Sondheim

In 1966, ABC decided to try to change its image. It had a reputation for dumb shows with scantily-clad women and car chases. Someone at the network decided they were going to prove they could do quality, too. Thus was born a weekly series called ABC Stage ’67. Its first broadcast was a film version of a John le Carré story, Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn starring James Mason. Later high points included A Christmas Memory adapted from a Truman Capote story starring Geraldine Page (it became a perennial) and Sam Peckinpah’s adaptation of Katharine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine starring Jason Robards, Olivia de Havilland and Theodore Bikel.

Stage ’67 attempted some musicals, too, including efforts by Bock and Harnick, Comden, Green and Styne, and Bacharach and David. None of these was up to the best of their creators’ work. But one of the musicals was a preview of some terrific coming attractions.

On Wednesday, November 16, 1966, I was sixteen years old, sitting in my bedroom in Evanston, Illinois, watching the new episode of Stage ’67 on my portable color TV set. Anthony Perkins played a poet who sang about withdrawing from the real world to live in a department store. He would hide by day, and have the store as his private domain by night. (Except it turned out not to be his private domain.) Based on a short story by John Collier, Evening Primrose featured a script by James Goldman and a score by someone whose name was familiar to me as the lyricist of West Side Story and Gypsy. (I didn’t know A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. My parents didn’t take me to that, probably because they didn’t want to have to explain to me what a courtesan was.)
The opening song for the poet was, “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here.” Four bars in, I remember vividly that my skin started to tingle. This felt new. The person who wrote this – a guy named Stephen Sondheim – was someone I was determined to follow.

In 1967, I moved to New York to attend NYU. Also, when I turned 18, I was invited by Lehman Engel to join his BMI Musical Theater Workshop as a composer-lyricist. (Yes, I used to write music. Quite a lot of it, actually. Till I realized many people did it better.) In 1971, I also was invited to join a songwriting class that Paul Simon ran at NYU.

Though my home was in musical theater, Paul Simon and Laura Nyro were my pop songwriting gods, and I was thrilled to be in Simon’s class. But it was apparent he didn’t share my enthusiasm for musical theater. I asked him what his problem with the form was. “Well, they’re talking, they’re talking, they’re talking. Then they’re singing.” “So?” I said. And he said, “So where does the music come from?” And I replied it was a formal convention, like, ya know, poetry in some of Shakespeare’s plays. “No,” he said, “if I ever write a musical, there will be a big radio onstage, and whenever it’s time to sing, they’ll turn on the radio.” I decided not to pursue the subject.

Then came the news that Company was going to open on Broadway. This was going to be the first thing from that composer-lyricist of Evening Primrose since the broadcast that had so excited me. I heard rumor that Company, which featured a book by George Furth and direction by Hal Prince, was going to revolutionize musical theater. I told Simon that there might be something in the show that would expand his thoughts on musicals. I was the theater critic for the NYU paper and I had a pair of press seats for the second night. I asked Simon if he wanted to join me. He said yes.

And he stood me up. There was an empty seat on the aisle next to me through a show that more than lived up to its advance report. I had never seen a musical that had moved and challenged me so. At the next class, I asked Simon what had happened. He shrugged, “Something came up.” I told him I thought he had missed something important. The idea didn’t seem to bother him. (In 2010, the New York Times Book Review asked Simon to write a review of Sondheim’s book, Finishing the Hat. Presumably he had made Company’s acquaintance in the meantime.)

Some years later, Simon did indeed attempt a musical. In 1998, a show for which he wrote the score, The Capeman, opened on Broadway. My wife asked, “What are you looking for?” “The radio,” I said, and I told her about the conversation. But there was no radio on the stage. “Ah,” I said to her, “He’s learned something.” And fifteen minutes later, I had to add, “But not enough.” Simon was and is a musical genius, but he hadn’t realized what so many of us find out the hard way when we write musicals: if your show is built on a central character, that character shouldn’t be passive. They should be a pile-driver willing to do almost anything to achieve their desire. Simon could have learned from Pseudolus, Mama Rose, Sweeney, Desiree, Fosca and all those seekers in Into the Woods.

