Applause: The Westport apprenticeship of Stephen Sondheim
“Someone to hold me too close / Someone to hurt me too deep / Someone to sit in my chair / And ruin my sleep / And make me aware / Of being alive / Being alive.”
So begins Bobby’s yearning final song in “Company,” Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking 1970 musical whose revival was scheduled to open this March 22 on Broadway (before theaters were shut down due to the coronavirus).
That date coincided with the innovative, incomparable composer/lyricist’s 90th birthday, an apt time to celebrate his career and life, which includes an apprenticeship at the Westport Country Playhouse in the summer of 1950, the year he graduated from Williams College.
According to Richard Somerset-Ward, in his book, “An American Theater: The Story of the Westport Country Playhouse,” the apprentices “got to experience many different aspects of theater, and although there was no formal teaching element involved, they probably learned more about the stage in twelve weeks than they did in all their college courses. Best of all, perhaps, they got to do ‘showcase’ performances of their own.”
In an interview, Weston’s Chilton Ryan said the lyrics to “Being Alive” sum up their author, whom he knew as a Playhouse co-apprentice.
“He was an extraordinarily gifted and brilliant man, cuttingly funny and a keen observer of character,” recalls Ryan, “but one whose spontaneous behavior was limited.”
“Company” is at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, 242 W. 45th St., NYC. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com
“West Side Story” is at the Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway (at 53rd St.), NYC. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com
“Assassins” is at the Classic Stage Co., 136 E. 13th St., NYC, April 2-June 6. Call 212-677-4210 or visit www.classicstage.org
Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim’s mentor, first brought the youngster to the Playhouse. By chance, a fellow apprentice was Mary Rodgers, daughter of Hammerstein’s partner, Richard Rodgers, who lived in Fairfield. At the time, Sondheim was living in Stamford, driving to Westport in a second-hand car, “a small blue Chevrolet with a stick shift,” dubbed the Blue Beetle, according to Meryle Secrest whose definitive biography. “Sondheim: A Life” was published in 1998.
“It was a great summer,” said Mary Rodgers in Martin Gottfried’s “Sondheim.” “There was a lot of silly humor. We ran our own after-hours bar, we were all crazed and wanted to stay up all night. At the end of every evening, Steve would play his stuff. We knew somehow that he was going to have to do this. He was going to have to get there because there was a desperation.”
She’s echoed by Ryan, who went on to a career as actor, stage manager and president of Norwalk’s Theater Artists Workshop.
“We knew he would make it,” he said. “His talent was just so abundant. True, he was intensely intellectual and his emotional behavior was very limited. His emotions came out in his songs, reticently but brilliantly expressed. People thought he was cold, but he really was witty and extremely talented and absolutely single-minded, an intent observer of human character.”
During that Westport summer, although Sondheim was often alone playing piano, he was not standoffish. Indeed, he was very popular. The late actor Conrad Fowkes, also an apprentice, remembered a nightly poker game held by the quaintly named Westport Culture and Birdwatching Club, founded by fellow apprentices Frank Perry and Ryan.
“It was masterminded by Sondheim who was adamant that the game be played straight in the extreme — no joking around,” recalled Fowkes. “Frank had at hand a bottle of cheap booze that he peddled at 35 cents a shot, but he had few takers because Stephen frowned on drinking during the games.”
Sondheim’s enthusiasm for games and puzzles helps account for the intricacies of his lyrics. Easily the pre-eminent, most influential music and lyrics genius of our time, he treats his private obsessions — the price of creativity, loneliness, love, passion and death — in such masterful, wide-ranging shows as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sunday in the Park with George,” as well as “Sweeney Todd,” “Passion,” “A Little Night Music,” “Into the Woods” and the shocking “Assassins” (to be revived this spring).
Even flops like “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Merrily We Roll Along,” are memorable and revealing, not to mention his lyrics for two of the greatest American musicals, “Gypsy” and “West Side Story” (recently revived on Broadway).
According to Secrest, “Loneliness, the sense of being an outsider, a feeling of continually groping toward something just beyond one’s reach — these were themes he knew ... always superimposed upon by irony and disillusion, those reliable defenses against painful emotions.”
Secrest ascribes much of this pain to his “mangled, emotionally neglected” childhood. His mother, whose funeral he didn’t attend, once said she wished she’d aborted him. His father left their Central Park West apartment for good when Stephen was 10 (Ryan doesn’t remember Sondheim’s parents ever visiting him in Westport). Secrest, referencing psychologist Carl Jung, writes that an artist’s drive to create is often at the expense of a personal life.
Sondheim no doubt learned invaluable lessons about the theater at Westport. Later, he paid it forward through Young Playwrights, a group he founded to foster budding playwrights. In his honor, Fairfield’s Broadway Method Academy, the Playhouse’s Resident Conservatory, bestows annual Stephen Sondheim Awards to high school directors, actors and technicians.
“He’s very active in supporting new writers,” said Ryan, “passing on what he learned. There’s a lot of stuff like that he does that’s not publicized.”
At the end of “Company,” Bobby absorbs the connections his friends wish for him, the boy becoming a man.
“You’ll never be a kid again, kiddo,” says acerbic character Joanne, forcing Bobby to admit he needs someone to take care of, just as much as he needs being taken care of.
During the Boston tryout, however, the musical climaxed with a sardonic, sarcastic song “Happily Ever After,” which skewered marriage. Considered too much of a downer, it was replaced by the more optimistic “Being Alive,” a song in which marriage is, Secrest writes, “the same smoldering relationship” but now tempered by “the arrival of someone else.”
So, too, did the reticent, ambivalent, skeptical, reclusive, complex Sondheim eventually replace bachelorhood for marriage (in 2017 to actor Jeff Romley).
“His social interaction was intellectual, as are many of his shows, but there’s emotion there somewhere, too,” Ryan said.
And so there was, and is. “Being Alive” concludes with “alone is alone, not alive.”
Norwalk resident David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater and entertainment scene appears monthly.