If a retrospective of my life were ever to be filmed, it would have to be scored by Stephen Sondheim… and tomorrow, for the first time ever, I am going to see him in person.
How can I tell you what Sondheim has meant in my life?
I loved his words long before I ever heard his music. I remember seeing West Side Story with friends when I was fourteen. I was reluctant to go… after all, I was the only Hispanic in my gang of Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholic schoolgirls, and I always dreaded any situation that called attention to my exotic and quixotic heritage. Bernstein’s music was sublime, of course, but those words!
“I’ve got a feeling there’s a miracle due, gonna come through, comin’ to me!”
“Today, all day I had the feeling a miracle would happen; I know now I was right.”
“Somewhere, we’ll find a new way of living; we’ll find a way of forgiving, Somewhere…”
I’ve often heard Sondheim criticized for songs like “I Feel Pretty,” and “One Hand, One Heart,” in which he puts very erudite language in the mouth of a young Hispanic girl. “It’s not realistic,” they say. Well, THIS Hispanic girl cannot begin to express how alarmingly charming she feels whenever she voices his lyrics, onstage or (much more often) off.
Sondheim was the first musical theater figure to shock me. I saw “Company” when I was seventeen, and it certainly wasn’t the Rodgers and Hammerstein fare I knew and loved. It was dirty… sophisticated… daring. Some of its chords were jarring; some of its lyrics were achingly desperate.
Two or three years later, my college put on the show, so I decided to listen to it again, in order to audition. I fell in love with the “Ladies Who Lunch,” and realized that the character of Joanne had the sort of jaded urbanity I longed to portray. I went to the audition and got a callback. There were three of us up for the part. I asked if I could go first, since I had an exam the next day. The other girls let me. The next one to try out sang her song, left the theater, and got raped on the way home. She also got the part. Ever since, I’ve considered “Company” dangerous and dark… something not for me, and perhaps something I survived… but something visceral.
My first “featured song” in a show was “Rain on the Roof” from Follies, when (at the age of 23) I played a geriatric showgirl. Two years later, I had the joy of narrating “Side by Side by Sondheim,” which allowed me to sit onstage as my dearest friends sang the greatest showtunes ever written, from shows like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Evening Primrose,” “Gypsy”… so many others!
I did not know that would be the last Sondheim show I would ever do .
A year afterward, I met the very handsome young man for whom I would give up acting. We saw “A Little Night Music” on our first date, and I had my answer to the question, “Are we a pair?” In time we married; I walked up the aisle as another dear friend sang “One Hand, One Heart” from “West Side.”
Seven years later, I got a call from a friend in Florida, who knew I was besotted with the Sondheim show “Sweeney Todd.”
“Hey! Do you still know all of Mrs. Lovett’s lines and lyrics?” she asked.
“Then get your ass down to Florida. The theater I’m working for just lost their Mrs. Lovett, and they need a replacement NOW. I told them about you, and they asked me to get you. When can you be here?”
I was eight and a half months pregnant.
I did not, then or ever, play Mrs. Lovett.
The child I was expecting, though, managed to do “Sweeney Todd” twice, and kick ass in the role of Beadle Bamford.
I heard him sing Sondheim on stage a number of times… and when he told me he had decided NOT to pursue a career in the theater, I worked off my bitterness by singing “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy” for three straight days and nights.
These are among the memories that I expect will flood my soul when I see Mr. Sondheim take the stage tomorrow night. He’s speaking as part of a writers’ conference; I can’t wait to hear what he has to say about his technique, his inspirations, his experiences.
Frankly, I don’t care WHAT he talks about. I just want to bask in his presence.
I just hope I don’t meet him. I’ll get tongue tied and stupid. I’ll stutter and stammer. I’ll giggle.
But hey. Maybe there ought to be clowns.