dark side.  He asks questions in his work.  He asks us to work a little bit when we watch his shows.  He assumes a level of intelligence in his audience and doesn’t go for the easy sell.  Imagine writing a show about what happens after “happily ever after” (Into the Woods). Or about how an artist creates great art (Sunday in the Park with George).  Or about a homely, sickly woman’s obsessive love (Passion).

In 1980, Sweeney’s national tour came to the Opera House.  I ushered the show 6 or 7 performances a week for 8 weeks.  And you know what?  The show was as fresh for me the day it closed as it was the day it opened.

During the summer of 2002, the Kennedy Center presented a Sondheim Celebration during which six Sondheim shows played in repertory – Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Company, Sunday in the Park with George, Passion and A Little Night Music.  In addition, the New National Theatre of Tokyo presented Pacific Overtures in a breathtaking production.  Barbara Cook and Mandy Patinkin each presented concerts of Sondheim music.  People came from all over the world to attend performances.

I attended all the shows, including the closing performance of A Little Night Music. As I wandered through the grand foyer before that last show, I saw Sondheim nearby.  It would have been so easy to walk up and introduce myself.  He might have remembered me as his occasional correspondent from so long ago.  But I couldn’t do it.  I still don’t want to know that he can walk and talk like the rest of us.

Here’s to you, Stephen!

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