My Sondheim Story

Posted 12/29/2015

         I was late coming to Sondheim. 1979. I was 31 years old and now I can’t remember why, but I got two tickets to “Sweeney Todd”. This was after “Gypsy” and “Follies” and “Company”. It was 25 years or more after “West Side Story”. “Send In The Clowns” was also behind him, recordings by many voices including The Voice himself.

         Late Sondheim bloomer.

         Not that I didn’t have some history with musical theatre. In the mid-70s, in pretty much three back-to-back weekends, my boyfriend at the time took me to see “The Wiz”, “A Chorus Line” and “Chicago”. And early on, possibly around the time that Stephen Sondheim was writing “Maria”, I was transfixed in my parent’s living room listening to a cast album my older sister had bought: “Oklahoma.”

         There really is no reason I know why gay men are attracted to Broadway musicals. (But then, so is my straight, older sister.) I can’t explain why. But I’ve seen “The Sound of Music” a hundred times and I’ve seen everything from “Xanadu” to “Something Rotten”.

         But nothing and no one compares to Stephen Sondheim.

         (There’s a buzz, a terrific to-do about “Hamilton” and how it will transform Broadway, but I haven’t seen it yet. Sondheim himself heralds Lin Manuel Miranda as the new, or next, HIM. As Jonathan Larsen was supposed to be before he died prematurely.)

         Nothing and no one comes even close.

         So, we’re back to 1979 and I remember every minute of “Sweeney”. The weird Angela Lansbury wig. “The worst pies in London...” The story of revenge—I know Mr. Sondheim doesn’t write the story; often he does work on adapts, but the music and, especially, the lyrics, led me to think, even upon exiting the theatre that winter night, that I had experienced something I would never forget.

         It sent me on a trail, forward ahead to “Sunday In The Park With George” which I saw during its original run three times, and five times more when it was revived with animation at Studio 54 not too very long ago. Further a few year to “Into The Woods” which I’ve seen umpteen times: in Central Park, in London, with Vanessa Williams and Joanna Gleason. I believe I can listen to the song “A Very Nice Prince” every day from now until the day I die.

         “Passion” next.

         “Company” revivals. “Follies” over and over.

         “Gypsy”—every single Mama Rose.

         I remember one night on a date, the guy played a Sinatra album and I heard “Good Thing Going” mesmerized and transfixed and sure enough, a Sondheim song, from a ‘flop’ called “Merrily We Roll Along”. Even the flops get revived. Seen it and marveled at it.

         I’ve been to every concert version of every show. Patti LuPone playing Mrs. Lovett with a tuba. Of course I went to his 80th birthday celebration now almost six years ago at Lincoln Center.

         The man has many fans.

         But I don’t think there is a single person, an unknown like me, who can claim this particular association with the man.

         Back when Bernadette Peters did “Gypsy”—oh, ten years or maybe more ago—I was there and HE was there. I told my partner David that at intermission I would find him and have him sign my Playbill, And I was so excited, trembling with the program in my hand, when I did see him, gushing and sweating—just nuts—he said to me: “Cool it!” (boy, boy, crazy boy, stay cool boy…) and signed it for me. It sits in a baggie on a top shelf in my bedroom closet.

         Flash forward, 2015. London. “Gypsy”.  Of course we got ourselves tickets to Imelda Staunton doing Mama Rose—we heard about the performance an ocean of miles away. That it was a smash and that Staunton was even better than Merman.

         We enter the theatre and who is right behind me at the ticket taker, no less than Steve himself! I freaked—what was he doing here? it was far from opening night. In fact, the limited run was scheduled to end in a week.

         But there he was.

         I surreptitiously took an iPhone photo and then headed to my seat which turned out to be three rows in front of him.

         I often cry, well, not bawl, but tears often stream down my face during most of his music and songs. The song before the intermission, odd now, I can’t remember which, found me glistening around the eyes. I passed him in the aisle and looked at him, then down, and, as cool as I could said, simply; “Thank you”. I looked up and he smiled broadly at me.

         There was an obvious buzz about him being there and, crazily enough, as I headed back to my seat after intermission, a woman in my row stopped me and, trembling with a program in one hand and a pen in the other said to me: “Oh, please, will you sign this for me, Mr. Sondheim??”

         I mean, there may be something of a resemblance (although he’s 18 years older than me) I laughed and said: “I’m not him!” and she started laughing, too. I kept moving on to my seat, dumbfounded and flattered and all aglow (I felt pretty) giving her a thumbs up all the while.

         Had I absorbed so much of Sondheim that in someone’s eyes, I was him?

         Obviously, I didn’t sign her program. You have to pay for the Playbill-like programs in London. What would a “Hy Abady” signature mean to her, though I was tempted to sign my name, just for the sake of proximity, next to his name in something someone else, a Londoner, will keep forever.

         Spottings are one thing. Signed Playbills another. So I ask you: aren’t these “Gypsy” episodes—Bernadette and Staunton, Sondheim there both times on different continents with me there. It gives one (anyway, me) pause. Some kind of sign?

         I could have been him. I could have even signed “Stephen Sondheim” on this woman’s Playbill and, for a brief shining moment, I would be him.

         I would have the genius to write an introduction to a brilliant song from “Saturday Night” early, early on…

I thought the man for me would have a castle.
A man of means he’d be, a man of fame.
But then I met a man who hadn’t any
without a penny
to his name.
I had to go and fall for so much less than
what I had read from all the magazines.
I should be good and sore.
what am I happy for?
I guess the man means more than the means.

         So many people in the world.

         But only one Stephen Sondheim.