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Side by Side With Sondheim: My Favorite Stories About Steve
by Wayman Wong
In 1979, I was the arts editor of my college paper, The Pioneer, at Cal State Hayward in California. I was set to fly to New York City for the first time for a journalism convention and to see Sweeney Todd. I thought: "What if I could land an exclusive interview with Sondheim?" So I found his New York City address in "Who's Who in America." Then, I sent him a mailgram written in the form of "The Letter" in Sweeney Todd: "Most honorable Stephen Sondheim, I venture thus to write you this urgent note for an interview ..."
But by the time I arrived in New York CIty, I hadn't gotten a reply. "Did he get my message, 'cause I looked in vain'?" Being so young and naive, I went to his East 49th St. townhouse, knocked on the door, and met his secretary, Patricia Sinnott. She took down my name and hotel phone number. The next day, he called! Sondheim politely declined to be interviewed, but said I was welcome to come by that evening for a drink and chat. So I went. He was incredibly gracious, and it was exciting to be in his company, asking him for insights into his shows. And so it all began that night: a delightful, decades-long correspondence and friendship.
By 1989, I had moved to the Big Apple to edit entertainment at the New York Daily News. I still wrote to Steve every now and then, and always would marvel whenever he'd respond. He once sent me an early cassette of his witty ditties for Dick Tracy and mailed sheet music of my favorite songs from Into the Woods. (He even read my play Whiskey Chicken and called it "fun.")
But in 1992, Steve really surprised me. My good friend Tom Andersen was making his prestigious New York debut at Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall. I wrote to Steve about how Tom adored singing Sondheim and good-naturedly asked if he'd like to come to my friend's concert. Much to my amazement, Steve replied: "I accept your invitation. Just call me next week and tell me what to do."
A couple years later, I ran into Steve again: this time at the 1994 Tony Awards. The Best Musical race was between Passion and Beauty and the Beast. I was in the press room, and Steve came in, having just won the Tony for Best Score. After I congratulated him, I started to walk away, so the other reporters could interview him. And Steve said: "Don't go. You don't leave a friend like that." He said he didn't want to be quizzed by the other press, so I became his human shield. For the next half-hour, just the two of us chit-chatted about showbiz and glanced at the Tonys on the TV, while the other reporters probably wondered why I was hogging Steve's attention. He was delighted when his star, Donna Murphy, won her Tony for playing Fosca, but gloomily predicted that Beauty and the Beast would win Best Musical. Instead, he was so happy when his Passion project prevailed.
Through the years, one mystery always puzzled me about Steve. I was honored that he found time to answer my letters. But I know he corresponded with tons of other artists and admirers. Busy as he was, why was he so devoted to dashing off these notes? I finally found the answer in an interview he gave: Steve said his father taught him that a gentleman always answers his mail.
Recently, I wrote to him about the passing of our mutual friend Peter Foley, a gifted composer and one of the many young artists Steve mentored. Peter and I had bonded over our love of Sondheim's musicals. Steve once arranged house seats for us to see Follies in Concert, and Peter and I mischievously crashed the opening-night party for Into the Woods. Anyway, I wanted to thank Steve not only for writing those remarkable shows but for the community and camaraderie of friends and fans his work has created. He wrote back with his condolences and appreciation a few weeks ago, and that turned out to be his last letter to me.
Between his musical notes and his typewritten notes, I'll always remember Steve as a genius and a gentleman.
To quote one of his loveliest lyrics: "It was marvelous to know" him.