WATCHING SONDHEIM WATCHING SONDHEIM

One of my experiences with Sondheim, which I wrote about immediately after it happened, and I’m glad I did. I think it’s probably similar to many people’s experiences seeing him in the theater, but at 22 I felt like it was really special. And it was to me.

January 30, 2005

In third grade I could recite the entirety of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods and did so for my family on several occasions.  In high school I discovered his Sunday in the Park with George, and suddenly the stage was a portal into aspects of myself, revealed through art. One by one I discovered each of his shows – Merrily We Roll Along, Follies, A Little Night Music.

Finally, at age 22, I was seeing Pacific Overtures for the first time, but the mundane start to the day belied what was ahead for me.

My father’s call woke me that morning at 10:30 am.  “We’re at the train station,” he said.  “Your mother wants to know if she should visit.” 

I had actually planned on spending the day lounging and I had laundry to do, but I welcomed the distraction.

Three hours later, my mother called from the cancellation line at Pacific Overtures at Studio 54 but was wavering as to whether she should stay. When I arrived at the theater, people were entering so I had to fight my way through the crowd. It was the last day of the show’s limited run.  The lobby was overflowing and overwhelming.

But the chain of events was serendipitous.  We could have left the line at any time so that my mom could have gotten lunch.  We could have received another pair of tickets for a different pair of seats.  We could have not noticed him at all.  But there we were, a few feet away from each other.  Sondheim, the man who had for so long touched me with his art suddenly was several feet away. 

My mother pointed him out in the audience, and realizing the unexpected presence of an artist whose work had had a profound impact on me was like feeling a sudden jolt of electricity. But there he was, sitting a few feet away, about to watch his own show, Pacific Overtures.

I would have asked him for his autograph had he not ducked out at intermission and again at the end of the show.  Had I been younger, I think I would have been upset at not getting his autograph or being able to take a picture, or at least saying a few words to him.  But somehow, now, experiencing and seeing his art at the exact same moment that he was seeing it, was enough. Together we watched his tale unfold. I glanced over and saw his eyes, fixed on the stage.  Together we listened to his song “Someone in a Tree,” in which an old man tells of how he was witness to a moment in history, seeing it as a youngster, from a tree, and how important that moment of observation is.

During the curtain call, Sondheim walked a few steps over to a man we recognized as bookwriter John Weidman and put his arms around his shoulders for a brief moment, celebrating their creation, and I saw it.  I realized then that that memory was worth more than an autograph, which is just ink on paper.  That image was mine alone, and if I never saw Stephen Sondheim again – if I never got his autograph or got a picture with him or told him how much his work has affected my life – I could live with the fact that I was able to watch Sondheim watching Sondheim. 

For that moment in the theater, I was someone in a tree.

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