#7 - Make Just A Ripple
Thank you Stephen Sondheim. For everything.
When I was 15 I saw a student production of Company and thought this is unlike any musical I had seen before.
When I was 16 I saw an Edinburgh fringe production of Merrily We Roll Along and wept through it. From that moment on I knew musical theatre was the art form that would come to define my life. More than the films and video games that had obsessed me as a younger teenager, I realised that musicals were the intersection of music and stories that let me feel and think at the same time.
For my 17th birthday I asked for the original cast recordings of all the Sondheim shows and I listened to them one by one. I read along with the scripts. I analysed every lyric and melody.
When I first learned to drive it was with a CD of Sunday In The Park With George in my car. I memorised every word.
When I was 18 I bought a bootleg sound desk recording of the original cast of Follies on cassette tape from eBay. By then I already had five other cast recordings of the show but I wanted to hear how it all fit together.
When I was travelling on my gap year I bought the recording of Bounce from HMV in Hong Kong and listened to it non stop on my discman for the rest of the trip. People thought I was strange. I didn’t mind.
My first onstage role at university was Terry in Merrily We Roll Along.
The first show I ever directed was Marry Me A Little. A two hander comprised of cut songs about longing and loneliness.
For my 21st birthday my friends sent a Follies vocal score to Stephen Sondheim and he returned it with this inside the front cover.
When I decided not to be a doctor, it was Sondheim that made me realise I had to spend my life making musicals. It was Sondheim that taught me that musicals could be the medium that allowed me to understand the impossible. His musicals felt like the most shimmering, audacious, complete works of art I had ever discovered.
Until this point I had never seen a professional Sondheim production. They had lived for me on page and on CD. I had studied the liner notes and lyrics sheets. But I had never seen one. They lived in my imagination.
Of course that changed. I saw the Broadway Revival of Assassins. The Donmar Revival of Pacific Overtures. The National Theatre revival of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. But Sondheim continued to be something I didn’t need a theatre to appreciate. They were platonic works of art that lived in me.
In 2008 I went to the Lincoln Center Library and watched the original videos of Follies, Assassins, Company and Merrily We Roll along. I saw these artifacts and realised they still shone brightly. I realised that these shows were even more extraordinary in their time. That they were risky, ambitious, unique and brave.
In 2011 I was the Associate Director on Road Show at the Menier Chocolate Factory. I got to sit with his lyrics and melodies day in and day out. I also finally got to meet him. I found myself with him in the office and I decided I wouldn’t say anything for fear of embarrassing myself. He asked me if I had read 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’. I replied that I hadn’t and he told me that a friend had recommended it and that he wasn’t enjoying it very much.
I brought my camera to work for the days he was in London in the hope of finding a non embarrassing moment to ask for a photo. His partner Jeff took this one on the Road Show set.
In 2012 I got to be associate director of Merrily We Roll Along. I got to meet him again. He was so overjoyed to be seeing his work revived. He took none of it for granted. He was kind to everyone involved.
I always wanted to direct his musicals, but I also felt I didn’t want to do so until I could do them justice. Until I had the resources or scope to do them in the way I wanted. I had seen so many other productions that I think to an extent I always felt I wouldn’t direct a Sondheim musical until I got further in my career.
So instead I started to direct new musicals. Musicals by and with writers who cared about the form the way Sondheim did. Who saw its ability to be mature, introverted, intellectual. For those who saw its ability to be art. For it to be something that could forever change the minds of the audiences who watched it.
Sondheim made me sure that musicals were an intellectual pursuit and a profound artistic endeavour. There isn’t a day that I don’t listen to Sondheim’s work. Where I don’t think about his lyrics.
Sondheim believed in the musical as a form and passed that unhesitating belief onto me and countless others. His musicals were never mere entertainment, they were everything; Loss, uncertainty, bravery, complexity, morality, fear, loneliness, wit, vibrancy, memory, celebration, whimsy, intellect, eulogy, exhilaration, history, speculation, politics, humanity and heart.
I have too much to say to ever really say it properly. But the main feeling is one of gratitude. Thank you for blazing a trail for all of us to follow. I am here because of you. It was a privilege to walk the earth at the same time as you. To watch in the same audiences as you. To get to be part of your words and your music and your stories.
You showed me what the musical could be and what the form could aspire to. Every day of my life has been in your legacy and with that same goal in mind. To give audiences more to see of musical theatre. To give writers more opportunities to share their stories and their music. Thank you. Your memory will always be a blessing to me. May it be a blessing to all those whose lives you made possible.
“With so little to be sure of
If there's anything at all
If there's anything at all
I'm sure of here and now and us together
All I'll ever be I'll owe you
If there's anything to be
Being sure enough of you
Makes me sure enough of me
Thanks for everything we did
Everything that's past, every thing's that's over too fast
None of it was wasted, all of it will last
Everything that's here and now and us together
It was marvellous to know you and it's really through
Crazy business this, this life we live in
Can't complain about the time we're given
With so little to be sure of in this world
We had a moment, a marvellous moment”
Thank you for reading
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