The following article first appeared in The Sondheim Review in Spring 2010 as part of the Following Sondheim series which focused on Sondheim’s impact on the next generation of musical writers. Click here to read Lynn Ahrens’s companion piece, Send in the Clones.
I moved to New York City on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 1982, with dreams of becoming a composer for the Broadway musical theatre. When I arrived I purchased a phone, hooked it up, made a call to my one “industry contact” and left a message. Then I set about trying to create business cards for myself featuring my one usable skill: playing the piano. I hand-typed my name and phone number and adjectives like “supportive” and “affordable” on a series of 3×5 index cards, had my 22nd birthday in my new, furniture-less apartment and waited for my call to come in.
It did. The call came the very beginning of the following week.
“Hello, this is Stephen Sondheim. Is this Stephen Flaherty?”
“Yes, it is.”
“How is this Friday at 3 p.m., at my place, to get together? Will that work for you?”
“Hmm,” I responded. “Can you hold on for a minute?”
I put down the phone and picked up my totally blank appointment book, flipping its appointment-less pages slowly, trying to give the illusion that I actually had prospects.
“Yes. That’s perfect, Mr. Sondheim. And thank you.”
“Great. See you then,” he replied.
I had been in the Big City not even a week and already had an appointment with God!
Now, a little back-story: I’d first been exposed to the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim during the early ’70s, through my piano teacher in Pittsburgh, Bill Chrystal. Bill was the man who taught me classical literature, how to read a lead sheet, how to “fake jazz” and how to pick up girls with music. I never had the need for that last one, but apparently “Brahms works.” He also taught me harmony, counterpoint, musical analysis and how a man named Stephen Sondheim was changing the face of modern theatre and its music.
“The Ladies Who Lunch,” the first Sondheim song I’d ever played, was a huge hit at our high school’s musical revue that year (1974) and we all thrilled as my friend Anita Flanagan belted out “Everybody rise! Rise! Rise!” As 14-year-olds we couldn’t figure out what any of it was supposed to mean, but it was exciting nonetheless and seemed to really frighten audiences.
I quickly got to know the entire Sondheim oeuvre through the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which housed the complete piano-vocal scores, librettos and original cast recordings for every one of Mr. Sondheim’s musicals. And all you needed was a library card! Such treasures to be had — and all for free!
Though I would never see any of these shows performed onstage until years later, the recordings left me mesmerized. They also left my parents bleary-eyed from my continuous playing of them. “Everybody rise! Rise! Rise!” Listening to these recordings, I dreamed the shows were in my living room and marveled at their musical construction: the intricacies and endless invention in three-quarter time in A Little Night Music, the way the vocal counterpoint built and played upon itself, creating the individual voices of the city of Manhattan in the opening number to Company, the cross-cutting in time and artful use of pastiche in Follies. Follies also celebrated a world long gone while making its music feel fresh and new all over again. (That would be something I myself would experiment with years later in Ragtime.)
Inspired by these borrowed recordings, I turned my hand to theatre composition that same year when Anita Flanagan (see “Ladies Who Lunch,” above) asked me if I would like to write the music for a musical comedy she was writing with her friend, Jim Stelliotes. Titled Pitts!, the show would celebrate our city of Pittsburgh in song and dance, with a plot that mirrored the dual central couples at the heart of Guys and Dolls. To that heady mix they would add such exotic twists as Siamese twins, faith healers and prostitutes of the Sweet Charity kind. Sounded like fun to me! So I said yes.
I set out to write the score of Pitts! with feverish abandon. Each song would be composed in a totally different style of music: a burlesque number for Liberty Avenue Lucy, our Pittsburgh-prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold, a country-western hoedown, a rock-and-roll number set on the Pittsburgh incline and a rousing gospel finish to the entire show set in downtown’s Point State Park! This score would have everything! I wrote each of the musical numbers in a different color of ink. Liberty Avenue Lucy in red … you get the idea.
None of this pleased my teacher at all. Bill Chrystal would bark, “How can you possibly expect to be taken seriously as a composer if you write your manuscript in colored ink? Do you think Sondheim writes in colors?” He had a point. So it was black from then on. Black and Brahms were what “worked.”
I finished the score and Pitts! was performed on the stage of South Hills Catholic High School by members of the drama department in the spring of 1975. And it was something of a hit. Our drama teacher, Ted White, who had directed Anita’s spellbinding performance of “Ladies Who Lunch,” found the score “marvelous” and “surprisingly varied.” He encouraged me to keep writing, which I did. My folks were happy for me, too, and relieved I had finally had found a hobby, although my father felt there should have been more adult supervision at the high school, no doubt because of Liberty Avenue Lucy and the scarlet red ink. But I was a writer. A real writer. And I knew it was only the beginning.
Flash forward to New York City, Friday, Sept. 24, 1982 at 3 p.m.
“Hello, I’m Stephen Sondheim,” he said as he opened the door of his Turtle Bay townhouse, asking me in. I crossed the threshold and entered his home.
I had often wondered what it would be like to meet God, or at least my musical God, but it had never occurred to me that He would be wearing an incredibly wrinkled plaid shirt and worn, somewhat funky corduroys. I would soon find out that God also had a daily life, one filled with the challenges and disappointments of both the grand and the mundane kind, and that, for some reason, he cared about sharing his knowledge with a total stranger from Pittsburgh.
