Community Perspective: Hanging out with Stephen Sondheim

A community perspectives piece by Tom Arthur

The last time I was in New York, a former student asked if I wanted to meet Stephen Sondheim, with whom he was friends. The composer/lyricist especially admired teachers, I was told, and had even endowed a Kennedy Center Inspirational Teacher Award. I accepted of course and on the appointed day went to the two-story east side townhouse where, joined by the former student, we waited until Sondheim descended from his second-story study. 

Sondheim seemed like a good guy, not a winner of Tonys, Oscars, Grammys, a Pulitzer and a Laurence Olivier Award, etc. whom many people say reinvented the American musical. His body of work including A Little Night Music, CompanySweeny Todd, Into the Woods and much more has been compared to Shakespeare’s. 

It emerged that Sondheim had known my aunt, an early New Yorker writer, and perhaps on that basis we fell into conversation about 1940s and ’50s movies and World War II, old-guy stuff my former student knew nothing about. I’ve since read that the lyricist/composer was shy with people when he first met them, but he wasn’t that day.

When Sondheim was about to leave for a rehearsal, he offered to drop me off and, as I was late for lunch with my son, Ben, I accepted. In the chauffeur-driven car, the composer told me something that “he’d never before revealed” about long ago buying his New York residence because he’d seen Katherine Hepburn in an adjoining apartment window with Spencer Tracy standing behind her. It not a new story but hearing it related by Sondheim himself was special.

Before Sondheim got out of the car, I invited him to Harrisonburg and JMU. He wasn’t sure about taking the time but said he’d consider it depending on his health. 

Ben was irritated about my being late but was wowed by the excuse.

A retired Professor of Theatre, Tom Arthur was part of an effort to bring arts practitioners to JMU and Harrisonburg for educational purposes.

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