Stephen Sondheim turns 76 today, and for those of us who are tracking the achievements of older artist Heavy Hitters Who Can Still Hit (see: Neil Young, Clint Eastwood, Philip Roth, etc.) it's a delight to note that one of Broadway's hottest tickets is the current revival of Sweeney Todd, with other such Sondheim revivals popping up on a regular basis. Now that he's an elder statesman, we may tend to forget that young Steve first burst upon the scene as the lyricist of West Side Story in nineteen freakin' fifty-seven, but talk about sustaining a career...! To say that he towers ever larger above the landscape of American musical theater is no exaggeration.
As birthday card and tribute to the master, I proffer this reminiscence of a time when His Greatness reached out and touched someone, mainly me.
[Another installment in the ongoing true life adventures of Periphery Man, who has had myriad peculiar encounters with celebrities, while not being a celebrity himself.]
Back in the '80s, being no stranger to grand and foolhardy ventures, I wrote the book, lyrics and music for a musical. As a proposed endeavor, trying to get a musical up and running is a bit like saying, "I think I'll move the Alps a few yards to the left." Nonetheless I was giving it a shot.
Musicals have their own kind of Development Hell. In Manhattan, a number of theatrical organizations make up the stations-of-the-cross pit stops on this road, where you can showcase your show and be basted, then roasted over the flames. If you're not slowly tortured to death with hope, sometimes you're lucky enough to find financial backing, and then you may earn the privilege of seeing your labor of love be blown to smithereens, on opening night, by the terrorist -- sorry, I mean critic -- from the New York Times.
Not bitter! Just reminiscing. Anyway: me and my little musical won a slot in the Dramatist Guild's program, which meant I would do a partial presentation of my work-in-progress for a panel of some of Broadway's most venerated writers and composers. That Kander and Ebb (Cabaret), Stephen Schwartz (Godspell), and Peter Stone (1776) were scheduled to sit around and critique me was scary enough, but also on board that year was Mr. Sondheim. There was no other living personage in that milieu who could inspire such balls-shrinking awe in an aspiring musicalist.
And -- typical of Periphery Man's peculiar life -- Sondheim lived around the corner from my parents. From the bedroom window of their apartment on E. 48th Street, you could see the back of his three-story brownstone and its cloistered patio. Now and then I'd stand at that window gazing across the courtyard in a state of near-and-yet-so-far reverie, thinking how the hell does he do it?! and imagining his grey eminence padding around the place in slippers, a byzantine acrostic puzzle in one hand, the fate of the American musical in the other.
The thought that Sondheim would actually sit in a room and listen to my work was enough to keep me up nights during the long summer I rewrote, rewrote and also did some rewriting on the show. Amidst the chaos of creation, the paranoid demon of doubt often overtook me: maybe I didn't know what the hell I was doing -- and Sondheim and co. were going to tell me I shouldn't be doing it. But though a tape of my partial score had been forwarded to the Guild gang for assessment, at least I had time to sweat -- I didn't have to personally confront him and the other big guns until a night in October.
Thus I was totally unprepared on Labor Day Sunday morning, as I sat hungover in my pajama bottoms, eating a bowl of cereal at my kitchen table, when the phone rang and a coolly urbane, very awake-sounding voice on the other end said, "Hello, this is Stephen Sondheim calling." I nearly choked on my Special K, and did in fact slosh half the contents of my cereal bowl over the table as I bolted to my feet -- because he hadn't stopped there, he was already launching into a full-blown analysis of the songs on my tape, as if this phone meeting had been prearranged.
I was desperate to take notes, and Mr. Sondheim is a fast talker. I reeled round to grab a pencil and flip over the New Yorker I'd been reading, where a perfume ad luckily gave me enough white space to madly jot what phrases I could. He had a problem with the rhyme scheme of the show's title song, which wasn't unexpected; Sondheim's an old school stickler for exact rhymes, and I come from the drop-out school of rock, where writers "near-rhyme" (e.g. "time" with "mine") when they bother to rhyme at all. In Sondheim's realm, to near-rhyme is to cheat, and he was of course the most exacting rhyme taskmaster extant. He chastised me for having rhymed "doctor" with "rocked her."
My first act's pivotal love song, I Want to Hurt You So Bad, luckily passed this acid test. Something in its mordant black humor (You used to call me sweetheart, now you just don't call / You used to make me dance, but now I'd like to make you crawl) appealed to this famously dark writer. I remember him saying, sounding wryly amused, that the song should prove "very effective" in performance.
I'll be honored to have "Very effective -- Stephen Sondheim" chisled on the tombstone of this song, but I can't recall much else of what he said. I'm pretty sure my entire side of the conversation consisted of some reverent "uh-huh's" and respectful "really?!"s. But I know he had some ideas about the sequencing of the songs and suggested some characterization adjustments that made inspired sense to me at the time. What was really important (as I imagine he must have known, he who was calling from his beach house in the Hamptons at the unlikeliest of times, possibly enjoying the dramatic subtext) was that he'd treated my score with respect -- that for a few minutes, he'd made a neophyte feel like a colleague.
I got off the phone with my head spinning, the back of a magazine scrawled full of truncated, nearly incomprehensible Sondheim-isms, and a kitchen table spattered with soggy cereal. After hitching up my pajama bottoms, I replayed the conversation in my head, taking more notes, and headed for my upright piano.
Though the maestro's critique did in small ways help to improve it, my musical never did make it to the stage. But that's not really the point. When I look back on that muggy summer morning now, the scene takes on a quasi-Biblical cast. We don't get much in the way of angels and visitations in our modern urban life, and that day I received the equivalent of a bolt from the blue. I was wandering in the wilderness, and a voice from on high called upon me, with some wise words of guidance. If the gods of celebrity be good for anything, they have rarely given me a gift more pragmatically valuable than this: a moment's validation and acknowledgement, assuring me that, as my old friend Charlie Chin used to say, I hadn't been pissing on my head.