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Stephen Sondheim Gone but Not Forgotten

Stephen Sondheim Gone but Not Forgotten

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.

Hotel Piccadilly

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 on West 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. 

Cariou and Patricia Elliott Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

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 all. 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 Todd‘s (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.”

Jan Maxwell and cast Photo by Joan Marcus

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. 

Victor Garber Assassins

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.

“Tick, Tick, BOOM.” Bradley Whitford

All in all, I doubt if we shall see Sondheim’s like again. 

Broadway

For over thirty years, Lawrence Harbison was in charge of new play acquisition for Samuel French, Inc., during which time he was responsible for the publication of hundreds of plays, by new playwrights such as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller and Ken Ludwig among many others; and the acquisition of musicals such as Smoke on the Mountain, A…My Name Is Alice and Little Shop of Horrors. He has edited over 100 anthologies for Smith and Kraus, Inc. For Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, he has edited several monologue, full length, 10-minute and 5-minute play anthologies. Currently, he is editing books solely for Applause. He has set up a new division for Applause to publish and license individual full length plays, as well as the World Premiere Club. His column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” appeared in the Chelsea Clinton News and the Westsider for several years and then moved to www.smithandkraus.com. In December of 2019, it began running on the Applause website, www.applausebooks.com. It also appears on his blog at www.playfixer.com and on www.doollee.com, the international playwrights database. He also writes occasional columns for Theatre Record, a London-based magazine. He was a member for many years of two NYC press organizations, the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk, and served on the Drama Desk Awards Nominating Committee for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons. He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com). He has also served as literary manager or literary consultant for several theatres. He taught playwriting in the Theatre Dept. of the University of Michigan in the winter semester of 2016. He holds a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.A. from the University of Michigan. His book, How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career, a collection of interviews with playwrights, was published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books in March, 2015. His latest anthologies of monologues and 10-minute plays were published in December, 2019 by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books.

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