It is September 3rd, 1989. My father has taken me to see INTO THE WOODS on Broadway, for the second time, which will be my third time seeing a Broadway show. Even though he and my mother took me to see INTO THE WOODS a couple months prior, he is taking me again because it has been announced that today will be the last performance and I beg them to let me see it one more time. So he takes me, my sister, and three of our friends (dear God, how expensive it must have been!) to that final matinee and we sit in the dark and I watch the show for the second time, even though there are parts I don’t like and the whole second act scares me, but at 10 I knew I was seeing something important even though I didn’t know why it was such an important show, or how it was important to so many people living through a plague and coping with oppression and trying to make sense of their community and see the best in it against all odds. At the end of the performance, a man who has the same mid-Atlantic, Jewish American accent as my father- and also wears brown loafers- comes out to take a bow with the cast. Everyone in the audience screams. My father leans over and whispers, “That’s the man who wrote the music.” On stage, The Man Who Wrote The Music gestures for the audience to quiet down, and then thanks us for being at the last performance of the show. He then tells us it’s Ben Wright’s birthday, and we need to sing him Happy Birthday. Ben Wright, who had played Jack for the entirety of INTO THE WOODs’ initial Broadway run, turns beet red while the whole Martin Beck, and Stephen Sondheim, sing him “Happy Birthday”. I didn’t realize it at the time, because all adults look the same to a 10 year old, but Mr. Wright was only 20.
A Blank Page Or Canvas.
A year later, and in the sleepy little New Jersey town we live in, it is summer, and I am 11 years old, and my parents are teaching me to be more independent because I am 11 and also because they refuse to be dragged to see DICK TRACY for a fourth time that month. For some reason, probably because it was 1990 and this is how things used to be, the single screen movie theater on the main street of our town has been showing DICK TRACY and nothing else for literally all summer. In the beginning there are lines around the block to get in. After July 4th weekend, there’s a line at the door. It’s August now and my best friend at the time and I basically walk straight into the movie theater with just a moment’s pause at the box office. I watch him get popcorn, which I don’t get because I have been given just enough money for the ticket and a milkshake at the ice cream parlor afterwards. What my friend doesn’t know is that this is the first time I have ever been allowed to go “downtown” on my own on a Saturday. He also doesn’t know why I like this movie so much. “It’s okay,” my-friend-who-is-ironically-named-Stephen says, “there are too many songs.” And I nod and hurry us into the theater, thinking, “The songs are the best part, you fucking moron.”
The Challenge: Bring Order To The Whole.
A couple of months later and it is my twelfth birthday. My whole house is chaos because there is a cake being made for me, and ravioli, and I am SCREAMING at my parents because THERE IS A LIVE TELECAST AND SIMULTANEOUS RADIO BROADCAST OF KIRK BRONWING’S NEW PRODUCTION OF A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (at the New York City Opera) and I CAN’T FINA A BLANK VHS TAPE OR ANY BLANK CASSETTE TAPES ANYWHERE because EVEN THOUGH WE HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS HAPPENIG ON MY BIRTHDAY FOR WEEKS my siblings think it is HILARIOUS to hide them from me. My mother is desperately trying to keep me from tearing the house apart while Ed and Robin are yucking it up in the living room when my father thunders down the stairwell to appear at the landing, removes the cigar from his mouth, and roars, “STUART GO WATCH IT IN THE STUDY, I AM TAPING IT UPSTAIRS.” He turns to go as I REMIND HIM OF THE RADIO BROADCAST and a cloud of dissipating grey smoke assures me he’s taken care of that too so would I “PLEASE JUST GO WATCH IT IN THE DEN, YOU INSANE, WEIRD, KID!” I turn on the TV and settle in and eventually my sister sits down next to me. And my brother. My mother arrives to say dinner is waiting and on screen Frederick has just asked Desiree if she’ll sleep with him for old times sake. “I’m not sure you should be watching this,” my mother says, but she agrees to keep everything warm till intermission.
