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Old Friends of Young Playwrights

Stephen Sondheim, Maltby & Shire, Flaherty & Ahrens, and other Broadway greats salute the future of the American theater. logo
Stephen Sondheim
How often do you get the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Richard Maltby, David Shire, Sheldon Harnick, Carol Hall, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens together to tell the stories behind their songs? Something like that would have to be a special event. Well, it was a very special event indeed that was offered earlier this week in support of the future of the American theater.

Young Playwrights, Inc. (YPI), an organization founded by Sondheim in 1981 to nurture young writers, is celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year, and a benefit to raise money for the organization was held on Wednesday, May 9. Hosted by YPI president Alfred Uhry and playwright Wendy Wasserstein, the event honored the six young playwrights chosen this year to have their work produced at the Cherry Lane Alternative Theater in the fall. And the Broadway veterans named above showed up to provide the evening's entertainment. The concept for the event was "Show and Tell"--or, rather tell and then show. Sondheim and company each told an interesting, behind-the-scenes story or anecdote about a number written for one of their shows at the last minute. Then the composer or a designated performer sang the song under discussion.

First up was Sheldon Harnick, who talked about a song that he and longtime collaborator Jerry Bock wrote for Fiorello!, their Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about New York City mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia. During out-of-town tryouts for the show, Harnick had a great idea for a new number; he was inspired by an old story about a politician accused of taking graft who, in his defense, said that he got all of his money by saving his pennies in "a little tin box." Since Bock was off seeing a movie at the time of Harnick's inspiration, the lyricist thought of a song that they had cut from another Bock/Harnick show which he thought he could use. With the tune in his head, Harnick wrote the new lyric. After completing it, he met Bock outside of the movie theater. "We wrote a song tonight," he told his partner. Bock's reply: "How was my music?" As played by David Shire, who accompanied Harnick and singer Charles Repole in the jaunty number, "Little Tin Box" sounded terrific.

Carol Hall is a great friend to Young Playwrights, Inc., and serves on the organization's board of directors; she is best known to theatergoers as the composer and lyricist of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which is currently on tour with Ann-Margaret in the lead role. Taking her turn at "Show and Tell," Hall explained that, until now, Whorehouse had never been done onstage with a big star. Set in a popular Texas brothel called The Chicken Ranch, the musical concerns the lives of the ladies at the brothel, various townsfolk (everyone from a reporter to the Texas governor), and the madame Miss Mona and Sheriff Ed Earl, who share a love that is never able to blossom (for obvious reasons). "I'd always thought of it as a sort of Chekhovian ensemble piece," Hall said wistfully; but she had to set aside that notion when Ann-Margaret requested an additional song for her character: "She didn't care where it was or what it was about; it just had to be there." Hall decided to write a song that gave Miss Mona a chance to reveal her true feelings about the sheriff. The composer--lyricist herself sang and played this new song, "A Friend to Me."

Richard Maltby, Jr., director of the night's proceedings, spoke about the work he, David Shire, and John Weidman did on their musical version of the film Big. After the show failed on Broadway, the team reworked much of it, in many cases returning to some of the earliest material they had written for the project. One song, "Little Susan Lawrence," originally was cut because they feared it made a scene which already had three songs in it drag on too long. When the number was reinstated for one stop on the tour, the creators were surprised to find that there was no rustling of programs or shifting in seats. Rather, the audience was enraptured by the song, in which a jaded woman in her thirties, with many failed relationships behind her, sings about her first love. Liz Callaway performed the song with David Shire himself as her accompanist.

Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens
Lyricist Lynn Ahrens (another YPI board member) and composer Stephen Flaherty have been working together for 18 years. Ahrens shared the fact that, on each of their opening nights, Flaherty's gift to her is a binder containing every single note of music he wrote for that particular show--early sketches, ideas that were never developed, first drafts, and completed songs that didn't make it into the finished product. "Come Down From the Tree," written for Once on This Island, is one of the team's favorites among their discarded numbers. A simple song in which a woman sings to a child literally perched in a tree, Ahrens said it could be interpreted to have many metaphorical meanings as well; e.g., it might be thought of as a song about coming out of hiding and being who you are. As it happened, "Come Down From the Tree" was eventually recorded for one of the albums in Varèse Sarabande's Lost in Boston series and is much-loved by musical theater fans.

Flaherty also spoke for a moment--"Sometimes I let Stephen talk," joked Ahrens, as he stepped up to the mike. He mentioned that he and his partner felt awful about cutting the song, which Once On This Island's star, La Chanze, had sung so beautifully. He felt that, in a small way, they had made it up to her in Ragtime (La Chanze played Sarah in the workshop, on tour, and as Audra McDonald's successor on Broadway) by adding a song for her character in the second act, "even though Sarah died at the end of the first act." At the YPI benefit, La Chanze had the opportunity to sing "Come Down From The Tree" once more, to Flaherty's piano accompaniment.

The final story of the evening came from Stephen Sondheim, who talked about the final number of his groundbreaking musical Company. The story of a bachelor and his married friends, Company ends with its protagonist, Robert, deciding that he wants...something. At the time Sondheim was working on the show with bookwriter George Furth and director Hal Prince, the ending of the piece was uncertain. Sondheim first wrote a song called "Marry Me a Little," in which Robert proposes--more or less--to his friend Amy. Assisted by Shire, once more on the piano, actor Stephen Bogardus sang:

Marry me a little,
Love me just enough,
But not too often,
But not too rough
Keep a tender distance,
So we'll both be free,
That's the way it ought to be.
I'm ready!

But Sondheim stopped Bogardus after a couple of verses, explaining that he had only gotten up to that point in writing the song. Though he later finished it and it was inserted as the final number of the first act when Company was revived in 1995, he didn't feel it was the right song to end the show. Sondheim came up with something else for that spot, a song called "Happily Ever After." Bogardus obliged again: "Someone to hold you too close, someone to hurt you to deep...that's happily ever after, ever ever after, happily ever after in HELL," he bellowed. "Hal thought that was a bit of a downer," noted Sondheim drily. So he tried again, but retained some of those lyrics:

Someone to hold you too close,
Someone to hurt you too deep,
Someone to sit in your chair,
And ruin your sleep,
And make you aware of being alive.

Thus did Bogardus finally get the chance to sing something in its entirety, bringing the house down with the song that finally became Robert's big finale, "Being Alive."

"Show and Tell" concluded as former Young Playwright Charlie Schulman offered a toast to Stephen Sondheim, not just for his oeuvre but for founding Young Playwrights, Inc. In 20 years or so, today's fledgling writers, composers, and lyricists will be the ones onstage recounting stories like those heard at this memorable event.

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