Saturday, November 27, 2021

Stephen Sondheim's legacy and little links to my life

It's impossible to imagine a world without the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. The prolific composer-lyricist died on November 26 at age 91. His passing got me reeling through my years on and offstage, and how, like so many other fans, his work wove its way into our lives, and for me, as the eventual inspiration for an entire novel.
The world-renowned lyricist and composer won eight Tony Awards throughout his extensive career, alongside an Academy Award, seven Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and a Laurence Olivier Award.
The first Broadway show that Sondheim composed both the lyrics and music for proved to be a winner out the gate. He scored a Tony Award for Best Musical for that show, the 1962 comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which ran for more than two years.  
As a former actor and dancer, now a writer, his art had a strong influence, despite my never having exactly performed in any productions of his shows. But before I reminisce about Sondheim, and my briefly meeting him, here are some other reflections from more prominent voices.

In comes company

Bernadette Peters, who performed in six of his shows, tweeted, “He gave me so much to sing about. I loved him dearly and will miss him so much. Thank you for all the gifts you gave the world, Steve.”

Star of Rob Marshall’s 2014 film version of “Into the Woods” Anna Kendrick tweeted, “I was just talking to someone a few nights ago about how much fun (and f – – king difficult) it is to sing Stephen Sondheim. Performing his work has been among the greatest privileges of my career. A devastating loss.”

Other performers shared online tributes to Sondheim, including Mandy Patinkin, Carol Burnett, George Hearn, and others. Playbill has a great round-up of quotes from the 2010 celebratory concert in his honor. Sounds of Broadway's hosting a weekend mix tribute of Sondheim songs. I'm sure they're not the only ones binging on Sondheim's music.

Womb to Tomb
My first dose of Sondheim's talent was allegedly prenatal. My parents attended a New York City screening of the film West Side Story while my mother was several months pregnant with me (my brother and sister were left with a babysitter). 

Before the film made its eagerly anticipated network TV premiere, the promo commercials had me excited (the crotch-level shot of three Sharks may have had something to do with it), and with the album and a used record player, I spent many a night dancing and singing along in our Ohio home's basement.

Our parents encouraged their kids' artistic inclinations. My sister took ballet lessons, and my brother and I tagged along for shows at Ashland College with our parents sometimes participating; my father in two shows. When the college produced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with no kids needed in the cast, I instead snuck into dress rehearsals and shows, mostly to ogle the hunky student playing Miles Glorioso.

But Gypsy became a more immersive experience. The film adaptation being a regular Sunday matinee on a local TV station, we already knew the show. As young newsboys, my brother, me and a few other boys were a small part of the cast, but I watched the rest of it through almost every rehearsal, with a few of the older guys becoming the subjects of my intense preteen crushes.

I'd love to see how good this production was, but in my child's eye, it seemed terrific. My collected memories were slightly fictionalized in my seventh novel, Finding Tulsa. The fictional part of the story is about a gay film director in the 1990s who gets a big break on a serious TV movie, only to rediscover the hunky student actor from his childhood production of Gypsy. What then happens is complete fiction.

Something amusing

One particularly sweet memory was on a 1976 trip back to New York, where, while the rest of my family was elsewhere,  my mom and I attended four different Broadway show in one weekend (Thanks to bargain TKTS), including seeing Dorothy Loudon and George Hearn in Sweeney Todd. I had no idea what to expect; I was 14!

Some of Sondheim's works didn't register for me as a young adult. At only 19, I had yet to 'get' Company, and although I could sing, I didn't audition for a role in the Kent State University Theatre department's production (whose set featured rotating apartment set pieces to resemble a sort-of birthday cake. When the hand-shifted set failed to rotate one night, I figured I'd dodged a bullet).

Donna MacKechnie had better insight on the new maturity of Company, and told Playbill, "I was coming out of shows where they had singing boys, dancing boys, singing girls, dancing girls," she explains, "and this was an ensemble piece, and I felt like a grown-up for the first time on stage, because we were adults and we were talking about adult themes and relationships. This was the first adult-themed musical about contemporary relationships in New York City." 

"When we heard [Sondheim's] score for the first time, we all just knew that it was this rare thing, this kind of cutting-edge [work]. I mean, everything was there. Everything was in place for the most part, and very exciting. . . . Is there anything more beautiful than 'Being Alive' or melodic as 'Someone Is Waiting' or 'Sorry-Grateful?' These gorgeous, heartbreaking melodies fit so perfectly to the character."

Another work I considered too mature for my eighteen-year-old self was A Little Night Music. Instead of auditioning, even for the youthful role of Henrick, I fulfilled my technical credits at Kent State University by working backstage as a rigger, pulling painted backdrops up and down between scenes while speed-reading The Bard's plays with a tiny light, for my Shakespeare elective. I learned that studying plays while backstage at another play was not the best learning experience (I got a C in the lit class). Still, my love of Sondheim's works later grew.

