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…