An Afternoon With Stephen Sondheim or Diary Excerpt of a Fanatic

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A very talented and very fanatical friend of ours took off to see Stephen Sondheim in Melbourne, while Mr Sondheim was here to see the hit production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and answer a few questions in a forum of a different kind…


Contributed by Darren Heskes 


What started as “An Evening with Stephen Sondheim” for me became “two postponed evenings with Sondheim” (he had fallen in England whilst walking and talking, fracturing his  right wrist), 2 non refundable airline tickets, a hotel room that had been paid for (which resulted in me going to Melbourne just to use up the accommodation and second airline ticket), and a “hang the expense, I’ll take the family down South and pay extra to see Forum weekend. Like I had money to burn!


It wasn’t the latest Smash hit  musical or  Lady Gaga concert that  the obsessive ones sell their parents to see, so why do all this to see an 82-year old man being asked questions that I already knew the answers to?




Of all the people in this world Sondheim is the only one I would ever  make this kind of effort to see.



I could have bought a ticket to New York and camped outside his place for the same cost.

A career spanning over 55 years as the ultimate theatre songwriter: lyricist  for West Side Story and Gypsy leading to his eventual destiny providing music and lyrics to his  revolutionary and sometimes daring masterpieces Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George (my number one musical of all time), Into the Woods, Assassins and Passion. He  has worked with  some of the biggest Broadway and West End  giants and I could spew forth wads of info your way but come on! You have a computer…Look him up. If you’re unfamiliar then it’s time to get acquainted as there will never be another Sondheim, just as there’ll never be another Shakespeare or da Vinci.


“In Person”. That concept seems ridiculous, something  that interests fanatics and stalkers. I was no different. I was even annoying the concierge at the hotel he was staying at. But I wasn’t alone and although he made it quite clear during the anticipated afternoon  that he could not write at present (the wrist damage is severe as he is right handed), the faithful stood waiting at the stage door with programmes, scores and paraphernalia to have him sign. I was no better. I took note of the non-signing but made sure I left a musical proposal for him to peruse with the stage door manager (like I’m the only one who’s ever done that). I know full well the cold truth of reality but that doesn’t mean I’m not checking my email every day, just in case.


Anyway… After a brief delay waiting for the greatest songwriter of the latter 20th century, there he was… in person! Shorter than I imagined. Christopher Lawrence asked thoughtful and well researched questions that Mr. Sondheim was both surprised and pleased with. Excellent for the less dogmatic admirers, but for the ravenous devourers we wanted to have him all to ourselves. Musical excerpts were performed by various artists, and not having been a Packed to the Rafters follower all I can say is “OMG… that Hugh Sheridan can sing!” What a voice. The most perfect rendition of the title tune from the less successful opus Anyone Can Whistle. Even Stephen (well, I’d hoped we’d be on first name terms by now) was moved. To the point in fact that he scolded someone taking photographs during  the song.


Silvie Palidino’s Not a Day Goes By from Merrily We Roll Along was not only incredible to listen to it brought the Maestro to tears. Less convincing unfortunately, was Martin Crewes who did the Sunday in the Park excerpts. It just didn’t do it for me. Now if Hugh had sung it I would have been on my knees sobbing like an infant. Everything these days is cross-promotional and so this was in preparation for the 2013 Melbourne season of Sunday in the Park. Now if it was a Quast or Jackman in the lead (as they both had done so in the past), or even a Sheridan, I’d be booking passage immediately. Crewes, although capable, is no heavyweight. 


Geoffrey Rush joined Christopher and Stephen on the stage for 15 minutes of further cross promotion (Forum) and as entertaining, funny and talented as he was, I came for the awkward New Yorker. It did give an insight however into the methods and abilities of Mr Rush and why he is where he is today.

His attention to detail is second to none and for a self confessed non-singer he puts many  supposed singers to shame. 


Now back to Stephen…While we were lead chronologically through his career, with 2 interrupted hours there was no time to be stuck on 1959’s  Gypsy ( I mean, he was allowed to write lyrics only at this point at Ethel Merman’s request) and while Mr Lawrence attempted to steer proceedings further on, many in the audience had to let out a sigh to delay things another 5 minutes! COME ON PEOPLE! The highpoint of all musical theatre was his career from 1970-1994 and we still had another 11 years to go. TIME’S TICKING! Unions wouldn’t allow for a finish any later than 4.30 pm so MOVE IT! 


At interval I went off to do the usual: buy a drink, go to the toilet. Little did I know that those that remained milling in the auditorium were given a survey and then they selected 3 people to ask Mr Sondheim a question each…WHAT?! If I’d have known that I would have worn an adult nappy that day just in case. OH what wasted questions! It was like being given 3 wishes and wasting every one of them. The first question was by an older gentleman with the need for people to think he was witty, the second by a  young bassoonist who went and sat back in her seat mid answer (2 wishes down) and the third by a bumbling student not even aware of the full extent of Sondheim’s career. Folks…he went from strength to strength well after West Side Story and 55 years on he would like to forget some of his early career cringe-worthy lyrics. 


It’s a shame most people in this country are not as well versed on Sondheim as they should be. The more recent Burton film Sweeney Todd, which may have brought a younger generation a taste of Sondheim, is style over substance. Don’t ever see the film versions of A Little Night Music or Forum… They’re rubbish.  However you will never regret getting your hands on the filmed stage versions of Sunday in the Park with George and Company, the original cast recording of Sweeney Todd and the Sondheim biography by Meryle Secrest. Life-changing.  


So all in all was I satisfied… Not really.

But I would not have missed it for the world.




Stephen Sondheim


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