This is my sunday afternoon with Stephen Sondheim story: I had first written Stephen Sondheim in 1979 when FIVE AFTER EIGHT was about to open in New York.
I invited him to the show but he declined as he was prepairing for the opening of SWEENEY TODD and he said he never sees any shows while he's working on one of his own. He did ask for a tape of the show and he sent me back a letter critiqueing it. The last song in the show is a number called, HOW CAN YOU WRITE A SONG ABOUT MANHATTAN WHEN THEY'VE ALL BEEN WRITTEN BEFORE in which I parody famous NY songs. One of them was ANOTHER HUNDRED PEOPLE. I needed his (and others) permission.
At that time, he never gave anyone permission to parody his lyrics, but when I sent them to him, he approved them-which led to permission from Leonard Bernstein for NEW YORK, NEW YORK.
Years passed, and we corresponded on many things for those years, and in 1983 I had an idea to produce an album of Steve's songs to be sung by pop/rock artists. I mentioned it to him and he was ecstatic over the idea and set up an appointment.
August 1983 - I was to meet him at his home on 49th street - this was to discuss plans for producing an album for him to be sung by pop artists. I will try to remember as much as I can - this will be somewhat long - I was coming into a divorce at this time and was quite despondent to say the least. It was very hot and I was very nervous - as hot as it was I was wearing a jacket so I looked somewhat formal which I thought would be appropriate - after having a few drinks at the bar right next to his place to relax myself, I approached the door and noticed the name "vargas" under his - was this the artist Vargas who did those drawings in Playboy? Anyway I knocked (or rang I think) and a few seconds later, there he was - IN A TEE SHIRT and shorts I believe - WAS I EMBARASSED - dressed to the nines.
Anyway, I'm invited in and he gives me a tour of his downstairs room which is his game room collection-Games he's collected over the years were up all over the walls-one, which he invented, was a game where the object was to see Hal Prince in his office but the challenge was getting past his secretary. We went upstairs and at the top of the stairs to the left, was a living room - to the right - where we went - was HIS workroom-There it was in all the glory-I've seen pictures of this room. I immediatly noticed the grand piano and a neatly stacked vocal score on the piano - I went right up to it and noticed the title - SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE - This was the new show that noone had heard yet and I saw the opening 4 notes - later, when I saw the show and heard those 4 opening notes come to life, well...
We didn't stay in that room but went into another outside room-his patio and that's where we sat for about 4 hours. He offered me a drink and I think I had 3 or 4 while I was there - vodka & tonics - I was still so nervous. He immediatly sensed there was something wrong with me and that I looked very depressed - I told him what was going on in my life and he said something to me that I'll never forget - he nonchalantly put his hand down as to wave it off and said, "Put your love into your work." Is that something or what?!
I told him of how I remember being 7 when WEST SIDE opened and playing the record over and over and wondering who wrote the words to the songs since there was only credit for music, book & "lyrics"-he said, "alot of people are like that"?
Telling him about the project, he couldn't understand why anyone would want to hear his songs in the pop world-he didn't think anyone in that world knew who he was. And he was right.
Except for WEST SIDE & SEND IN THE CLOWNS, who, besides people in the know, would know who SS was. Well, this was exactly the idea as to why I was doing this. I had a list of about 30 songs to be sung by 30 Artists-these were top people then-He didn't know any of them with the exception of Paul McCartney and Billy Joel-and the only reason he knew who Joel was was because Joels first wife called him up one day and told him Joel was a fan of his and he wanted to invite him to a recording session of his-but she or he never called back.
I remember mentioning Elton John for BUDDYS BLUES-he asked why this Elton guy would be good for that-I said, well, He's an entertainer...that's all I had to say-he went 'Ah' and I was struck then by his brilliance that I didn't have to say a word more about that-that was enough for him to know I was right. I couln't believe how out of touch he was with the pop world... when I mentioned Melissa Manchester for a song I said, 'well you must know who she is -she just sang a medley on the last TONY show' He said, "Oh, I never watch the TONYS." _____
I can't remember too many more details-the 3 or 4 hours went by incredibly quick as though it only lasted a minute-it was like I was put into some whirlwind time machine and then shot back on the street. There I was having a private chat with Stephen Sondheim-sort of like spending an afternoon with Gershwin or Tschaikovsky but actually I'd prefer Sondheim.
I can tell you that for someone like him, I've never met anyone warmer or kinder or as real but TOTALLLY BRILLIANT. You just sensed and knew he was very special. He set up a time for me to meet with Tommy Valando-his publisher and gave me carte blanche to all his sheet music. One of the singers I had in mind was Harry Nillson-a tremendous voice-he HAD Heard of him only because Harry was at a surprise party for Hal Prince and sang MARRY ME A LITTLE-Steve gave me a tape of that performance.
I was unsuccessful with the project probably because of what I was going through, I tried to get a big name first so I tried both Paul & Linda and then Billy Joel but it never happened. I still feel it would work even with some of the same singers and songs.I tried contacting David Geffen because he would be a natural for it but no response - anyway that's the long and short of it -I'll always be grateful for the meeting because I know for one afternoon, he was mine - Michael
Thanks for letting me share this all with you - I know you people are the only ones that could appreciate it. And now, here is the would be IT WOULD HAVE BEEN WONDERFUL album.
BUDDY'S BLUES-Elton John
BARCELONA- Paul & Linda McCartney (p)CAN THAT BOY FOX TROT-Bette Midler
GREEN FINCH & LINNET BIRD-Linda Ronstadt
ANYONE CAN WHISTLE-Ricki Lee Jones or Carly Simon or Willy Nelson
EVERYDAY A LITTLE DEATH-Carly Simon & Linda Ronstadt
YOU COULD DRIVE A PERSON CRAZY-Pointer Sisters
OUR TIME-Manhattan Transfer
COULD I LEAVE YOU-Melissa Manchester or Bette Midler
GOOD THING GOING-Billy Joel
BALLAD OF SWEENEY TODD-David Bowie or Frank Zappa
BEING ALIVE-Barry Mannilos
EVERYBODY SAY'S DON'T-Joe Jackson
LITTLE THINGS YOU DO TOGETHER-Manhattan Transfer
SO MANY PEOPLE-Melissa Manchester & Barry Manilow
I REMEMBER-Linda Ronstadt
I'M STILL HERE-Bette Midler
I NEVER DO ANYTHING TWICE-Bette or Linda Ronstadt
IT WOULD HAVE BEEN WONDERFUL-Billy Joel & David Bowie
ROAD YOU DIDN'T TAKE-Billy Joel or Neil Diamond
THERE WONT BE TRUMPETS-Melissa Manchester
NOT A DAY GOES BY-James Taylor
ME & MY TOWN-Bette Midler
LOSING MY MIND-Melissa Manchester or Linda Ronstadt or Billy Joel
SEND IN THE CLOWN-Manhattan Transfer (acapella)