Stephen Sondheim came to Saint Louis in 2018 to receive the Saint Louis Literary Award. He was the 50th honoree and the first to be honored for writing lyrics for musical theater. Since I was on the board of the Saint Louis University Library Associates, the organization that bestows the award, I had the honor and privilege of being at many events with Mr. Sondheim including a dinner the night before the award ceremony which would take place at the Sheldon Concert Hall, and I would be his chauffeur to Saint Louis Public Radio when he appeared on “Saint Louis on the Air” at noon on the day he received the award.
I have idolized Stephen Sondheim for decades. Since first discovering him at the age of 15 when I bought the cast album to “Company,” his songs have provided both the narrative and the ambient music of my life.
I grew up on Long Island, and I was an altar boy at Saint Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church in Hicksville, NY, from the 7th grade till I graduated from high school. I started going into New York City with friends to see Broadway shows in about the 10th grade, and one Saturday I was planning to go in to see the original Broadway production of “Company.” However, I got an emergency call from Saint Ignatius (the parish, not the actual saint), because they needed an altar boy for a wedding that afternoon. The kid who was supposed to take the gig had crapped out at the last minute. Well, I thought, I can use the 15 bucks. So, I did it. Unfortunately, “Company” closed a couple of weeks later, and I never got to see it on Broadway.
However, I used the $15 to buy the original Broadway cast album of “Company.” As I listened to these songs about the highs and lows, the ups and downs, the yin-yang of human relationships, I heard a voice that gave words to feelings I didn’t even know I had in songs that pierced deep into my soul.
The first Broadway production of one of his shows that I got to see was “A Little Night Music” in 1973. Again, I was struck by the beauty of his music and lyrics, but it was not until I bought the cast album and once again listened over and over that I found the deeper psychological and spiritual messages that I felt were meant only for me.
As time went on and I saw the original Broadway productions of “Sweeney Todd,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Into the Woods,” and “Passion,” my admiration for his work deepened even further.
Still, I found the cast albums (and they are cast albums, NOT soundtracks), to be perhaps an even more rewarding experience. Not just because I could luxuriate in the beautiful and meticulously crafted words and melodies, but because they were the pure aural experience that was, in my opinion, where they most truly and purely flourished.
Sondheim has always collaborated on his shows. He was never written the book, leaving that to someone else. (For those not familiar with musical theater, the book is the script, the non-musical dialogue that the characters speak.) His general method for writing has been to have his collaborator write the book in its entirety or at least in part and then discuss with him where the songs should go, often taking bits of dialogue or scenes as inspiration for lyrics.
Because the songs are based completely on character and exist to serve the plot, they are an integral part of the storytelling process. Indeed, any Sondheim song is, in itself, a short 2- to 5-minute play. Elaine Stritch, who had a career renaissance playing Joanne in “Company,” has called her eleven o’clock number “The Ladies Who Lunch” “Mr. Sondheim’s 3-act play.” And indeed, in Act 1 of this iconic song, the drunken Joanne, a witty, brittle upper-class New York matron, cruelly lacerates the banal and useless lives of women like her. “Here’s to the ladies who lunch./Everybody laugh./Lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch/On their own behalf.” In Act 2 of the song, she realizes that she is talking about herself. “And here’s to the girls who just watch./Aren’t they the best?/When they get depressed, it’s a bottle of Scotch/plus a little jest.” And in Act 3 she soberly comes to a level of acceptance about who she is and embraces, imperfect as it is, her life. “So, here’s to the girls on the go./Everybody tries./Look into their eyes, and you’ll see what they know./Everybody dies… Everybody rise!”
This is true of any number of songs in the Sondheim songbook. For me, this makes the experience of listening to a cast album complete in itself. I also missed the original Broadway production of “Follies,” the musical Sondheim wrote the year after “Company,” but listening to the cast album, I had a very clear idea of who these characters were and what their relationships were to each other, and I could fully grasp the sadness, grief, anger, and acceptance that each experienced during the course of the show without needing to see a lavish live production. In fact, when I did finally see professional productions of both “Company” and “Follies,” I will admit to being a bit disappointed. The books by George Furth and James Goldman, respectively, brilliant as they were, could not measure up to Sondheim’s sublime and inimitable artistry. Sondheim had turned their situations and dialogue into gems that easily outshone the settings in which they were placed. Indeed, as I’ve listened to cast albums over the years of all of Sondheim’s shows, I have felt that they are complete in and of themselves.