Anyway, back to Company … In Lehman Engel’s musical theater class, we knew this was the revolution. A show that took place in an instant in the mind of its leading character and was framed as an argument within himself as to the pros and cons of living a life committed to another person. Maybe the closest thing to this had been the circus sequence in Lady in the Dark, but that had been one sequence, and Company sustained a whole evening, sometimes (as in the case of his three old girlfriends) having people sing together who don’t even know each other. If Company’s immediate antecedent, Cabaret, had been a war between a revue (the Kit Kat songs) and a conventional book musical, Company figured out a way to blend the two aspects of Cabaret into one. The next Sondheim-Prince show, Follies (with a book by James Goldman), would again marry the revue format with characterizations of psychological depth. We in Lehman Engel’s class saw things we could borrow, adapt and, yes, steal. One of my classmates in the workshop was Edward Kleban, who, as lyricist of A Chorus Line, decided much of what would be sung and why in a show whose shape was a surreal audition. Donna McKechnie, who was in both Company and A Chorus Line, told me that, as A Chorus Line was being developed, the innovations of Company constantly served as an inspiration and a challenge for its creators.

I don’t remember the exact date (1971 or ’72) or the specifics, but I do remember that somebody organized a panel in a private dining room in the Sardi’s building at which musical theater writers were scheduled to speak. Sondheim was going to be one of them. I got myself into the room on some pretext. After the panel, I approached him and asked, “Whatever happened to Evening Primrose?” He gave me a startled look and said, “You can’t remember that.” And I started to sing, “Take Me to the World.” He said, “What’s your address?” I gave it to him and, within a week, an acetate of the score of Evening Primrose arrived in the mail. (If you don’t know what an acetate is, that’s why Google was invented. This was before any of the songs from Primrose had been rediscovered in retrospectives.)

I was beginning to stick my toe into the theater world as opportunities arose. I was commissioned to create a one-act musical for a radio project, and so I wrote the music and libretto (there was very little dialogue) of a half-hour piece based on an American folk tale called Wicked John and the Devil, a story about how a blacksmith gets so mean that, when he dies, the devil, to avoid competition, refuses to allow him into Hell. Instead, the devil passes a burning coal out to John and says, “Here, old man, you go start a Hell of your own.” An opportunity came to put the piece up on a bill in New York with pieces by other people. It was being presented in an off-off-Broadway theater on West 51st Street, and I was playing the piano. As one performance was about to begin, I looked into the audience and saw Sondheim. He had opened a pad.

The show over, he signaled me. “Let’s grab a bite.” We went to the Haymarket, a modest restaurant on Eighth Avenue, and he took out the pad and proceeded to ask me questions. Sometimes I answered the questions confidently, and sometimes I hedged. He pressed me when I hedged. He himself didn’t make a single critical statement, but, through the Socratic method, made me face where the show’s weaknesses were. (I remember he confessed that the subject matter – folk and fairy tales and such – generally wasn’t something he took to. I thought of that when I saw Into the Woods and guessed that James Lapine had figured out a way to make him care.)

And then came talk. He mentioned that some critics had kept telling him that writing memorable tunes was not something he had a gift for, so the fact that, after hearing the song once (plus a reprise) in 1966, I could sing “Take Me to the World” to him that day in Sardi’s had made him happy.

And he talked about Jule Styne and Gypsy. He said that Styne had next to no ego about his music. If Styne did a setting of a lyric that Sondheim wasn’t thrilled about, Styne would say, “It’s gone,” and he’d write something else. “The score,” Sondheim said, “is made up of the tunes I said yes to.” He recognized a lot of the tunes he rejected in later Styne shows.

One morning, he said, he got a call from a friend who said, “I’m enjoying the cast album.” Sondheim replied, “What are you talking about? We haven’t released the cast album yet.” “Oh yeah?” said the friend, and put a needle down on a record. Through the telephone, Sondheim heard the melody of “You’ll Never Get Away From Me.” It was a tune from the album of a 1957 TV musical called The Ruggles of Red Gap for which Styne had composed the music. The lyric began, “I’m in pursuit of happiness / Cuz the Constitution says / I’m entitled to.” Sondheim confessed to being a little pissed about that.

I had been hired by Otis L. Guernsey, Jr. to keep an eye on off-off-Broadway for the Best Plays annual, and, in 1973, in a theater above a shoe store on the upper west side, I saw a play that overwhelmed me called The Hot L Baltimore. It led to my interviewing Lanford Wilson for Newsday. Lanford and I became friends. Also that season, Sondheim’s newest score was heard in A Little Night Music (book by Hugh Wheeler, direction again by Prince). I learned that Sondheim and Wilson had never met. I also learned that they were coming on the same night to off-off-Broadway to see Terrence McNally’s Whiskey, a show for which I had been drafted to play organ. (I don’t claim to play organ competently, but they had no money to hire anybody competent. They had no money at all. They got what they didn’t pay for.) I suggested the three of us go out for a drink after.

