To paraphrase Steve, which I do an awful lot of, what more can I say? Well, probably a great deal more, so I will. There cannot be enough words to thank this man today, on his 80th birthday (wow!)
My connection to Steve began as a teenager (don’t get the wrong idea). Yes, I knew all the words to WEST SIDE and GYPSY and even FORUM (I was a very precocious kid, and a determined show album princess-in-training). But I don’t think I really understood what Steve Sondheim’s work was all about. That didn’t happen until ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. No, I didn’t see it; as Angela Lansbury, who starred in the original 9-performance run said in a recent interview, if everyone who says they saw it actually had seen it, it would have run for years. But I did have a ticket for it, to a Saturday matinee in May, and as I did in those days, I bought all seven daily newspapers (yes, there were seven) to read the opening night reviews. They ranged from angry to dismissive to ecstatic, and I was really eager to see it (a show about nonconformity, kind of a musical version of A THOUSAND CLOWNS, I thought). Amazingly, the damn show closed; even with stars like Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury and Harry Guardino, the reviews killed it (thanks again, NY Times) and it disappeared. Filled with early 60s teenage rage and youthful disappointment, I returned my ticket to the Majestic Theatre and got a refund of my $2.50 (yes, that’s what shows cost for the last row or two in the balcony in 1964!)
Several weeks later, on my way to see SHE LOVES ME (a miraculous show worth its own blog), I stopped by Sam Goody’s record store, as I did every Saturday before my weekly theatre matinee, to see what new original cast recordings had been released. Imagine my surprise when I found a double-fold album of WHISTLE, complete with photos of the production, as though the show was a big hit and would run for years. See, all shows got recorded on the first Sunday after they opened, and even though WHISTLE was already gone, Goddard Lieberson, then-head of Columbia Records, thought so much of the score, he went ahead and recorded it anyway as a labor of love, and the score was dedicated by Steve to Lieberson as a thank you.
So I bought the album, somehow knowing, from all the reviews I had read, that this was no HELLO DOLLY or FUNNY GIRL, the two biggest hits of the season, but something quite different. Even then, when I got it home and started to play it, my precocity was not quite sufficient to fathom the blaring orchestral chords of the overture, the Kay Thompson-like pizzazz of “Me and My Town” or anything else on side one. Confused and ready to put it aside, I flipped the album over and set the needle down on side two, and on came the plaintive voice of Lee Remick singing the title tune. It was the first day of the rest of my life. I sat dumbfounded, listening to her sing this deceptively simple song about “what’s hard is simple, what’s natural comes hard”…and I began to weep. I played the song over and over that night, and for many nights throughout my life. Steve somehow understood what it was like to be different, to be unlike everyone else, and it spoke to me as nothing else in my first fifteen years of life ever had before. Steve touched my soul in ways I was too young to understand, but his work from that moment forward had a profound effect on the rest of my life.
I never again missed a Sondheim show, and one viewing was never enough. From the Yale swimming pool at the world premiere of THE FROGS to the legendary “puzzle album” tribute (where Steve, tears streaming down his face, ended the evening as the replacement for dear friend Lee Remick, with a simple, poignant performance of “Anyone Can Whistle”) to a performance of FOLLIES in Ann Arbor where the four leads were played by the original four Broadway juveniles now playing their older selves 30 years later. Hundreds of performances over 40-odd years (50 really, if you count the original GYPSY with Merman, and why not?), thousands of hours of my life devoted to the man and his art. And that doesn’t include playing Senex in FORUM for the Gay Men’s Chorus or producing WHISTLE, YOU’RE GONNA LOVE TOMORROW and COMPANY off-Broadway with my spouse, Tom Klebba, under our production company, aptly named Opening Doors (and when I found it had already been used, I chose Something Familiar as an alternate name, of course).
And now we’re about to get the Encores revival of WHISTLE with an amazing cast: Sutton Foster, Donna Murphy and Raul Esparza! That’s another wow. And his birthday bash at Lincoln Center this past week was as exciting and heartfelt as any Sondheim evening I have spent.
So happy birthday, Steve, and thank you for enriching all our lives for so many years. And as a final quote from Steve from his legendary talk at the 92nd Street Y:
“I had a bow-off line, it’s a quote from COMPANY. It’s when April says, “I don’t have anything more to say.” I have a lot more to say, but I don’t have anything more to say. Thank you.”