When I was in college, I had a term-time job as the program assistant for the Learning from Performers program at the Office for the Arts. My boss arranged for all the visiting artist events each year, and I helped with things like sending out press releases about the master class with Stephen Schwartz or getting Whoopi Goldberg bottles of water during her speech to students.
My boss and I shared a love for musical theatre, so there may have been a disproportionate number of artists from Broadway taking part in the program… Hal Prince, Flaherty & Ahrens, Audra McDonald, Alan Menken, James Lapine and others all came through our program, but there was always one just out of reach: Stephen Sondheim.
It’s not that Sondheim wasn’t interested in students; he just wasn’t interested in leading a master class. He challenged us to come up with something for him to do that would be worth his time, and he promised he would do it. (I thought we should have just offered him the Norton Lectures, but that wasn’t our department.)
During the same time we were pursuing Sondheim, the OFA was working with an independent television producer to develop a pilot based on the Learning from Performers program. I think they envisioned something akin to Inside the Actors’ Studio, only Harvardian and with more student involvement. Somehow our pursuit of Sondheim came up in one of the production meetings, and next thing I knew, I was starring in a television pilot.
The idea was that I would assemble a team of creative Harvard students who would all be passionate about bringing Sondheim to campus, and we would come up with the project that would lure him to us. So I assembled a team, and the OFA booked us a room at the faculty club. We had dinner — I believe this was the second time I ever had sushi, and the first time I enjoyed it — and were filmed thinking aloud about Sondheim.
Meanwhile, James Lapine (an LFP alum, having participated in our program when he was in Boston directing the pre-Broadway tour of The Diary of Anne Frank starring Natalie Portman) was on our side, talking to Sondheim and trying to get inside his head on our behalf. I had met James during the Anne Frank event and remembered him being very down to earth and forthcoming. (We wondered at the time if he was just being so helpful because his kids were getting close to college-application-age, but I don’t think he had ulterior motives.)
James arranged for Sondheim to come to his office in Times Square and have a discussion about “Children & Art” — a topic both central to LFP and to their Pulitzer Prize-winning show Sunday in the Park With George. We’d send our camera crew to document their conversation and somehow edit that into the footage of the students, so even if we didn’t lure Sondheim to campus, we’d have some basis for a pilot.
For reasons that can probably best be summed up as “my boss really liked me and wanted to reward me,” I was flown to NY to help out with the shoot. The thrill of meeting Stephen Sondheim was indescribable, and getting to do so in Lapine’s office, in the Shubert offices above the Majestic Theatre in Times Square was icing. You have to understand, I had been positively obsessed with Stephen Sondheim from a very young age. By the time I was in the fifth grade, I had tracked down his home address and started writing letters to him as though he were my pen pal. Then again, he wrote back every single time, so maybe he sort of was my pen pal. I would send him drawings I made of Bernadette Peters (then starring in Into the Woods) and Madonna (who had just introduced three new Sondheim songs in Dick Tracy), or word games I made up (since he had a famous love of puzzles)… Yes, I was a very gay child.
When the internet was young, the first online community I joined was the Sondheim listserv. Through my participation there, I ended up co-authoring the Sondheim FAQ. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
By the time I actually met Steve (“Call me Steve,” he said!), I had enough experience with celebrities (and enough knowledge of Sondheim in particular) to have fairly low expectations. I don’t remember if I made the connection with him that I had been the kid who pestered him with all those letters… who knows if I was even the only kid who did that? I do remember that James Lapine remembered having met me years earlier at the Anne Frank event (“Didn’t you used to have green hair and wear a kipa?” he asked), which thrilled me. But what was special about that day in the city wasn’t my personal interaction with either of them. It was getting to be in the room while these two masters of their craft talked shop.
For a while I had a transcript of the entire conversation, but I have no idea where I might have saved it. As far as I know, the pilot never made it as far as editing, and the video from this conversation remains in the vault at Harvard. But I kept a diary at the time, and I wrote down two of Steve’s bon mots that have served me well over the years.
“Musical theatre is a kind of wish fulfillment.”
“If you want bread, fuck a baker. If you want immortality, fuck an artist.”
* * *
This summer, I saw Sondheim on Sondheim on Broadway, sitting next to the boyfriend who was (and SEEMINGLY is) working out his issues around love and ambivalence. When Norm Lewis sang Being Alive from Company, I lost it. I’ve heard the song thousands of times before, know it by heart. And this was a revue — Norm wasn’t playing a character and hell, once upon a time I kinda knew him. But those lyrics in that moment of my life, performed by one of the best, just devastated me.
One of the last things SEEMINGLY (that’s what I shall call him in this blog, at least for now) did before breaking up with me was borrow the Company cast album. The Sondheim on Sondheim cast album just came out, and I can’t bring myself to buy it. Not yet. Even though I own almost every single English-language Sondheim album available on CD. (I’m lacking the English National Opera’s Pacific Overtures, because only a highlights version is available in the States and I don’t care to pay import prices for the full version.)
But today I made it through the entire day without even a little bit feeling like I might need to cry. So maybe soon I’ll be able to listen to that album and enjoy the performances without feeling the loss. I didn’t intend for this blog (either this post, or this entire endeavor) to be about SEEMINGLY, but maybe that’s what it needs to be right now.