You're On to Something, Bobby...

I've had a correspondence with Stephen Sondheim since the early days of New Line. At the start of our second season in 1992, we asked lots of Broadway musical people to donate items for a special celebrity auction. So many people sent stuff -- Elaine Strich sent an autographed copy of the "Ladies Who Lunch" sheet music, Gwen Verdon sent a scarf she had worn onstage in a show, Kander & Ebb sent an autographed copy of the sheet music for "New York, New York," and Hal Prince, Jim Lapine, Harnick & Bock, Patricia Zlipprodt, and many others donated autographed books, music, Playbills, etc. Sondheim sent us an autographed copy of the private issue LP of the Evening Primrose soundtrack. (I really thought about holding that one out of the auction for myself, but I didn't.)

After the auction, I sent everyone thank-you letters, in which I then asked if they would donate money to us. Sondheim promptly sent a donation. After that first donation, I sent him another thank-you letter and asked him if he'd be an honorary member of our board. He said yes. From that time on, I've had a periodic correspondence with him, he's done some favors for us, he sends us contributions regularly, and he's been pretty much all-round awesome to us.

So back in 2011, it occurred to me one day (the day before Thanksgiving, appropriately, and about a week after seeing the Follies revival in New York) that I should thank Sondheim, not just for what he's done for us, but for what he's done for the art form, for all the beautiful work he's created that we've had the privilege of working on. I wanted to make sure I told him how much his work means to all of us while he was still with us...

I was thinking about this letter today and I decided to post it, to publicly thank Uncle Steve for everything. We all owe him so much.

November 23, 2011

Dear Steve,

I just wanted to take a minute to let you know how grateful I am to you, for your work, for your generosity to our company, and for your part in the forward evolution of this most wondrous art form of ours.

As I hit middle-age, and as my work gets more and more interesting and satisfying, I’ve been thinking a lot about the major influences on how I view theatre. From further back than I can remember, I was in love with musical theatre and knew all the classic scores by heart. My family went to The Muny in the summers, so I saw many of the classics on stage. As I entered my teens, I discovered Grease and Rocky Horror and realized how wildly diverse my art form could be.

And I then I discovered you. First, Company, which blew my mind, then the others one by one. I already knew West Side Story and Gypsy of course, but not what I now think of as the Sondheim canon. Each new piece of yours I discovered blew wide open the possibilities for me. Your fascinating experiments formed a tutorial for me in taking risks and breaking boundaries. I took an independent study my senior year in college to dissect two theatre scores in depth, Sweeney and Night Music. I learned more about my art form that semester than at any other single time in my life.

Also during college, my high school drama teacher and I started a community theatre group. A few years after college, having finished exploring your work, I was ready for more adventure than a community theatre could offer me. So I started New Line, and we attacked your shows one after another. The first we produced was Assassins, and that may have been the most significant artistic moment of my life. It changed how I thought about the theatre, about why it was important, about what it was capable of, about the act of storytelling. I’ve now directed Assassins three times for New Line, each time discovering even more richness there. Assassins is also the first show I ever wrote about, back in 1994 for an article in The Sondheim Review, which launched my side career writing books about musical theatre. My sixth book was just released this month.

In addition to Assassins, New Line has also produced Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Sweeney Todd, Passion, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park, and two revues of your songs. Each one has been a joy to work on, an incredible adventure, and a fascinating exploration of the endless possibilities of the art form.

You and your work have been the most powerful influence on the preference I’ve developed over the years for meaty, substantial, complex, political, usually dark, and unerringly truthful subject matter. That stuff is just more interesting. Luckily for me, there’s an enthusiastic audience here in St. Louis for exactly that kind of theatre, so it looks like New Line (now in our 21st season!) will be thriving for quite some time to come. But I want to make sure you know how much you’ve influenced both me and our company – and by extension, our audience.

I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve brought to my life and to our culture.

With enormous gratitude,

Scott Miller
Artistic Director
New Line Theatre

P.S. I saw Follies on Broadway last week and it was one of the most thrilling nights of theatre I’ve ever had. Some day, I’m gonna find an old proscenium house and figure out how to pay for a full orchestra…

Uncle Steve wrote me back a very funny note, which said, "Dear Scott, Thanks for the terrific letter. Very good for the ego. Best, Steve."

Somebody asked me recently why we haven't done any Sondheim since Assassins in 2008. It's because we've worked our way through much of the Sondheim canon. As I said in my P.S., I intend to produce and direct Follies someday, and I'm not really interested in producing The Frogs or Pacific Overtures, as much  as I admire them. And Forum and Night Music just aren't New Line shows. I'm torn about Merrily We Roll Along. New Line might produce that someday.

Not long ago, I watched my bootleg video of the original Merrily, which is an epic mess, and because of the kind of work I've been doing with New Line, I saw pretty clearly how to make that original version of Merrily work. To a large extent, the unorthodox structure, the massive layer of irony hanging over everything, and an asshole for hero, aren't as weird as they were in the early 1980s, so I don't think those elements would alienate the audience as they clearly did originally. Today, The Last Five Years, with its similar structural device, has become part of the modern canon. And both High Fidelity and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson prove you can get an audience to care about a real asshole as the protagonist.

Also, it seems to me all the characters in Merrily should be cast with actors in their 40s. If they're the right age when our story starts, already burned out, already doomed to their various fates, then I think the irony will work far better as we move back in time, and "Our Time" will be much sadder and richer. In the original production, those fresh-faced kids singing this anthem of optimism derailed the dark irony of their future.

So I wrote Sondheim a long letter asking him if he'd let us do the original Merrily and explaining why I think it would work. He wrote back, thanked me for my enthusiasm, but said, no, he and bookwriter George Furth really never wanted that version on stage again. Which of course means we'll never hear two amazing numbers, "The Hills of Tomorrow" and "Rich and Happy," in their proper context again.

Still, I have to respect his feelings about his show.

It's been pretty cool all these years, being able to correspond with Sondheim. I only met him in person once, and very briefly, but he's been a real friend to New Line. I wish so much that I could have talked with Fosse and George Abbott, but I've been able to talk with Sondheim, one of the true giants of our art form, one of the artists who fundamentally changed the direction of our art form and raised the bar for everyone in terms of craft and artistry.

In a way, New Line has moved on beyond Sondheim's work, to newer work and younger writers, but the debt we owe Uncle Steve is massive. And I'm so glad I was able to tell him that.

Long Live the Musical!