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TDF members share their memories of running into the late genius
Two weeks after his death, Stephen Sondheim is still being remembered, mourned and feted, online and off. A multitude of essays have been written and read. Fans are flocking to his musicals—two are on stage in New York right now: Company on Broadway and Assassins at Classic Stage, which is sold out save for a daily lottery that everybody's got the right to enter. On screen, there's the acclaimed cinematic reimagining of West Side Story and the voicemail he rewrote and recorded for tick, tick...BOOM! (Even though Bradley Whitford portrays him in the movie, that's Sondheim on the answering machine.) Letters he authored are being shared in a new exhibit at Lincoln Center's New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and on a recently launched Instagram account. And every Sondheim fan I know has upped their time on YouTube watching interviews, documentaries and iconic performances of his songs.
Because theatre lovers, both artists and audiences, are experiencing communal grief over Sondheim's passing, we asked TDF members (some of the biggest musical mavens around) to share their encounters with the great man. Below are their heartwarming and sometimes hilarious stories. If you have your own Sondheim tale to add, leave a comment or email TDF Stages.
A musical about personal connection after an 18-month shutdown? I didn't think seeing the first post-pandemic preview of Company could be any more emotionally charged than it already was. I had a glimmer of hope that Sondheim would show, and sure enough, the theatre erupted when he entered and took his seat. On my tippy-toes I made myself as tall as I could to catch a glimpse—he was on one side of the orchestra and I on the other. I barely saw him, but in the presence of greatness, it's enough to breathe the same air. Understanding the weight of this night, the cast took the stage before the performance began. Patti LuPone’s voice broke as she dedicated the first performance "to Stephen." She would dedicate the rest of the run to him just two weeks later.—Elyse O.
In 1998, I got a ticket for Follies at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. I owned a boys' camp in Maine and I was undoubtedly on my way to New York for business. After the lights had gone down and just before the curtain went up, I spied Sondheim coming in to sit in the front of the orchestra. I had a good view of him from my balcony seat. I think I spent most of the first act discussing with myself, "Should I, shouldn't I?" go to see him at intermission.
As I have learned, I regret the things I don't do far more than I regret the things I do, so I went down to see him at intermission. This was just when his biography by Meryle Secrest had come out identifying Peter Jones, once a counselor at my camp, as Sondheim's significant other. I hadn't previously known this. I had only known that Peter was working with the great man.
When I met Sondheim, I remarked how foolish I felt, but he was my one hero in the theatre world and I suspected this would be my only chance to meet him. I mentioned that Peter had been a counselor at my camp. He said to stick around, Peter was there with him and would be back in a minute.
When Peter came back, Sondheim asked us to sing a camp song. I was ready but Peter was incredibly embarrassed and wouldn't. I didn't think I should solo so I got his autograph and went back to my balcony seat. But I missed my chance to sing in front of Sondheim! As you can tell, 23 years later, it is still a vivid memory.—Philip L.
In 1998, my husband, Steve, and I bought a house in Connecticut. Our first weekend there, we went to the local video store, sadly long gone now, with our poodle, Easy. I was wandering around, asking Steve what movie he wanted to see, when I realized that he was dead quiet. I looked up to see him staring at someone. It was Stephen Sondheim, who was looking at our dog. "I love poodles," he said. Steve and I chorused, "We know." I explained that I was reading Meryle Secrest's biography about him and that we would be going to hear him speak the next night. Sondheim waved all that away and proceeded to pet my dog, who licked his face. We talked a bit more about poodles and then left the shop. Outside, I turned to my dog and said, "Do you know you just kissed the face of God?" I only wish I knew what films the great man had borrowed.—Marilyn S.
I first met Stephen Sondheim when I wrote him a fan letter (in care of the Music Box Theatre) at age 24. He wrote me back, telling me what a wonderful letter I'd written, and would I like to come over to his place for a drink? I was floored, and when I finally walked into his gorgeous townhouse, I nearly fainted with anxiety. At one point in the conversation, he asked me the reason for my peripatetic existence. I was especially taken aback by the word peripatetic, which I had never used but somehow gleaned its meaning after a few seconds. He could see that I was a little nonplussed by his question, but he skimmed over my stammering response and pretended as if it had never happened. Sondheim and I remained friends thereafter, even to the point of one dinner at my apartment and another at his home. He was a giant of the theatre, but he was also one of the kindest, most emotionally generous men I have ever met. I will miss him always.—Robin S.
About six or seven years ago, I was at Theatre Row during the New York Musical Theatre Festival, hoping to get a ticket for a sold-out show. The producer said she was holding a ticket for "someone," but she wasn't sure he was coming. So, I waited. At 7:59 p.m., Stephen Sondheim walked past me and took his ticket. I have never been so happy to have been bumped.—Jeffery S.
I shared air with him once, outside of the café at the National Theatre in London in January 1990. I was there for a month in college, seeing tons of theatre. We'd just had a backstage tour and the scenic artists were painting hundreds of thousands of dots on huge canvases. Our tour guide didn't know what they were working on, BUT I DID. A little while later, sitting outside the café, I caught a familiar hand gesture in my peripheral vision. I looked to my left and there he was, talking to the actor who was about to portray The Witch in the West End production of Into the Woods [which ultimately lost the Olivier Award for Best New Musical to Sunday in the Park with George at the National Theatre the next year]. I grabbed my friend's new blouse and actually ripped it a little as I squeaked out the words, "Suh-suh… SONDHEIM. 11 o'clock." She was pissed, but also kind of in awe.— Lara M.
