Recently I attended one of those cultural events that only happen in New York. The New York Philharmonic played an entire evening of the music of Stephen Sondheim with the composer in attendance. We reveled to an orchestral music-only evening of selections from “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Into the Woods,” and other less, well-known masterpieces like, “Pacific Overtures,” and “Stavisky.”
As I sat there listening to the concert, it occurred to me that I have been enjoying the music of Stephen Sondheim on New York stages my entire adult life. I saw the original productions of,” A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” and “Into the Woods.” This was as a result of being turned on to Sondheim by a college professor whose History of the American Musical course that I took in 1973 named Sondheim as the current torch carrier for the art form.
In the late 1970s, I started to correspond with Sondheim. I found him to be a most diligent correspondent. He never failed to answer every letter I sent him. I treasure those today. We conversed about his work on, “Do I Hear a Waltz?,” with Richard Rodgers, and his adaptation of George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s play, “Merrily We Roll Along.” He shared his feelings about collaborating with Leonard Bernstein on “West Side Story,” and about “Sweeney Todd” being performed by opera companies.
Over the course of the next 20 years I sometimes spied Sondheim on the streets of New York. I saw him outside the theater where a revival of “Follies” was being staged, and he sat behind me at a revival of “West Side Story.” Abiding by the unwritten code that New Yorkers have regarding celebrities in their midst, I did not try to engage with the musical master. Then, in 2007, I had a chance to meet Stephen Sondheim, and spend some time with him discussing his work. A good friend of mine, who teaches theater at a Midwest college, was leading a theater tour of students through New York and London.
Knowing what a big fan I am, he and his wife graciously invited me to join a small get-together they had arranged where the students would meet with Sondheim and get to ask him questions. And so on a spring day in 2007, I found myself shaking hands with Stephen Sondheim and sitting around a table asking the master questions. It was a delightful hour. It’s not often you get to meet someone who has given you so much cultural enjoyment over so many years. From the movie versions I saw of “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” and “A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” in the early 1960s, through “Assassins and Passion” in the 1990s, it has been a wonderful ride.
Unfortunately, with ticket prices now routinely more than $100, and nearing $150, Broadway has turned away from the Sondheim type of show in favor of spectacles like, “The Lion King,” and “Wicked.” These days, the master can only get revivals of his earlier work produced on Broadway. Sondheim ’s latest musical, “Road Show,” was seen only off-Broadway, and out of town. There has not been a new Sondheim show on Broadway in nearly 20 years.
However, the change in Broadway fashions has not reduced the respect that the New York theater community has for Stephen Sondheim. We know that we are not likely to ever again see such a talent writing for the musical theater. But we will always have his great works. And perhaps the master, who will be 83 on March 22, will give us a few more masterpieces in the years when most men are long-retired. After all, he’s been through “Phantom,” and he’s been though “Spiderman” too, and he’s here. He’s still here. And aren’t we lucky.