Time to leave the woods

The third time I shied away from being in a Sondheim show was after my two years at Kent State, as I'd transferred to Ohio State's Dance department, which had a friendly relationship with the theatre department when they staged musicals. When auditions were set for West Side Story, the choreographer taught a few classes with his movement for the show (Amateur productions had to either pay to license Jerome Robbins' choreography or make up their own, risking fines if they 'borrowed' his). 

I didn't like the 'new' dances, the choreographer was a bit of a jerk, and even though I knew I could belt out a solid version of "The Jet Song," I knew I'd never get a major role. Those went to the theatre students, despite their talent. I didn't want to spend weeks rehearsing a mediocre version of my sacrosanct favorite. And although I cried on the day of missing auditions, later watching the production, with some of my white dance colleagues in "Latin" make-up in the cluttered messy version, offered some relief.

You decide what's good
Author Ron Fassler wrote in a lovely essay, "Sondheim provided a benchmark for creativity, if not total success; perseverance in the face of critical setbacks; joy in mentorship and outsourcing of his teaching; giving back to a theatrical community to which he owed his life's blood; answering every letter a fan wrote him."

One of those fans was Mike Salinas, the co-founder and editor of TheatreWeek. When he later became the News Editor of SF's Bay Area Reporter, with myself as an assistant editor, Mike showed me his letters from Sondheim on one of many nights where we listened his many original cast albums of Sondheim shows, and Mike encouraged me to pen a fan letter. Sadly, I never did.

But before then, in 1988, as a lowly administrative assistant taking customer ticket orders and attempting to solve their ticket problems for the New York International Festival of the Arts, I got to attend a small reception with Sondheim as an honored guest. I completely forget what I said –undoubtedly gushing praise for his work, some attempt to be clever, which I do recall he politely accepted in those few rare minutes. Being young and cute at the time possibly held his attention.

About a year later, after having done a bang-up job choreographing a small student production of Little Shop of Horrors for NYC's Fashion Institute of Technology –and stepping in as the offstage voice of Audrey II when a student dropped out– I was asked by a friend who was the school's play producer to also choreograph their ambitious production of Into the Woods

I quickly realized that the Fashion kids couldn't sing and dance at the same time, let alone sing adequately, and reduced the movements to blocking with a few arm gestures. A week before opening, Tony, said "producer," abruptly fired me, refused to pay my $800 fee, removed me from the program credits, but ended up using my choreography anyway. The bastard later tried to resume our friendship. Nope. 'Sometimes people leave you halfway through the woods.'

Finishing the hat

Fortunately, during my New York years, watching other Broadway versions of Into the Woods, and Sunday in the Park With George (absolutely heart-crushingly inspiring for any artist), and later remarkable San Francisco concert version of Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and the SF Symphony (watch the full concert here), the 'asylum' revival touring production in SF, and seeing Patti Lupone's superb Mama Rose in Gypsy on a visit back to New York, renewed my deep affection for Sondheim's greatness. In fact, that production served as a spark for me to return to finishing Finding Tulsa.

No matter the level of expertise, productions of musicals by 'our Shakespeare' will continue to be performed.

"Sondheim elevated the field by not bowing to writing “jazz hands” musicals — but for challenging his audiences with complex lyrics and difficult themes that resonated for decades through myriad revivals across the globe." (New York Post)

A friend from my New York days, Brian Zapcik, who, like me, also studied piano, wrote in a Facebook post which he kindly allowed me to excerpt:

"The heart of Sondheim's genius lays in the constant tension between his desire to write music that audiences will love, versus his desire to write music that's different from anything before. I've already written about how he was a student of Milton Babbit, one of the pioneers of contemporary classical music in the 20th century. In other interviews, Sondheim has talked about being a fan of avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson and minimalist composer Steve Reich.

"The tension between conventionality and experimentation in Sondheim's music is so obvious that it's already been discussed endlessly. I'm just explaining that the at times uneasy relationship between these two aspects of his music is why I've slowly grown to love it so much. The conventionality makes his experimentation easier to listen to; the experimentation gives a fresh take to his conventionality. His music is most successful when he's been able to balance these two aspects." 

Currently, two recently revived Sondheim shows are running both on and off-Broadway: Assassins at off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company on on E. 13th Street, and Company at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on W. 45th Street. And Sondheim was seen at the Jacobs Theatre just last week for a preview of Company. And the director and cast spoke kindly of Sondheim in pre-curtain speeches on Nov. 26.
If you're anywhere near these stages, or any production of a Sondheim musical, go.

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