SS & ME (Part 2)
The most moving thing I think I have ever heard in all my years of Sondheim listening is a tape of Steve and Hal Prince performing a just-barely-written Merrily We Roll Along for a backers’ audition at Hal Prince's apartment in November 1980. The sound of their trepidatious, childlike, joy in sharing their shiny new show with an audience of pals and potential investors. The bonds of friendship and collaboration that ricochet between Steve at the piano, singing, and Hal, spieling out the script — two "old friends" peddling their musical about friendship's end with such hope and expectation, poignantly unaware that Merrily We Roll Along will ultimately crash and burn, taking their friendship with it.
I re-listened to this tape the other day and at Steve's first chiming of "Behold the hills of tomorrow," dissolved into tears.
How did you get there from here, Mr. Singer?
Well, the tapes I'll get to in a minute. My friendship with Mr. S. began, as I've already written (SS & ME, Part 1), with my artless intro of myself to him at an Into the Woods workshop in 1987, leading to a drink invitation at his townhouse home — which led to more after-work drinks there, always cut short by his evening plans as he excused himself to head off to the theater usually.
Then one day he asked me to join him. I forget the play now.
Not for a moment was I unaware how crazy nuts it was to be sitting in a theater side-by-side with Stephen Sondheim. Still, he was damned engaging company. Stiletto sharp in his sidelong observations, of course, with expressive sitting postures that were even more piercing. I don't think I've ever known anyone with body language so voluble.
Our further evenings out were invariably unplanned; he'd call and say he was seeing something and was I free to join him. We’d grab dinner first; I'd meet him at the restaurant. One night at Trattoria Dell'Arte, a place he liked where he was known and understatedly cossetted, Steve launched into what I found to be a somewhat convoluted monologue about Presidential assassins. Over a basket of fried artichokes (carciofi alla giudia Roman style, my absolute faves), I tried to keep up as he unspooled a litany of names and assassination plots. His enthusiasm was palpable. Finally it hit me.
"Is this your next musical?"
"Didn't I make that clear?" he replied.
Months later — this would have been December 1989 — he invited me to a staged reading of Assassins at Playwrights Horizons. I was fiercely entertained, at times dazzled, at times dazed, but continually floored by the staggering musical empathy he brought to bear on lost souls like Leon Czolgosz ("It takes a lot of men to make a gun"), President William McKinley's long-forgotten assailant. Still, I did not yet fully grasp what he was after; the tone of the show was, to me, unsteady and sometimes glib, though never Steve's songs, which were kaleidoscopically marvelous. I got to tell him this, and more, in the back of the little upstairs theater at Playwrights when the reading was over. And he listened. He really wanted to know.
"What do you do," I once asked him, "when you don't like something you've just seen and you have to go backstage, where everybody is just waiting to hear what Stephen Sondheim thinks?"
"You lie," he answered me without hesitation. "Nobody wants to hear what you really think, not by then. There's nothing they can do about it anymore. They just want to hear what they want to hear.
"I'm sort of a collector of choice things people say backstage to avoid saying what they think," he added. "I really like: "You bastard!" the way I once heard Steve Martin say it. But I'm no Steve Martin. "I've never seen anything like it," is a good one, but I have to be selective about using it. The best for me, usually, is: "Well, you did it again."
Our occasional dinners before the theater shifted over time to occasional dinners after the theater (or sometimes after a cabaret performance at Michael's Pub, a few blocks north of Steve's place, off Third Avenue on 55th). Splendid suppers were served up by Steve's live-in-chef, Louis Vargas, at a table for two in the far corner of the sitting room, just outside the actual formal dining room. At some point in 1992, over one of these boozy feasts, Steve asked me if I'd be interested in writing liner notes for a CD-in-the-works of songs cut from his shows. "Trunk songs?" I asked, but Steve insisted he had no trunk songs, in the sense that he didn't hang onto cut songs for recycling, as most composers admittedly did.
I'd love to.
The CD, to be titled Unsung Sondheim, was being produced by a small, boutique record label called Varese Sarabande run by a clever fellow named Bruce Kimmel. Bruce sent me a list of the CD's chosen tunes, along with a test pressing. The list revealed a fascinating excavation into the recesses of lesser known and altogether unknown Sondheim songs; some cut, some written for movies, one even composed as incidental music for a play, The Enclave, by Arthur Laurents. It was my job to source the songs and situate their settings.
I soon had a lot of questions. In response, Steve began sending me cassettes with penciled yellow stickies that read: "The Girls Upstairs," (an early title for what became Follies) "AWC" (Anyone Can Whistle) and “CO” (Company). Each tape was stuffed with raw recordings of young Steve at the piano demo-ing early songs from these scores. One, however, proved to be a pre-Broadway Boston performance of Follies in (almost) its entirety by the original cast.
I was flabbergasted.
The next time I saw him, I asked where in the world these tapes had come from?
"Oh, I've got drawers full of them," he answered. "So many, I'm not actually sure what I have."
"W...would you like to know?" I almost stammered.
Which is how I came to find myself seated at Steve's desk, facing his Steinway baby grand in his second floor writing studio, where he'd written...well, just about everything. On the days when he was out somewhere about town or at his Connecticut country home, I ran over and pulled open the drawers. Actually, initially, I worked at the long, grand dining room table downstairs, with piles of tapes brought to me by Steve's assistant, Steve Clar, but this proved unwieldy (especially for Steve C.) and I soon moved upstairs.
The very first cassette I listened to, downstairs, was old and sloppily labeled. When I slipped it in and clicked it on, I was amazed to hear, ill-recorded and echoing across time and space, the Overture to Gypsy. Tears came to my eyes, as I caught the sound of Ethel Merman blasting down the aisle of The Broadway Theatre past the reel-to-reel recorder resting in some audience member's lap. (I later asked Steve. No, it wasn't him). When the curtain came down on the second cassette and the cast started singing "Auld Lang Syne," my stunned suspicions were confirmed. This was a recording of the original Gypsy's closing night.
It couldn’t possibly get better after that but it did get deeper. Dumped in the drawers were tapes of every milestone in Steve’s career, every reading, every workshop, every sitzprobe (a show's first orchestra rehearsal), every out-of-town tryout, every Broadway run. This was an archive of seminal Sondheim importance and I was cataloging it all for the first time. As the labeled years clicked by, the live recordings became soundboard recordings and the tonal quality levitated. There was even a recording of the Into the Woods workshop I myself had attended where I'd first made Steve's acquaintance.
When I informed him of all I was discovering, Steve laughed but didn't seem surprised. When I asked if he'd mind if I made copies for myself of the tapes as I went, he didn't even blink. "Sure," he said, "knock yourself out."