Because his songs have meant so much to me, because they told me things about myself that I barely knew, I understandably had some trepidation about meeting the Great Man himself. The saying goes, “Never meet your idols.” So, when he made his entrance to the spacious apartment where he would be dining on his first night in Saint Louis, I was more than a little nervous.
As Mr. Sondheim approached, our hostess introduced us. “Steve,” she said this is one of our board members, Ken Haller. He’s also a professor of Pediatrics at the medical school, and he’s a cabaret performer. In fact, he does a wonderful show of your songs.”
Sondheim looked at me, shook my hand, and said, somewhat self-deprecatingly, “And people actually came to see it?”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Sondheim. I have done the show quite a few times here in Saint Louis.”
He smiled and nodded. “Well, that’s nice to know. By the way, call me Steve.”
“Thank you, uh, Steve.”
“And you’re a doctor?”
“Yes, a pediatrician.”
“So, you do that, and you also perform?’
“Well,” I said, “not to get too highfalutin about it, but I feel that healing can take many forms. Sometimes I do it with a stethoscope, sometimes with a story and a song.”
He nodded. “I like that.” Our Hostess then took Steve (well, he SAID to call him Steve!) to meet other dinner guests.
I had the chance to talk about this with him a bit more the next day when I picked him up at the Chase Park Plaza to go to Saint Louis Public Radio for his interview. (I had rented a small SUV for the task because I figured that would be easier for him to get in and out of, and much more pleasant to ride in, than my 11-year-old 160,000+ mile Honda Civic.) On the way to and from the station, as well as while we were waiting in the green room, we talked about how the creation and experience of art is healing, not just to the soul but to the body. He talked about having worked with students and with various organizations about bringing music to places and communities for this very purpose.
And I saw this in action, felt it myself, that night at the award ceremony. The early part of the program featured a number of students from area high schools and colleges performing Sondheim songs. They had been told that Sondheim would wait in and listen from the green room because it would be too intimidating for them to have him in the audience.
I was transported during this short concert. In fact, as the students gathered on stage for the final song, “Sunday” from “Sunday in the Park with George,” I openly wept. What the students had not known was that Sondheim actually was seated at the back of the auditorium where he could not be seen. As he came up to the stage, I could see that there were tears streaming down his face, yet he was walking with a remarkably light step for man in his late 80s. Art, indeed, is restorative.
The previous night, the night of the dinner, the hostess knew of my devotion to the work of Mr. Sondheim and generously seated me at his table. I would be lying if I said I did a lot of research for my dinner with Sondheim. I didn’t have to. Over the years, I had read or watched or listened to every interview that he had ever participated in that I could get my hands on. And I found that there were certain themes that he had stressed. In addition to discussing his creative process with collaborators which I’ve mentioned above, he had also talked frequently about how he always writes for characters, for people living in specific times in specific situations who speak a specific language. And while it’s true that one can generally tell that any given song is a Sondheim song based on its craft and grace, you couldn’t substitute songs from “Company” for songs from “Into the Woods” or songs from “Sweeney Todd” for songs from “Pacific Overtures.” Of the hundreds of songs he’s written, there is only one that Sondheim will endorse is autobiographical, “Opening Doors,” from “Merrily We Roll Along,” in which the three main characters are working as struggling artists in the late 1950s in New York. Every other song was written for and about other people.
In my conversation with Steve at dinner that night, I did say to him, “You know, it’s interesting that cabaret performers like myself, singers who are trying to tell their own stories through songs, really love to perform your work. I mean, you’ve said over and over that you write songs that are very specific to the show and the character and the situation. And yet that very specificity is what makes them, for me at least, so universal and, well, so personal.”
He nodded and said, “Yes, that’s true… You know I never write about myself,” repeating the refrain I had read and heard from him so often, but then he added, with what I can only describe as a twinkle in his eye, something I had NEVER heard him say before, “Which means I ALWAYS write about myself.” He smiled and went back to his dinner.
And that is something I will treasure always, my own gift from Stephen Sondheim.
If I have felt sad over the past 24 hours, if tears have welled up in my eyes, it is not because Stephen Sondheim is gone. It’s because everywhere I’ve turned this past day, I am reading about his songs, hearing them played on the radio, listening to the lyrics, feeling the music. And whether the song is being sung by Bobby in “Company,” Carlotta in “Follies,” Desiree in “A Little Night Music,” Benjamin Barker in “Sweeney Todd,” the Baker in “Into the woods,” or George in “Sunday,” the voice is always Steve’s, and it will always be there.
And the song is always about me.