The following summer, we move to Arizona. My parents figured it was the right moment. My father was looking to retire, my brother was in boarding school, my sister was still a kid so no one was too concerned with what she thought, and I… I was not a happy adolescent. I was shy, asthmatic, super smart but with no interest in class or homework, though my only friends were teachers. For the first time in my life my grades were so bad they were talking about making me repeat the seventh grade. But you see, that fall, a girl had shoved me into a locker and beaten my head with the door while her friends laughed. Then a gang of boys, including my one time best friend Stephen, had chased me down the main street of our town for twelve blocks till I made it to the grade school where my sister was getting out of class and I knew my mother would be waiting. By the time I had gotten there, I was so short of breath, my mother had debated taking me to the hospital, afraid I was having a fatal asthma attack. I was so scared to go back that I cried in the car the whole way the next morning. That afternoon, my father, who almost never appeared anywhere before 7 PM on a weekday, met me at the sidewalk and took me into The City instead of home. This began the almost weekly excursions to New York that were my father’s way of bribing me to go to school and turn in my homework. The deal was, for every completed week, he would drop me off at the reduced tickets booth in the square, with $100 in my pocket, and circle the block while I waited in line with a list of shows, in descending order of HIS preferences, that I was to get tickets to, if they were still available. If none of them were available, I got to pick the show, which is how my father was forced to sit through ASPECTS OF LOVE (one of my favorite shows, by the way). He did this with me for the whole rest of that school year and over the summer, until the last weekend before we headed west, when I got us tickets to see THE SECRET GARDEN, a second time. “You like depressing shows, don’t you?” my father asks, when I climb back into the car. “It’s not depressing,” I tell him, “It’s Sondheimian.” My father rolls his eyes, but he unprompted, buys me the Original Cast Album of SWEENEY TODD for my thirteenth birthday.
The move to Arizona was, in fact, a turning point in my life, and probably the single best parenting choice my parents ever made, when it comes to me. For one thing, I could breathe better in Tucson, so I became more active, and thus more outgoing in general. For another, with no NYC to constantly escape to with my father every weekend, I was forced to engage with my peers, first through Dungeons & Dragons (tell no one), and then through the great unifier of teenagers everywhere from 1992-2001: the indie music store. Tucson’s off-beat, bohemian university town vibe meant it had a plethora of small music venues and stores that sold records by acts who were like, “Fuck yeah, we got a violin player in this band!” and I actually do think that my radical taste in music is 100% due to having grown up listening to the man who believed you could make a mainstream Broadway musical that included atonal harmonies. Additionally, his breathless, complex, layered lyrics helped prepare me not only for the challenging lyric writing of my favorite songwriters, but also taught me to appreciate poetry, Shakespeare, Victorian novels, and God fucking help me, crossword puzzles. I mean, I definitely owe my exceptional verbal scores on the SATs, to Stephen Sondheim, but what I’m also saying is that, I’m pretty sure he made me cool, guys. I mean, he definitely made me wittier, funnier, and inclined to see what set me apart as exactly what made me interesting to know. This is partly due to him being, until relatively recently, a bit of a niche artist and to be a Sondheim fan was kind of “a thing,” it meant you were smart and sophisticated, but my fandom also stemmed from the part where, the more I found out about Sondheim the man, the more I came to understand he had an almost willful commitment to being polarizing. His genius lay not just in what he made, but the fervid, almost naïve belief that what he made had value and others would see it. When many years down the road, I would attend one of his live discussions with a theater critic as they toured the nation together, an audience member asked, “Which of your shows that wasn’t a hit, were you the most surprised by that?” And without missing a beat, Sondheim said, “All of them.” And everyone laughed, of course, but then he went on to explain that, if you didn’t believe in your own work, you’d never make anything after the first time you failed, whether what you failed was the work, yourself, or to win the favor of the audience. And, by the way, you were going to fail at least one of those, a lot. And of course, it’s all relative, but I believed the man when he said that at the end of the day it was faith in himself and the work and the people he collaborated with that mattered, not winning the popular vote. I believed him, and I took it to heart.