I spoke to him a bit about Merrily We Roll Along, his show which had opened and closed quickly the previous Broadway season, and told him how much I admired his use of musical leitmotifs, how I was fascinated by the action-backwards structure, where we would hear reprises and themes before the full songs themselves, how “Good Thing Going” was a marvelous linking device which traced the entire personal history of the writers of the show-within-the-show. And yes, I did fess up that I could only listen to Side Two of the LP, the side that focused on the writers’ young lives, before the world and bad choices had fucked them all over royally. For I was a young writer who had just moved to the city and I had to know, I had to believe, that things could actually maybe work out okay.
He listened and nodded. And then I asked him the big question, “So what are you working on now?”
There was a pause and then he said simply, “I’m not going to write anymore.”
This stunned me. I didn’t understand and wasn’t prepared for this. “But you have to.”
“No. Actually I don’t.”
“But — well, how will you spend your days then?” I fumbled.
“Charitable works. Writing arrangements for suites of my music. You know, things a symphony might want to play someday. I figure if I don’t do it myself then someone else will do it. Badly.”
None of this made sense to me. I needed him to write. I wanted to hear more. He couldn’t stop, because if he stopped how could I ever possibly begin?
He confided to me about how he would put so much of himself into each score, time and time again, and how the critics would repeatedly not “get” the work upon a first hearing. They would not see the value and achievement of what he had done, and they would quickly dismiss it. “Years later,” he said, these same critics would say, “You know, that wasn’t as bad as we thought” and, by then, it would be “too late.” And he just couldn’t deal with it. Or live with it. Not anymore. No more Giants.
I visited for maybe 45 minutes and gave him a cassette of my music and lyrics at the very end of our meeting, against his wishes. “I don’t have time to listen.” But in the end he did accept it. And he also gave me the thing I probably needed the most: his blessing. As I shook his hand (Steve’s, not God’s) he said, “Good luck to you, Stephen. And welcome to New York.”
I was a New York writer. And it was only the beginning.
Two months after our first meeting he sent me a personal note that said (I’m paraphrasing): “Ridiculous lyrics. A real gift for melody, however, and good use of musical counterpoint.” In 1985 he recommended me to the International Theatre Institute to join a small group of theatre artists who would represent the U.S. in a theatre exchange program. We toured Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria, sharing ideas and music with the artists we met during our travels. Until then the most exotic place I had visited was Canada.
During the rest of the ’80s, Steve critiqued my early work many times at the Dramatists Guild of America’s musical theatre writing program. I presented early drafts of several early musicals I had written with my new collaborator, Lynn Ahrens, who was able to provide me with lyrics that were not “ridiculous.” We presented Lucky Stiff (“a real Ealing comedy,” Steve said), along with drafts of two earlier, unproduced musicals, Bedazzled, which he loved, and Antler, which he saw as a concept in search of a story.
His criticism, even when it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to hear, always inspired me to keep writing, to keep trying new things, to become a better writer. Which I did.
I last saw Steve at the Dramatists Guild’s retreat in September 2008. He strode into the large meeting room of the Players Club and sat down at the large table in the chair directly to my left. In a room filled with theatrical legends, many of them alive and well and seated at the table, I knew I had somehow gotten the Premium Seating.
I asked how Road Show was going, his latest show that was about to go into rehearsals at the Public Theatre.
“Oh, OK. Well … you know how it is, Stephen.”
And I smiled at him and said, “Yes, I do know.”
* * *
As I write this it is the day before the first preview for the Broadway revival of Ragtime. Tonight is our Gypsy Run and things are electric at the Neil Simon Theatre with lots of last-minute tweaks still to do before our first audience arrives. I feel blessed and privileged to be part of the history of this amazing theatre. This is the theatre where Porgy and Bess, Girl Crazy and Sondheim’s Company and Merrily We Roll Along each had their first nights. There is something eerie to me to be opening my show at the very theatre that gave birth to Merrily, the show that almost stopped Sondheim from writing.
Of course, Steve did continue to write. After that first meeting of ours, he would find a way to channel his personal frustrations and talk about the difficulty of trying to create beauty in the modern world. He would compose the amazing Sunday in the Park with George. He would give us more to see and more to hear.
So, keeping that in mind as our first audience files into the Neil Simon Theatre tonight for our “gypsy run” — Dramatists Guild Fellows, Broadway gypsies, bloggers, fans and civilians alike, all scurrying for their seats — I will pledge to try and do the same as Steve always has: I will try and give back while moving on.
There’s still more to write. More to hear.
Thank you, Steve.
Author’s Note: Mr. Flaherty, who first corresponded with Mr. Sondheim as a college student, would rather not divulge how he first got Mr. Sondheim’s address, which led to the phone number and their eventual meeting. “Steve is probably writing a new show right now, so let’s all give him a little peace!”
LYNN AHRENS (words) and STEPHEN FLAHERTY (music) are Tony winners and two-time Academy Award nominees. They have written musicals together for 26 years. Their mutual credits include Ragtime, Once On This Island, Seussical, My Favorite Year, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, Lucky Stiff, Dessa Rose, A Man of No Importance, The Glorious Ones, and the feature film Anastasia. They serve on the Dramatists Guild Council and co-chair the Dramatists Guild Fellows Program.