In nominating Stephen Sondheim for a Pulitzer, Miami alumnus added to the kudos the master musical storyteller cherished
By Larry Moore ’68 MA ’70
News of Stephen Sondheim’s death last Friday floored me. As my mortality dwindles, I’m too much aware that death does come to everyone sooner or later, but I am very sorry that it came to Steve not long after we learned that he was working on something.
I met him in 1981 when I was an arranger for The New York City Gay Men’s Chorus. Arthur Laurents, who collaborated with him on West Side Story and Gypsy, was on the chorus’s board of directors, and he had pushed the group to work with Sondheim. Sometime in early spring 1981, the chorus’s conductor, Gary Miller, and I went to East 49th Street to talk to Mr. Sondheim (“Call me Steve,” he told me.) about a medley of songs.
He and Gary were friends of Larry Kert, who played the role of Tony in the original Broadway version of West Side Story. They gossiped about Larry’s latest cabaret act while I sat there thinking, “Am I really here?”
The medley was performed at the June 1981 concert at Alice Tully Hall. At the party after the performance, Steve and I had a wonderful conversation arguing over whether Sweeney Todd was a musical or an opera and talking about friends, music, and theater we had seen, while I laughed and coyly avoided Steve’s attempts to make me tell him all the salacious gossip I’d heard about him, and I’d heard plenty.
I did tell him that the work Sweeney Todd most reminded me of was Benjamin Britten’s version of The Beggar’s Opera, which he did not know. The day after the party, I sent him a copy of the vocal score. Several years later, I found a recording of the 1963 Edinburgh Festival production conducted by Britten, and I sent it to him. He responded with a short note that read something like, “Thanks for the recording, but I’ve already stolen what I could from this score.”
‘Bit by bit, putting it together’
After Merrily We Roll Along failed on Broadway, I spent an afternoon in June 1982 chatting with Steve in the balcony of Carnegie Hall. He was attending a New York City Gay Men’s Chorus dress rehearsal to hear my arrangement of “Our Time.” He was very complimentary and recommended it to his publisher. The result was my first published choral arrangement.
Still very bruised by Merrily’s failure, he told me that afternoon that he would never write another musical; he was going to work on computer games for Parker Brothers.
I was flabbergasted, and I called his office occasionally to ask his office manager, Patricia Sinnott, how he was, if by any chance he was doing any writing, and to let him know that I had been thinking about him. Then, one day, mirabile dictu!, Patricia called me and whispered, so he wouldn’t overhear, that he was working on a new show.
Not long after, Patricia called me again.
“Steve wants to know when you want to come to the show,” she said. I was floored. Steve Sondheim was inviting me to see the Playwrights Horizon workshop of Sunday in the Park with George! I was dying to see it, but I couldn’t afford a ticket on my salary.
So, I gave her the date for a Sunday matinee of Sunday, saw a performance of the first act — all that existed then — and left the theater in tears, overcome by its imagination, its message, and its glorious score.
I called Steve the next day to thank him for the ticket and gushed effusively about how much I liked it and how “Finishing the Hat” had hit me so hard. Its comment about an artist passing up one’s social life and pleasure to commit time to his art could have been the story of my New York life at the time.
Sunday wins, by George!
When my arrangement of “Our Time” was published, Patricia and I were chatting about how I could thank Steve. It was frustrating; I didn’t really know what to give to someone who could pretty much acquire whatever he wanted. I asked her about the Pulitzer Prize, and she told me that, to her knowledge, he had never been nominated. This surprised me. Well, I could nominate Sunday in The Park with George, by George!
For the nomination, I needed biographies and photos of Steve and James Lapine, who wrote Sunday’s book, a recording, a vocal score, and libretto. I wanted to surprise Steve, but Patricia was worried about his reaction if he learned that she and I were up to something without his knowledge. So, I asked her to have Steve call me, and that evening we spoke on the phone.
I never knew, when I spoke to Steve, if I would get the busy Steve who was cordial but gave an air of impatience, or the friendly Steve who enjoyed the socializing. He was always cautious on the phone until he knew the purpose of the call. So, what did I need, he asked.
I thanked him for the publication of “Our Time” and told him that I wanted to nominate Sunday in The Park with George for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
His immediate reaction was, “We’ll never win.” My response was, “Perhaps, but you never know, and I think it’s about time you were nominated.” He relaxed, we talked about it for a bit, and he agreed and promised full cooperation.
Big sigh of relief. I might have danced about the apartment for a bit.
Around September 1984, I made the trek to his home with the application, and Steve and I chatted while Patricia typed out the forms. I went to the Pulitzer office on Columbia University’s campus and turned over the materials, paid the entry fee and forgot about it.
On Wednesday morning, April 24, 1985, my dad woke me with a very early phone call. He was in tears. I must fly home to Middletown, Ohio, immediately. My mother was having an emergency quadruple bypass the following morning, and he wanted me at the hospital with my brothers. I spent the rest of the day running errands, booking flights, and clearing my calendar.
I returned home to pack around 4 to a phone message of Patricia screaming, “We won!” We won!” I called her, and she said, “Where are you? Steve wants to talk to you.”
He called me from the theater, we spoke briefly, and I flew home to my mother’s surgery. That went well, too, and I flew back to Manhattan. In the mail was an invitation to a party at Steve’s home celebrating the 100th performance of Sunday in The Park with George.
‘Schtick by Schtick, Side by Side’
Since 1989, I’ve barely seen Steve. He was in a great, affectionate mood backstage at Avery Fisher Hall after a 1989 All-Sondheim concert by the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus. Much of it was my work. As soon as he found me, I got a huge bear hug. There also was a lovely note from him about my orchestrations for Bruce Kimmel’s 1994 recording “Unsung Sondheim.”
I did see Steve at the final performance of Gypsy with Patti LuPone at City Center in 2007. I was heading backstage to see friends, and he was crossing the lobby in search of the closing party and the bar.
I called, “Steve, it’s Larry Moore.” There was no hug, only a short ”Good to see you,” as he hurried on. I agree; it was good to see him.
I’m sorry we didn’t speak longer, but it had been nearly 20 years since we last saw each other, and I smiled broadly all the way backstage. He had played a major part in my life when I was trying to get a foot in the door, and I will be eternally grateful for that. I am even more grateful that I, a minor player in the life of a great artist, was lucky enough to thank him in a major way.