Thursday, March 22, 2012

Being Alive

It was May of 1970. At the time, I was living in Ocean City, New Jersey, and was in New York City for a day trip. I went to see a Broadway musical whose New York Times review had persuaded me that seeing it was a matter of great importance. It had only a semblance of a story, being told in vignettes surrounding a bachelor's birthday party. The revolutionary set used elevators and moving platforms to constantly remake itself into various New York City apartments and suggest their buildings. The leading man had been replaced just after the show opened. There was feeling it might not last.

The show, called "Company", concerned itself with alienation, with one man's loneliness in life, with the nature of friendships, with disillusion and disappointment. It was not your everyday musical comedy. There was one moment in particular, late in the second act, in which one character drunkenly savages her world and realizes that she is herself one of the "Ladies Who Lunch". It was devastating. That was the day I became a fan of Stephen Sondheim, the man who conceived the idea of, and wrote the music and lyrics for that show.

I was still living in Ocean City when a full page black and white ad appeared one Sunday in the New York Times' Arts and Leisure section. In those days, newspapers did not yet print color - it was only used for the Sunday funnies. The ad was relatively simple, yet complex, and made me think of Sondheim. There was something of a modern psychedelic feel about it. I taped it to my living room wall.

I knew immediately that whatever it was, I would be going to New York to see it. It tuned out to be an ad for Stephen Sondheim's new show, a nostalgic anti-nostalgia musical, which only reinforced my desire to go. Seeing it was one of the great experiences of my life. I ended up going to see that show three times. When I first tried to describe the multi-song finale (which consisted of spectacular "follies" styled numbers taking place in the leading character's minds) to friends, I said it was as if Federico Fellini had directed a Broadway musical. I was enormously gratified some years later to read a history of the show in which its producer/director (Hal Prince) described the concept for the staging of the finale in the same words.

Two more shows followed, both brilliant (A Little Night Music, and Pacific Overtures), both of which I was gratified to attend. Then came word that Sondheim's next show would be a bit of Grand Guignol based on an old melodrama.

One afternoon in 1979, my best friend Jerry Campbell and I were hanging out in his apartment in the East 90's. He had just purchased the newly released cast album for that show, which I hadn't seen yet, and insisted that I hear one particular number, "A Little Priest". I made him play it again. And again. It ends the show's first act, and, while composed in a standard musical comedy form, completely subverted the genre. I soon talked my good friend and former roommate, musicologist Keith Lacey into going to see it with me. It was another of the great experiences of my life. I saw it twice, once with the original cast, and once with the replacement cast. Here's the Little Priest number from the First National Tour, which was the Broadway production, with the original Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury) and the 2nd Sweeny Todd (George Hearn). Mr. Todd, a barber seeking vengeance for a horrible wrong, has just slit the throat of someone who has recognized him. His landlady, Mrs. Lovett, who has a business making and selling meat pies, helps him think the situation through:

As the years after Sweeny ticked by, I ended up moving to Boston. One of the things which helped me decide to do so was a song from Sondheim's Pulitzer Prize Winning show Sunday in the Park With George. Before I left, an excerpt played on my answering machine.

 I returned to New York City for what turned out to be the last time with the express purpose of seeing Sondheim's Into the Woods as my birthday present to myself. Eventually, I moved here to Brattleboro. I soon found myself working three jobs to get by. One was at the Brattleboro Food Coop. I remember one shift, having just come out of the walk-in freezer, spying one of the meat department's two young female employees standing behind the counter a few feet away. She was having difficulty with a customer. After the customer left, I looked at her, and said something on the order of "Haven't you got poet or something like that?" She replied "The trouble with poet is how do you know it's deceased?" We've been friends ever since. It was Laura, now the proprietress of the blog "Austanspace". Although I'm not sure I've ever said this to her, she's been my best friend for the last decade at least. She's also the person who nicknamed me "Stevil".

At any rate, I wanted to take a moment here to briefly note how much I adore the work of Stephen Sondheim, which has greatly influenced and enriched my life.
Today is his birthday, and I can't believe that he is supposed to be 82 years old.
He's not, it's that simple.
Theater Gods do not age.


Austan said...

Aw, Stevil...
He can't be 82. That's impossible. That would make me...oh. Dammit.

sdt said...

I feel your pain.

Austan said...

Oh, and thanks for calling me "young", tho I guess I sorta was, then... It feels like a century ago.

sdt said...

I wondered of you'd catch that. To me you were (and are) young, darling.