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Dancers and performers on a stage.
Follies at The National Theatre in London, 2019. National Theatre /Johan Persson

Letters from Sondheim: how I got to know the great composer

In 2014, I went out on a limb and sent eight-time Tony award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim a letter. I, like many, was (and still am) mesmerised by the 1971 musical Follies.

Having been a dancer in Las Vegas for many years, the story of a troupe of showgirls and stage-door Johnnies (men who are infatuated with the dancers) returning to a soon to be demolished theatre, haunted by their younger selves, hit a frighteningly personal chord. The bittersweet nostalgia I felt as songs such as “Broadway Baby”, “I’m Still Here”, and “Losing My Mind” washed over me, was unshakable.

And so, as part of my studies at New York University, I decided to explore how memory and nostalgia became the lifeblood and pulse of Follies. I wanted to know why, by the end of the performance, I felt rinsed of the present day and cast back into the rapture of life as a showgirl and the agony of ageing. My advisor suggested: “He lives in the same city as you, why not look him up?”

A surprising correspondence

I set off on a campaign to seek out Sondheim’s contact information and sent him a hand-written letter requesting an interview. Three weeks later, much to my disbelief, a small ivory coloured envelope arrived in my rusted mailbox. He suggested I send him my questions and he would get back to me when he could. For the next four months, we exchanged letters.

In the first letter, I asked him about the notion of nostalgia in the show. He responded:

I don’t think the word ‘nostalgia’ ever occurred to us. We merely were telling the story of four characters with regrets they couldn’t cope with.

In the second letter, curious about the disheartened reunion of the two lead couples in the musical, I asked: “You were in your early 40s when you wrote Follies – did you know a lot about regret at that time?” To which he replied: “As for knowing a lot about regret, we were strictly average. Regret starts when you’re about two years old.”

Perhaps, in Follies, and much of Sondheim’s work, it is his ability to tap into the feelings of regret, heartache or longing that we all hold. By and large, the sometimes discordant, often cynical, resolutely beautifully, and achingly affected tone of his massive oeuvre of work resonates in a deeply personal manner.

The powerful expanse of his works is saturated with these ripples of anguish, shame, remorse and discomfort. But also laughter, love, joy and a desire to carry on despite all of our imperfections and flaws. This tangle of emotions, anxieties, fears and – for me – nostalgia, is wrapped up in so many of his lyrics, sung by characters who press on, who endure, who sit in the discomfort and mess of life.

One need only think of the survival anthem I’m Still Here sung by former showgirl Carlotta:

Good times and bum times, I’ve seen ‘em all
And, my dear, I’m still here
Plush velvet sometimes
Sometimes just pretzels and beer, but I’m here

I’ve run the gamut, A to Z
Three cheers and dammit,
C'est la vie
I got through all of last year, and I’m here
Lord knows, at least I was there, and I’m here
Look who’s here, I’m still here

As I re-read these lyrics, I think what makes Sondheim’s music so lasting is his unusual capacity to delve so deeply into the work and feeling of “Being Alive” (another one of his classic songs). Even more mysteriously, he can take you there, deep “Into the Woods”, without you ever noticing the journey – that is, until you feel it welling up, irresistibly, from within. In this way, it’s quite possible you may not have even heard of Stephen Sondheim, but in all likelihood, you have heard him. He’s been playing in the background of our lives for nearly three-quarters of a century.

Sondheim and I corresponded back and forth over several more letters. I asked him if any of the characters in Follies have a sense of closure by the end of the musical, to which he replied: “As for the end of the show, the word 'closure’ may be the most overused of the last 20 years.” I can’t agree more.

After I heard the news of his death on November 26 I pulled out the final letter he sent to me – he would have been 84 when he wrote it. He concluded our conversation, which had ranged from probing the precarious and unfair nature of life to the small details of writing hit Broadway musicals by humbly saying: “But that’s merely my opinion. Yours truly, Stephen Sondheim.”

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