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STEPHEN SONDHEIM: A REMEMBRANCE

November 26 marks the first year of Stephen Sondheim’s passing, and like you, I have been thinking a lot about the loss of this great artist. No doubt there have been hundreds of us—men and women who found the confidence to make a career in musical theater thanks to Sondheim’s generosity of spirit and dedication to teaching.

I bet I’m typical. I wrote to him in 1969, when I was an 18-year-old living in a small town in Ohio. Topic: Anyone Can Whistle. I sent him a blank reel-to-reel tape, asking him (such chutzpah) to respond to my questions. Lo and behold, he brought in collaborator Arthur Laurents so they could do it together, with Sondheim commenting that since I was writing “a master’s thesis” (!), he felt I deserved the “most pretentious possible reply.” (High praise indeed from Sondheim.)

I promise you I didn’t misrepresent myself—but for whatever reason, he took me seriously, and our correspondence officially began. Two years later, I was teaching a course in musical theater history while a student at a tiny Ohio college. Displaying more chutzpah, I invited him to speak to my class, but though he declined (graciously explaining that he hated to fly), he invited me to interview him at his Turtle Bay townhouse. In 1973 he even invited me to attend the recording session for A Little Night Music. I took notes! Nirvana! And after the epic 14-hour session, he took me and a friend of his out for a nightcap across the street from the Columbia Records studio.

Then in 1975, when I was working for Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, he gave us the first non-aquatic rights to do The Frogs. He and Burt Shevelove made revisions, and we premiered the heart-piercing Sondheim-Shakespeare song, “Fear No More.”

By 1979, I was living and working in Manhattan, and I decided not to trouble him further (except sporadically!). Forty-three years later, I’m artistic director of The Musical Theater Project, an educational nonprofit in Cleveland. We have a national record label, Harbinger Records, and a few years ago I asked him to do a liner note for a CD retrospective on Hugh Martin, a songwriter I knew he admired.

Amazingly he remembered me and wrote a splendid note. In gratitude I sent him a CD we had produced of piano rolls that nobody knew existed, recorded in the 1920s by Richard Rodgers. Imagine: I finally had the chance to teach him something.

In 1994 New York Magazine famously asked, “Is Stephen Sondheim God”? It’s my favorite rhetorical question.

I am so grateful to the godlike man who believed in me…

Discover Broadway’s Hidden Gems

As the winter weather rolls in and the pandemic rages on, now is the perfect time to hunker down and get cozy with your favorite cast albums. It’s also the time when new releases usually become available from the current Broadway season. Sadly, new musicals are on hold for a while, but TMTP is here to introduce you to a few old ones you may have missed. Here are the staff picks for “hidden gems” they truly love, but have fallen through the cracks over time.

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Life Is a Cabaret!

Every October Manhattan is usually bursting with song as the Mabel Mercer Foundation presents the annual Cabaret Convention. The artform specializing in live and intimate song interpretation certainly wasn’t created with “social distancing” in mind, but nobody’s gonna rain on this parade. For the first time ever, audiences around the world can enjoy a virtual version of the event jam packed with star power. You can register to attend one of many sessions at the link below. In the meantime, here are TMTP’s selections for must-listen cabaret albums. 

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What’s Bill Up To?

We’re thrilled when our participants tell us they have learned, laughed, cried and loved (our
slogan) at one of our events—but I must confess I’m just as happy when I learn something,
which happens all the time.

Example: Now available on our Let’s Go to the Movies series is my preview of the Fred Astaire film A Damsel in Distress (1937). We’ve provided the link to the film, and you can be part of our live-streamed Q&A on October 15.

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What’s Bill Up To?

Bill is up to what all of us at The Musical Theater Project are up to—and this goes for most arts organizations in Cleveland as well. We’re creating online programming as a means of serving our participants during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the case of TMTP, that includes our new weekly series, “Let’s Go to the Movies…at Home!,” an adaptation of our acclaimed school program, “Kids Love Musicals!,” and specially selected song playlists that can be streamed on Spotify. (And of course our two long-running radio programs on public stations and Sirius continue, unaffected by the virus.)

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Binge-Worthy TV Shows to Get Your Musical Fix

The 72nd Annual Emmy Award nominations just came out and as usual, Broadway is well represented. We thought this would be the perfect time to look back at our favorite musical TV shows. Everyone at TMTP was tasked with selecting a gem from the small screen that would satisfy our hunger for musical theater while we’re stuck home on the couch.

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Vinyl Memories

Harbinger’s latest album, Geraldine Fitzgerald’s Streetsongs, is now available as a special collector’s edition ON VINYL! Yes, that’s right, TMTP is now entering the retro-hip era of the  LP record. So, with great nostalgia, the staff recalled memories of their most beloved vinyl cast recordings growing up and how listening to original LPs influenced their love of musicals today.

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Geraldine Fitzgerald’s Emerald

It’s rare that something you created 37 years ago is still admired decades later. The first LP Ken Bloom and I ever produced – Geraldine Fitzgerald in Streetsongs – was recently released on CD on The Musical Theater Project’s Harbinger label, and though it won raves back in the day from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, it appears to be a hit all over again.

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Summer Reading List

Whether you’re laying on the beach or curled up on your porch, nothing says summer quite like indulging in a new book. While there’s plenty of escapist novels to dive into, the staff at TMTP is sharing some of our favorite musical theater books of all-time in case you’re missing the bright lights of Broadway this season. Click on the book image to view/purchase on Amazon.

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