Sondheim at NYPL: “No One is Alone”

When Stephen Sondheim died on November 26 of last year, we lost a towering figure in musical theatre. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center quickly put together a pop-up installation of some of his correspondence from their archives, which proved to be so popular that they have recently enlarged it, adding set models from several of his musicals, and highlighting Sondheim’s interactions with collaborators. This exhibit will be on display through February 12, and if you are able to stop by, I believe it is well worth it (as with everything at the library, there is no charge). To me, the most interesting aspects were the way his playfulness and humor showed up in his correspondence with others. It’s easy to be so intimidated by someone’s talent that they seem more than human, but in this exhibition Stephen Sondheim’s personality and humanity shone through.

If you have never visited the Performing Arts Library, you need to put it on your radar. They often have very informative and entertaining displays about various areas of the performing arts. They also hold panel discussions and interviews with well-known artists. They are located just to the south of Lincoln Center Theatre. Bookmark their website!

The photos above show some of the additions made to the original display of Sondheim’s correspondence. The library has an interactive screen that allows you to go through and look at Playbills and production notes from many Sondheim musicals. In addition, they had an early design for a tree for Into the Woods, as well as early design sketches and models for the set design for Company and Follies.

On a screen, images of Sondheim with his collaborators, going all the way back to Gypsy and West Side Story, rotate through candid photos over the years.

The real heart of the display continues to be Sondheim’s correspondence, however.

Look at this thank you note to Broadway lyricist Betty Comden and her husband, “just A note” included!

I loved the personality shining through these notes to playwright Peter Stone and his wife, Mary. Given the date of the one on the left, he was presumably referring to A Little Night Music. After asking them whether they had seen it, he added,” If you adored it so much that you can’t keep away, come again as my guests. And if you didn’t like it, f*** off. Love, Steve.”

Here you can see lyrics written by Michael John LaChiusa in honor of Sondheim’s 80th birthday, and a congratulatory letter from Richard Rodgers to Sondheim on the opening of Company, with Sondheim’s reply (“no letter I have received on the show has meant more”).

I love these notes. In the upper right, he expresses thanks for the gift of a diary from Hal Prince and his wife, Judy, and then claims “I plan to do nothing whatsoever this year. Again.” In the upper left, he thanks them for a wire but says ” . . . we did get mugged. Surprise.” (Presumably, given the year, a bad review for Sunday in the Park with George?) And at the bottom, to Hal alone, notes on Sweeney Todd, which would have just opened a week before. After noting that the pies in the second act should look baked, and that the books coming down the chute when trying out the “special” barber chair should match the ones put in, he claims he dares not risk Hal’s wrath by giving the notes directly to the stage manager.

Stephen Sondheim won eight Tony Awards and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and has theatres named after him in both New York City and London. He died at the age of 91 on a Friday, after having seeing both a matinee and an evening show on Broadway on Wednesday, and celebrating Thanksgiving with friends on Thursday. A few days later – on a Sunday – the Broadway community gathered on the red steps in Times Square to celebrate his life (I was there, and posted a clip on Instagram that you can see here). As they sang “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George the word that rang out was “forever.” Just as the people immortalized in the painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat will be viewed forever, Stephen Sondheim – the icon, and the man – has changed musical theatre and will be remembered with respect and affection forever.

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