Send in the Sondheim

Those who know me know I’m a lover of the musicals of Stephen Sondheim who passed away last week at the age of 91, just days after watching two new productions of his shows in New York, a perfect way to go for the best of theater pros.

As the actor Josh Gad tweeted: Perhaps not since April 23rd of 1616 has theater lost such a revolutionary voice.

To say he wrote brilliant music and lyrics for musicals is like saying Shakespeare wrote great plays; it doesn’t convey the genius. I wrote about one of his shows in this letter.

Aside from singing his praises as a dramatist, I’d like to tip a hat to his passion for teaching. He felt a lifelong commitment to passing the baton of knowledge to others.

You can see this in the recent movie Tick Tick…Boom! It’s the true story of Jonathan Larson who wrote musical theater shows while making ends meet, barely, as a waiter at the Moondance diner. Sondheim generously served as a mentor to Larson, coming in and out of his life over the years, a relationship that’s shown in the movie. (Larson died before his musical Rent began Off Broadway previews.) Sondheim also lent a hand to the movie’s director, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Over the years, many young people wrote to Sondheim asking for advice, and Sondheim always took the time to answer them with handwritten letters.

Sondheim also founded Young Playwrights, an organization that gave free training and support to young people interested in writing plays. Back in the day, I taught there myself, and met the man at a fundraiser. Well, met is too strong a word. I briefly sidled up to a conversation he was having with Carol Burnett and then, having little to offer, sidled away.

(Interestingly, the two founders of Gotham Writers first met while working at Young Playwrights, giving Sondheim a kind of assist at creating this company.)

Sondheim’s commitment to teaching ran deep. As a lost boy from a broken home, Sondheim was befriended by the father of friend, who happened to be the famous playwright/lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (of Rodgers & Hammerstein). When young Steve showed an interest in writing musical theater, Hammerstein spent plenty of time mentoring the boy. Shortly before Hammerstein died, he gave Sondheim a signed picture that said: For Stevie, my friend and teacher.

Let’s give thanks to Sondheim and, while we’re at it, to all the meaningful teachers in our lives. And if you have any kind of special knowledge, make sure you pass it on to someone who could make good use of it. Help them say: Look, I made a hat / Where there never was a hat.

Alex Steele
President, Gotham Writers Workshop

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