SS & ME
"I first met Stephen Sondheim" has become a ubiquitous opener in the aftermath of his passing, kicking off a web-full of remembrances. I never felt an urge when he was alive to write about my friendship with him, and I initially believed I would resist doing so now. As with the Jonathan Larson I once knew and the incessantly adorable Andrew Garfield impersonation of him up there on Netflix screens in tick tick…BOOM!, the actual guy was so much more complicated and interesting in his humanity. This made his friendship all the more precious, and impenetrable.
Yet, I do find myself for the first and I guess the last time, trying to reassemble the fragments of our acquaintance. How the hell did it happen? Certainly I never took for granted that Sondheim, the artist who made me grateful for living right now, as Shakespeare or Beethoven must have for their own time, that guy returned my phone calls and emails, answered my questions earnestly, and kvetched to me about his own beefs. Sometimes, he even took me to the theater.
What, in the end, was our “friendship” about?
The answers, I think, add just a few inconsequential but still illuminating brushstrokes to the immense portrait of this towering creator, whose work speaks far louder than all the words we shower it with.
And so, here are just a few more. (More!)
We met in a rehearsal room in the old "Michael Bennett studios" at 890 Broadway during the intermission break of an Into the Woods workshop in midsummer 1987. A friend and business collaborator of mine was one of the show's producers and one day surprised me with a casual invitation to join him at this workshop.
I accepted like a shot.
Sondheim had become "Sondheim!" for me with A Little Night Music, which I'd caught on Broadway in its original 1973 production when I was in high school (actually cutting school for a matinee). My mentor at that moment, a scholar and a prince of musical theater history named Miles Kreuger, saw to this by handing me, with intent, a copy of the then-brand new original cast album. I did fall madly for Night Music, as Miles knew I would, leading to my desolation (until this day) that I had just missed Company and Follies on Broadway. I then intensively worked my way back through what was still a relatively concise Sondheim canon.
By the time I encountered the actual Sondheim, I was a late-20-Something who had come to believe that Company and its protagonist, the elusive bachelor Bobby, were specifically singing to me. In a rehearsal room filled with Broadway elites savoring and judging what was then a delightful but still evolving pre-Broadway Into the Woods, Sondheim himself was a conspicuously inconspicuous presence, perched in a corner near the piano, his face furrowed by concentration, his body twisted into a kind of question mark around a metal folding chair. When the crowd broke for the one bathroom and solitary pay phone down the hall, I suddenly found myself virtually alone with him. Summoning a chutzpah I cannot possibly recapture today, I approached and introduced myself.
I wish I could remember what I actually said, but I can't. I was too thunderstruck. Whatever it was, it made an impression, because our brief encounter concluded with him inviting me to have a drink with him sometime after work at his home.
Which I soon did.
In my daze that evening I first rang the bell on the wrong East 49th Street door. When no one answered, I panicked, then rechecked the address. Sheepishly, I shifted one townhouse over and rang again. Steve would later reveal to me with a loud guffaw what was then less-known, though now is part of lore and legend, that his next door neighbor was, in fact, Katharine Hepburn and "She never answers her door."
Steve answered his himself, padding around in socks, leading me into the sitting room which opened right off the front foyer. That sitting room has by now been lionized for its wall-to-wall installation of rare vintage board games, a passion for Steve, the eternal "gamer" before the word had a digital connotation. On our way to a pair of facing sofas, he gave me a quick tour of his favorites. Though the whole gorgeous house and its pointedly personal contents burned in a tragic fire years later (and was meticulously restored by Steve at enormous expense), I found myself thinking then, as I do now, that this house should be a Sondheim museum one day; the house, as Steve laughingly referred it, "that West Side Story bought." (The Academy Award-winning 1961 movie, that is.)
When he asked me what I would drink, I answered scotch. "Oh, then we should open this," he exclaimed and disappeared down what appeared to be offstage cellar stairs. He returned with a handsome bottle. "Hal gave me this. I think it's a pretty special single malt, but I'm not that knowledgeable. Let me know what you think."
It was good.
He was, from the get-go, enthralling company, sharing observations that led even a stranger like myself into a sense of intimacy with his intensely intimidating intellect. Our conversation ranged over a delirium of musical theatrical topics and personalities and I kept up, enjoying myself more and more. Finally, however, a passing putdown of the lyricist Lorenz Hart as "sloppy, lazy and just plain lousy," kicked me into a higher gear.
"He may actually be my favorite," I heard myself say.
Steve glowered. "Why?"
"Because what you call sloppy gives him a spontaneity that I love. It can be sharp and witty as hell but so emotionally raw and deep. I don't think anyone wrote lyrics that did that before. Even if he didn't always polish them like he maybe should have."
"Give me an example," Steve shot back, and it was a challenge.
I thought for a second and somehow it came to me:
"When love congeals it soon reveals the faint aroma of performing seals, the double-crossing of a pair of heels, I wish I were in love again."
Steve grinned and took a sip from his glass. "That is a good one," he said.
And with that, I think, we became friends.