In June 1992, having recently moved back to NYC, I wanted to go to the Sondheim concert benefitting Carnegie Hall. With all reasonably priced tickets sold out, I decided to write Sondheim. I got a Roy Lichtenstein card with a picture of his "Crying Girl" on the front, wrote my inquiry and mailed it to Sondheim's East Side home. Shockingly, in less than a week, he sent one of his famously typed notes. I was SO excited to open it. He was so kind explaining that they were trying to get all the performers for a second night. Then he asked me to send him my address and phone number because he wanted to put my name on a list in case a second night occurred.
A second night did not materialize. But he was so nice I sent him a plant to celebrate the concert. A few days later when I came home from work, his assistant had left a message. They lost my address and asked me to call because Sondheim wanted to write me a thank-you note. The note was so sweet, telling me I would have enjoyed the concert so much but not to worry because it was taped and would be shown on PBS. Needless to say he was a real mensch. I still have the note..."Somewhere."—Alice L.
Many years ago, at least 12, my husband and I sat across from Sondheim at a benefit dinner party for the Gunn Memorial Library in Washington, Connecticut. He was amazingly chatty and spoke very openly about his mother and their broken relationship. Somewhere along the way, we talked about our birthdays. I am a Pisces (February 24). He was a Pisces-Aries cusp (March 22), which he felt was a great disadvantage as he said Pisces are more creative. I laughed and told him that he had nothing to worry about! The Aries explained his genius. Certainly a memorable moment for me. At the time I was a cabaret singer and a great advocate of the Sondheim songbook.—Thayer H.
I am not a Playbill saver, but I've saved a handful over my theatregoing career. Three that I saved from high school are A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Phil Silvers, April 16, 1972; Follies, which I saw numerous times, though this Playbill is from May 10, 1972; and A Little Night Music on October 11, 1973. Working in publicity, I also photographed him the night before the first rehearsal of Sweeney Todd and I sat next to him at a Barbra Streisand concert at Madison Square Garden in 2006. Sting was a few seats from him and spent the whole concert watching Sondheim and his reactions. After she sang "Down with Love," Sondheim told the person next to him, "No one sings Arlen better than Streisand."—David L.
My Sondheim Encounter: It was December 10, 2014. My theatre friend for over 35 years and I were hurriedly leaving our coats at our seats at Classic Stage Company's illuminating production of Allegro when a large man turned into and blocked the aisle we had intended to run down to use the facilities before the show began. My friend scooted past him like a sylph, but I noticed who he was. Face-to-face, all I could say was, "Good evening, sir," hoping the formality would convey my respect, if not my delight. How I regret not saying, "You've enriched my life."—Amy P.
I first became aware of Stephen Sondheim when I was 17 and saw the original production of Sweeney Todd. Since then, his music has lifted my spirits, inspired me and touched my heart like no other. I am so grateful that he and I coexisted on this earth for almost 60 years and that I was fortunate to have several personal encounters with him over the years.
The last time I saw him in person was at a performance of The Big Meal at Playwrights Horizons in 2012. I noticed he was in the theatre as I was taking my seat, which resulted in me being completely distracted from the play! Due to lucky timing, I was in the elevator with him and his companion as we were leaving the theatre. It felt like my heart was in my throat—I only had seconds to figure out what to say to this man who meant so much in my life. How could I possibly put it into words? In the end, I only had the nerve to mutter, "Thank you." I don't remember if he replied but he smiled at me with understanding. I wish now I could have been more articulate. However, I got to stand a foot away from Stephen Sondheim in an elevator for about 30 seconds and for that I will always feel blessed.
Whenever I was in the city, I was always hoping deep down that I might pass him on the street or see him in a theatre. There was comfort in just knowing he was around and the loss of that makes me very sad.—Lisa O.
Years ago at Forbidden Broadway, I was seated a few rows behind Sondheim and I couldn't take my eyes off him during "Into the Words," a parody of Into the Woods. I think he was laughing louder than anyone else in the audience!—Raven S.
On the Saturday before my 16th birthday, I was to attend a matinee of a musical with my mother—a birthday tradition that had begun six years earlier. It nearly didn't happen that year, as Friday night my father had been taken ill and hospitalized. He was declared out of danger before the night was through and, reassured that he would be all right, my mother insisted on our going to the theatre, even though she would wind up sleeping through much of the show.
Not me. It was Company, the original production.
My experience with musicals—which began to include non-birthday outings in my high school years—had not prepared me for what happened when the lights went up on that steel-girder set, and an amplified busy signal ushered in the most incredible contrapuntal writing I had ever encountered in a musical number. There followed two hours of eye-opening, ear-opening possibilities that immediately changed my goal from writing music to writing theatre music… this kind of theatre music.
I went from wanting to be Leonard Bernstein to wanting to be Stephen Sondheim.
All the performers—the entire original cast except for Dean Jones, who had been replaced by Larry Kert—were new to me (though I knew Kert from the West Side Story cast recording), and I followed them all throughout their careers. I discovered Elaine Stritch that afternoon, as if Sondheim wasn't enough.
This musical didn't break rules so much as create new ones, declaring that each musical has the right to define its own form and function. Each pungent harmony invaded my ears, demanding to be analyzed, synthesized. The permutations of human relations raised numerous questions in my adolescent consciousness, as did the sight of Larry Kert in his underwear… filed away for (much) later consideration.
My devotion to Sondheim's work meant I would be present for just about every new production that played in New York City for the next 50 years. In my professional life, I got to be a fly-on-the-wall attendee at the recording sessions for Into the Woods, in his presence for a couple of working days (too shy to speak with him directly). I got to work with his catalog at RCA a tiny bit, though not with him. And I got to live my life refracted through his art. The art still lives and, I must remember, so do I. There is a Sondheim lyric for every occasion. Right now, I can't think of one to describe how I feel.—Daniel G.
These stories have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Stephen Sondheim right before rehearsals for Sweeney Todd started. Photo courtesy of David LeShay.