My mother, Marge Linton, was a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, the incredibly wonderful composer and lyricist responsible for a host of wonderful musicals from Sweeney Todd to A Little Night Music to West Side Story and much much more.
The first time mom saw Sweeney Todd (the musical, not the movie, which she also enjoyed) was in the early 1980s, while I was away at Occidental College. She wrote me a letter that quoted all sorts of lyrics. I am pretty sure that she ran out and bought the soundtrack, as opposed to having memorized them from hearing a performance. I enjoyed mom’s letter, which I think was more than a third quoting Sweeney Todd lyrics, but I wasn’t entirely convinced of Todd‘s greatness until I later attended a live performance with her, soon thereafter. Since then, I’ve seen Todd, with mom, at least a half-dozen times at Cal State L.A., Occidental College, by the East West Players, and more.
Since mom passed away, I’ve been listening to a lot of Sondheim. As we, her kids, were sorting through her possessions, I got away with quite a few Sondheim CDs – even ones that I hadn’t even heard of – from Sweeney Todd Live at the New York Philharmonic to Sondheim Sings volumes 1 and 2. Sondheim Sings features remastered early versions of Sondheim songs sung by Sondheim himself accompanied by himself on piano. In few cases, he fills in missing lyrics with a sort of place-holder scat-singing. It’s a treat for me to see/hear work in progress… sometimes I think that the striving of the creative process is at least as interesting as the polished final product. (Some time I will tell the story of how I used to enjoy the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra’s rehearsals… but that’s another story. [Updated – see later LBSO story here.])
Listening to Sondheim reminds me of spending time at the theater, with mom, most often mom’s friend Michael Oppenheim, and my sister and brothers and their families. Lately listening, I am thinking of mom… but just as much being blown away by how great Sondheim’s work is… from Anyone Can Whistle to Pacific Overtures to Sunday in the Park with George… he does the most incredible rhymes… it’s such a treat.
The Sondheim work that I think is my favorite right now is Merrily We Roll Along. (Sunday in the Park with George is a close second – it speaks to me as an artist …but that’s another story, too.)
Mom and I saw Merrily at the 99-seat equity-waiver production at Roland Dupree Dance Theater in Los Angeles in 1983. It was an incredibly wonderful performance that I can still remember well. Mom and I, probably with Michael Oppenheim’s assistance, looked up the background on the play, and we were astonished that it flopped on Broadway, closing after a few weeks. It was difficult for us to imagine… but apparently had some issues in its staging… and it’s a bit strongly pro-youthful-idealism at the expense of being anti-successful-businessmanism. All that may not play all that well for successful producers and other rich businessmen who are portrayed more-or-less as sell-outs… which, hey, may be part of why I like it so much… not quite having gotten around to selling out just yet.
Mom and I soon got our hands on the Merrily original cast recording (then a record – an LP), which we listened to over and over. I remember taping it onto a cassette for mom so she could listen to it while she bicycled.
We saw the 1985 La Jolla Playhouse revival, where Sondheim reworked the piece somewhat. Unfortunately, I feel like the revised piece took some of the edge off. It’s still great, especially the songs – many of which are entirely unchanged, but overall the reworking feels, to me, just a bit muddled. We’ve seen it a few more times – though it’s been the re-worked revival version, not the original, which survives mostly as a kick-ass cast recording (now played repeatedly via a compact disk.)
For mom’s obituary, Laura Archer Linton selected this Sondheim quote, which is wonderful and definitely reminds me of mom:
Not a day goes by,
Not a blessed day
But you’re still somehow part of my life
And you won’t go away.
In listening to Into the Woods recently I heard this passage which also reminds me of mom (especially mom’s admirable parenting which I wrote about here.) Take it away Mr. Sondheim:
Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
Children may not obey,
But children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
To learn what to be.
Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.
Sondheim’s genius is one of the great things that I became exposed to and that gives me great joy… and I learned of his work by listening to mom, and following my mom’s enthusiasm.