It is the summer after my senior year of college, and I am home for a few months, trying to figure out what to do next, and my father, who by that point had been terminally ill for two years, is confined to the house, attached to an oxygen tank, with a tube long enough so he can go to the living room and the kitchen, and have the breadth of the manor for his domain. We have made it a habit, since I have returned, to spend a few hours every Sunday morning, listening to Broadway musicals together, while my born and bred New Yorker dad has his coffee, and I flip through Help Wanted ads in the paper and mail in resumes because it’s 2000 and the internet is still mostly for math majors and the Twin Towers are still standing so New York is mostly a fantasy city on the other side of the country. My father and I are listening to SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, and he’s not all that into it. “I don’t know about this one,” he tells me, “it’s kind of pretentious,” while I consider the optics of killing a man who is already attached to a life-support machine. “Dad,” I say, “this is the most important show about making art… ever.” And my father snorts but goes back to listening. My sister had actually played the Old Lady in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at her high school the year before so he was more than familiar with the material but, as my father aged, he, like everyone, lost some edge. And so the man who took me to see INTO THE WOODS twice and gave me the recordings of SWEENEY TODD, and later FOLLIES, and COMPANY (his favorite Sondheim… could you be any more pedestrian, Dad?), and whose VHS recording of the revival of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC I still have (along with the two cassette tapes of the radio broadcast), and who knew his son before his son knew himself and who knew exactly what to do to save that kid’s life…. THAT MAN… ultimately declared that “I Feel Pretty” was, in his opinion, “the best lyrics Sondheim ever wrote.” I remember standing up, folding up the paper like an English lord about to mic drop some parlor shade, and informing him that “Sondheim is embarrassed by that song” to which he replied, “We’re all embarrassed by our youth. You will be too one day.” Exiting the Edward Albee play of my life, I went to the kitchen, where, while dumping the paper into the recycling, my mother says, “Your father dated a girl named Maria when he was your age. The song reminds him of her.” Which is the only time we ever talked about that.
It is Christmas Day of 2014 and I am sitting in a movie theater with my boyfriend, my sister, my mother, and my friend James and I have… had a bit of a year. By this point I have been living in San Francisco for 12 years, and earlier that year I had left my non-profit job of 7 years and was working for a tech company that would eventually inspire a show I would write which would include a ripped from real life monologue my boyfriend once rattled off about how he would save Broadway with the ultimate musical mash-up of INTO THE WOODS and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. That summer I had received an award for a play I wrote and had taken a bow in front of a 1,000 applauding people, and for some reason it was fucking with my head. Partly because the play in question was good but not what I considered to be my “important” work, the work that mattered the most to me, and partly because I constantly wrestle with a fear of success- which is the dark side of a commitment to your work even when you fail to win the popular vote. After all, if your work is never good enough for you, even when it is good enough for others, when will anything you’ve done ever be enough? Back in the movie theater, my father has been gone for over 12 years and sitting there, watching the film of INTO THE WOODS, I am reminded of an anecdote relayed by Craig Zadan in SONDHEIM & CO that The Man Who Wrote The Music, sitting back stage during final rehearsals for the original Broadway production of what has indeed become his most beloved show, was
quite melancholy at the general consensus that he’d finally written an “accessible musical.” Apparently the show that saved my life, was a bit of a disappointment to its creator. Sitting in the dark, it hits me that no artist ever knows exactly how or when they will impact their audience. All of us, blindly, have to keep moving forward, that’s really all there is to be done. Which is why the only advice Sondheim really had to give after decades of being the exception to the rule boiled down to “Give us more to see.” Heading back to my boyfriend’s apartment with my sister and our mother, my sister admits, “It’s hard not to think of dad, whenever I see a Sondheim show.” My mother nods, and then says, “You know I think my favorite musical is probably DAMN YANKEES.”
It is November 27th, 2021, 4:30 AM. I am 43 years old. I am an established playwright and director who has had numerous successes and numerous failures. I have directed a production of PASSION, the final Broadway show my father and I saw together when I was 15, and it was both a success and a failure, depending on who you ask. I was supposed to direct a production of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM in 2020, but the Pandemic killed that. Right now I am listening to PACIFIC OVERTURES and staring at an open document on my laptop. My parents are both gone, as is my brother, and I haven’t been back to New York in over a decade. The previous day, the day after Thanksgiving, the Thanksgiving in the middle of a plague in a country rife with oppression and during a time when it is both hard, and more important than ever to see the good in our community, my phone suddenly blew up with a message from my sister. It is the (19th) anniversary of our father dying, and so I had been expecting her to reach out at some point, but when I check the message it turns out she is texting to tell me that Stephen Sondheim has died. A moment after that, my ex-boyfriend does the same. And then I look at the internet, and Facebook is just one post after another after another after another. All of us trying to put into words how much this man’s work has meant to us. And then I’m being asked by the Chronicle if I have an opinion and of course I have an opinion. But I don’t have a soundbite. How could I? There are not enough words and never will be as we try to capture what it is about someone’s place in our own personal mythology that makes them so special, whether they are a famous composer… or your father. How absurd, you know? To think that there’s anything you can say that will be enough. But you try, that’s what you do. You wake up at 4 AM, and you click that little Word icon on your laptop, and think, “White. A blank page or canvas…”