Ellen Byron

Side by Side… with Sondheim

Our last post about Broadway triggered this trip down memory lane for me…

In the  nineteen-eighties as I was transitioning from performer to playwright, my friend Jenna who worked at The Dramatists Guild helped me get a job as the assistant to the assistant to the Executive Director (no joke, that was my title). The DG is a professional organization for playwrights, composers, and lyricists governed by a staff – that’s where I came in — and by a council of playwrights elected by its members — and that’s where the incomparable Stephen Sondheim comes in.  Yes, that Stephen Sondheim, of the most amazing musicals, like Follies and A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd.

 

 

The Council is always a Who’s Who of American theatre legends. During my two-year stint, Council members included Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson, Mary Rodgers, Garson Kanin, Arthur Kopit, John Guare, and Peter Stone, who served as president. And of course… Mister Sondheim. A nice, unassuming man who always smiled and rode his bike to Council meetings at our offices in JJ Shubert’s old penthouse on 44th Street. (These photos are ancient, but they’re the only ones I could dig up. Our conference room was JJ’s old living room.)

 

 

After working at the Guild for a while, I began seeing these legends as mere mortals. I was in charge of refreshments for Council meetings, and a certain playwright who’ll remain nameless would always inhale a few chocolate chip cookies before anyone else arrived, turning him from Great American Playwright into annoying guy who kept messing up my cookie display. We stored telephone books in the bathroom off the reception area for some odd reason, and one day as I went to put away a phone book, I walked in on Lanford Wilson using the facilities. Let me tell you, there is no experience more leveling than walking in on someone in that situation.

But there were wonderful moments, too.  I was serving appetizers at a Guild cocktail party when I got into a conversation with John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation) and Peter Stone (Woman of the Year, 1776, and one of my all-time favorite movies, Charade).

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I told them I was an aspiring playwright, and they instantly broke into an improvised song, singing “On the other side of the dip… that’s where I wanna be.” I can still see and hear those kind, lovely men singing to me. Even Jenna remembers this.

But there was one particular moment that will forever live in my memory – and in my journal. After a committee meeting, instead of strapping on his bike helmet and departing, Stephen Sondheim sat down at the piano and started doodling a tune. A gorgeous tune.sondheim at piano

Here’s what I wrote in my journal that night:

“Today, as I walked into the Guild reception room to clean up after a committee lunch, Stephen Sondheim was playing the piano and for a moment, there was magic in that room and I was transported beyond that room… It was a rare moment when I was filled with total and complete pride for my business and what we bohemians do.”

And then I wrote a poem that began, “There was magic in this room… when a song rang through the ceiling like a sad garden of crystal played by the wind…”

In my current Cajun Country Mystery work-in-progress, Mardi Gras Murder, a teen girl who’s an unlikely pageant contestant reads part of this poem as her contribution to the talent portion of the contest. It’s my (now not so) secret homage to Mr. Sondheim.

A few years ago, I was at JFK Airport with my family waiting for a flight home to Los Angeles. And Stephen Sondheim walked by with an assistant, most likely to catch a London flight leaving from a nearby gate. I wanted to run after him and fangirl. But I didn’t, which I regret to this day. Still, I’ll always have that moment at The Dramatists Guild when it was just Stephen Sondheim and me and the bits of a beautiful tune that may or may not have found a home in one of his incredible musicals.

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Readers, have you ever shared a moment with a legend? If not, who would you like to share one with?

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24 thoughts on “Side by Side… with Sondheim

  1. What a wonderful and exciting time that must have been (well, except for the phonebook/bathroom incident)! I love Stephen Sondheim, and agree with you that it must have been magic to see him just sit down at a piano and start playing.

    My time with a legend was after a performance of The Unsinkable Molly Brown at the Dallas Summer Musicals several years ago. After all the curtain calls, Debbie Reynolds came out and just started chatting with the audience for about 30 minutes — everyone was enthralled and no one left. She was an amazing and gracious lady ~

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Celia, she guested a couple of times on WINGS as Helen and Casey’s mother! At the first table read, she introduced herself by saying, “Hello, I’m Princess Leia’s mother.” This was her go-to shtik.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I met Pat Boone when he was visiting his agent, I think, in Westport, Conn. My cousin and I were drafted to watch Debbie Boone and her sisters on the beach while the adults had a meeting.
    When we brought the little girls back to the house, the famous singer was eating ice cream and strawberries FOR BREAKFAST. I didn’t know anyone who ate ice cream for breakfast.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Oh my goodness, I love everything about this post/story. It was like getting an advance peek at your memoir. So happy you had those experiences, Ellen.

    And that you included the poem in your current book is so exciting. Can’t wait to read it. (And a pageant? How fun!)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hey, another serendipitous thing we have in common! Tim was the SF Bay Area regional rep for the Dramatist Guild and got to go to NY a couple of times for their big annual meeting. In fact, one of his “living legend” moments was through that gig — interviewing Stephen Schwartz on stage here in SF. Your encounter with Sondheim though? Totally magical!

    Liked by 3 people

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