It was an intoxicating evening for a theater-mad 23-year-old. I was sitting in Joe Allen’s at the same table with the composer-lyricist of my favorite musical of the year and the writer of my favorite play of the year. I had the fantasy that they would hit it off and collaborate on a new great American musical. They did indeed get along, but as far as I know, neither entertained the idea of a collaboration. (Lanford was also jazzed from the evening, though. Afterward, he and I walked down to our apartments in Greenwich Village. He talked about writing the libretto for an opera version of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke for composer Lee Hoiby, and he sang chunks of the score on the street. A greatly gifted writer, his talents did not extend to singing.)

Sondheim and I were both members of the Council of the Dramatists Guild (he was a very good president of the Guild for several years), and that gave us the excuse to work together a little and meet at Guild events. At one Guild party, I saw him and Edward Albee chatting in a corner, and I wondered if they were comparing horrific mothers.

I never entered the circle of friends that were invited to the dinners and the parties and such. But, as email entered our lives, we started a correspondence mostly centering on arcane film and TV tastes. A few examples:

I was a fan of the 2007 Danish suspense series, The Killing, that at the time was not available in the States. He heard that I had figured out a way to get my hands on it. An email: “All right, Sweet, what can I swap you for it?” I mentioned the BBC broadcast of the Donmar Warehouse production of Company. A messenger dropped off and picked up discs we had burned for each other. This was the beginning of a series of swaps and follow-up email discussions. I mentioned I had just seen and was knocked out by Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point, and he wrote, “Well, I guess I have to let you into the club.” It turned out it was one of his favorite lesser-known movies. In the old days of VHS machines, he had recorded it off the air and had made a small mission of sharing it with those he thought would appreciate it.

When Pacific Overtures was produced at CSC, he wanted my take. I told him that the show had a special hold on me because I’m fascinated by stories about relationships made and destroyed by history. This turned out to be a theme he was especially interested in, and he shot off a list of films on the subject for me to watch, and he followed up regularly to check on what progress I was making.

More recently, I saw a film written and produced by my friend Howard Reich called For the Left Hand about a man named Norman Malone who, when he was ten, had been so viciously attacked by his father that his right hand was useless. Malone’s passion for music was such that he was determined to make a career in it despite his situation. He became an inspirational choir director in a Chicago public school. And he sought out material written for pianists who played only with the left hand. It turned out that an Austrian pianist named Paul Wittgenstein had lost the use of his right hand in WWI and had commissioned a piano concerto for the left hand from Maurice Ravel. Malone practiced the Ravel obsessively for years. The documentary climaxes with Malone, at age 79, making his concert debut playing it with a Connecticut orchestra. As I watched the movie, I thought, hmm, 1) vicious parent, 2) inspirational teacher and 3) Maurice Ravel. Who does this remind me of?

Sondheim’s mother was notoriously monstrous (she once told him she regretted giving birth to him). He spent much of his life celebrating and supporting inspirational teachers and was one himself. And he loved Ravel. So I dropped him a line. A quick response. Yes, he wanted to see the film very much. Did I know he had written his thesis about Ravel? And was there any way I could get a copy to him as his streaming wasn’t working so he couldn’t watch it via the PBS service. I contacted Howard Reich, and Howard burned a disc and sent it to him a couple of weeks ago. I was waiting to hear Sondheim’s thoughts on the film. I don’t know if he got around to seeing it.

A few years after Mike Nichols died, a book comprised of his friends’ stories about him was published called Life Isn’t Everything. (It serves as a happy supplement to Mark Harris’s excellent biography.) I hope someone emulates Life Isn’t Everything and puts out a volume of Sondheim stories. There must be thousands of good ones.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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5 Responses to Sondheim

  1. Mike Lawler says:

    Thanks for this Jeffrey.

  2. Barbara Kolsun says:

    What a beautiful piece and how lucky you were to know him and him to recognize your talent

  3. Nick Wyman says:

    Wonderful reminiscence, Jeff I loved the reference to :Whiskey.” While you guys (Kevin O’Connor, Susan Browning, Beeson Carroll, Charlotte Rae, Michael Sacks) were rehearsing in the nave, I was in the large downstairs room next to 46th St. playing Kilroy in the Circle in the Square student production of “Camino Real” directed by Estelle Parsons. Small world.

  4. Joseph McBride says:

    Lovely reminscence, ful of lore and wisdom and friendship.

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