Close Encounters With Sondheim

Alas, I never met Stephen Sondheim, but I did have a couple, shall we say, close encounters with the man.

The first was in 1983, when there was a fund raiser for a musical theater organization here in Philadelphia. It was entitled An Evening With Stephen Sondheim and Friends, I believe, and tickets cost a hundred bucks apiece, which was real money in those days, especially on my salary at the time. Still, I sprang for two.

I offered one of them to a friend from work, Michael Palumbo, as he was a fellow Sondheim fan, but in the event he was too ill to attend, having been one of the earliest casualties of the newly named AIDS pandemic, so a friend of his was substituted.

There were Philadelphia celebrities aplenty in attendance, including then Mayor Wilson Goode and his wife.

The evening consisted of basically the same program that had been done earlier in New York (and is available on a recording) but with a slight change of personnel and selections. In particular Phyllis Newman substituted for one of the women, and it was the only time I got to see her perform live.

Near the end of the evening, Sondheim himself came bounding from backstage and made a short speech thanking the audience for their contributions to theater, and then he said, “This evening is called Sondheim and Friends, so here’s a song about friendship,” and began singing the opening of “Old Friends” in which he was quickly joined by the rest of the cast.

NPR subsequently broadcast selections from the program (but not including Newman’s ultra-bawdy rendition of “Can That Boy Foxtrot”, the best I’ve ever heard that number sung), and I recorded it off the radio. Alas, I foolishly lent the tape to another Sondheim enthusiast and never got it back. One of the reasons that I became loathe to lend out items to anyone.Sondheim at the Y

Anyway, that was the closest I ever got to Sondheim.

But in March of 2000, just ahead of his 70th birthday, the 92nd Street Y in NYC scheduled a Sunday afternoon interview with Sondheim to be conducted by Ned Rorem. Once again I scooped up two tickets. As it became a sold out event, I could have resold them for a tidy profit, but I didn’t. A fellow Sondheim fan from Connecticut bought the second one at cost.Ned Rorem at the Y

The interview turned out wonderfully. Sondheim and Rorem were friends, or at least friendly, it was clear they knew each other and the other’s work very well, so the conversation was lively, relaxed, and filled with good humor as they sniped good-naturedly at each other. There may have been very little new in the conversation for the fans who filled the auditorium, but I think everyone was more than satisfied.

I drove to NYC in a rental car, and as I was driving past the Y while looking for a parking space, there was Sondheim, apparently having walked from his Turtle Bay home in the mid-40s, wearing a loose fitting sweater. I considered stopping the car and running out to say hi, but happily I refrained myself.The event was recorded for broadcast on television, and I’m happy to report that I just found it on YouTube.

If you only ever watch one Sondheim interview this is the one to watch. If you think you’ve seen enough Sondheim interviews, I urge you to watch this one anyway; it’s just a jolly good show. Plus, Rorem occasionally pauses to have Paul Ford, Liz Calloway, and Jonathan Dokuchitz perform several Sondheim songs.

SondheimIf you aren’t familiar with Ned Rorem, he’s a composer of mainly “art” songs, a term he dislikes, and he has also written extensively about music and published tell-all diaries of some of his sexual exploits, most famously The Paris Diary

By the way, if you want to look for me, I’m sitting on the right side of the auditorium about 15 rows from the front. There are a couple shots of the audience, but I can’t pick myself out.

Oh, and I’m not certain, but I think the image on the right is the one that is mentioned in the interview and Sondheim has a great story to tell about it.

The one downside to this video is that it was cut to fill a one hour timeframe, so the tail end of the conversation was chopped off. That was where Rorem commented that Sondheim’s song “I Remember Sky” was the one of the most beautiful ever written, and also towards the end of the conversation, Sondheim turned the tables and began interviewing Rorem.

I especially liked when Rorem and Sondheim began to talk “techie.” Rorem wanted to know how Sondheim had notated the accompaniment to “Poems.” After some banter, and a quip about someone having taken liberties, Sondheim hummed that figure and told Rorem how it was notated.

I’m truly sorry that those moments weren’t captured. 




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