Sondheim at the Library: A Friendship with “Steve”

Stephen Sondheim in New York, 1972. Photo: Bernard Gotfryd. Prints and Photographs Division.

This is a guest post Mark Eden Horowitz, a senior music specialist in the Music Division.

Musical theater reached its apotheosis in the work of Stephen Sondheim. His passing last week at the age of 91 leaves a void that can never be filled.

It is perhaps unfair to make the death of such an important and iconic figure into something personal, but I think that’s part of what makes Sondheim and his work so extraordinary. For many of us, his work became something deeply personal. His songs gave voice to thoughts and feelings we often didn’t have the words to express. He accomplished what one hopes for in most works of art—to connect us to our humanity, to help us realize we aren’t alone. And to many of us who knew him personally, we were blessed by generous and honest advice and thoughtful kindnesses. He was an exemplar for leading a good and meaningful life.

In my case, I owe him my entire career. I grew up as a fan of musicals but thought of them as entertainments. When Sondheim’s work began to inculcate itself into my psyche as a teenager, musicals suddenly became richer, more meaningful and important. I had found an art form to which I could dedicate my life. And I’ve endeavored to do so.

I first met Steve—as he insisted on being called—in January of 1980 when I was a senior in college. We next met in December 1989, when I was working on a production of “Merrily We Roll Along” at Arena Stage here in Washington. By 1993, I was working in the Music Division of the Library and learned that he would be visiting the area. I invited him to the Library for a show-and-tell of some of the choice items in our collections. He accepted.

Some of the items, as I recall, were directly related to him, such as lyric manuscripts by his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein; original music manuscripts by Richard Rodgers for “Do I Hear a Waltz?” for which he had written the lyrics; and the letter he wrote to Leonard Bernstein on the opening night of their show, “West Side Story.

1958 poster for “West Side Story.” Prints and Photographs Division.

Rounding out the display were music manuscripts by several of his favorite classical composers, such as Brahms, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Bartok and Stravinsky. But the moment that’s seared into my memory is when I showed him Gershwin’s manuscript for “Porgy and Bess” and he began to cry.

Afterward, we discussed the possibility of his papers ultimately coming to the Library. We arranged for me to visit his home and look through his papers, so I could guide him in exactly what we would be interested in. Not long after that visit, tragedy struck: His home caught fire.

It started in the second-floor office of his brownstone. Steve kept his manuscripts in a closet off that office—paper manuscripts in cardboard boxes on wooden shelves. After the fire, he moved to temporary digs for over a year while his house was repaired and remodeled. I returned to the house in 1997. In the meantime, a cinderblock vault had been built in the basement to house his manuscripts. They were still in the same cardboard boxes. When I took boxes that had been on the bottom shelf of the old closet and lifted the manuscripts out of them there were dark singe marks outlining where the music lay in the boxes – probably seconds from going up in flames. It is the one time in my life I believe I have witnessed a true miracle.

That 1997 visit was to conduct three days of videotaped interviews to serve as a complementary crib to his manuscripts. My goal was to clarify markings and try to anticipate the questions of scholars and researchers who would come to examine his manuscripts at the Library. As it happened, the interviews became far more wide-ranging than I expected, and he agreed that they could be published. “Sondheim on Music” is now in its third edition.

In 2000, the Library produced a concert in honor of Steve’s 70th birthday. He and I discussed several possibilities about what the concert’s structure and content might be. He quickly settled on two notions—the evening would begin with a concert version of his obscure musical version of Aristophanes’ “The Frogs” (which had had its premiere in and around a swimming pool at Yale in 1974; both Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep were students in the cast). “The Frogs” would be newly orchestrated – by Jonathan Tunick.

This would be followed by a section he titled: “Songs I Wish I’d Written (At Least in Part).” This excited him in particular. He loved the notion of being able to share his enthusiasms and introduce people to a raft of songs they may not know or would be surprised to learn he held in such high esteem. The “(At Least in Part)” was important, because he wanted to make clear that, one, these songs were not a complete list; and two, it might be just one aspect of a song that made it a favorite.

Steve began sending me faxes as songs occurred to him; the final compilation totaled 55 songs. There were five each by Harold Arlen and Cy Coleman; four by Hugh Martin; and three each by Irving Berlin, Jerry Bock, Cole Porter, and Arthur Schwartz. The most contemporary song was Adam Guettel’s “The Riddle Song” from “Floyd Collins” (1994); there was an art song by Aaron Copland, “The Golden Willow Tree”; and a Brazilian folk song, “Bambalelê.”

But I think the most surprising numbers were “Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah)” and “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.” Sondheim selected 15 songs to be performed in the concert and, as I recall, the order in which they would be performed. The cast included Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie, and Brian Stokes Mitchell.

I got what I thought was a great idea: I would contact all 15 living songwriters on Sondheim’s list and ask them to write something about Steve for the program. All agreed. Tunick and music director Paul Gemignani asked to contribute as well. The day of the concert, I presented Steve with the program and with, I’m afraid, a bit of a Cheshire Cat grin, mentioned that he might want to look at the things written by the living songwriters. His eyes lit up, and then he began reading them and they dimmed. He had hoped they would write about their own songs and was disappointed that they were accolades to him. This tells you a lot about Stephen Sondheim.

Steve’s relationship with the Library was enduring. He helped us acquire at least two collections from his collaborators—producer/director Hal Prince, and librettist/director Arthur Laurents. He also recommended the Library to others.

One of my last emails with Steve was just last month. He blurbed a book I’d compiled and edited of Oscar Hammerstein correspondence, due out next year. It reads:

What a generous man Oscar was. To write so many letters that actually went into detail about the art and the craft (and life itself) was a time-consuming job. Reading them makes me feel proud and privileged to have known him. And sad that he isn’t around. – Stephen Sondheim

I echo that sentiment now: What a generous man Steve was, in many more ways that I have space to recount here. I feel proud and privileged to have known him. And sad that he isn’t around. And I’d like to think that he and Oscar are now reunited.

Sondheim’s letter to Leonard Bernstein, upon the opening of their “West Side Story.”