Stephen Sondheim: 62 Years In Westport

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that the Westport Country Playhouse 2012 season opens tomorrow (Tuesday, May 1) with Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”

What you may not know is that the composer/lyricist’s connection to the Playhouse goes back more than 60 years. In fact, Sondheim may have longer ties to the Playhouse than just about anyone else on earth.

In the summer of 1950 — just after graduation from Williams College — a young Sondheim was one of a dozen Playhouse apprentices.

Stephen Sondheim (crouching, top of photo), during his 1950 apprenticeship. The photo was taken at the Jolly Fisherman restaurant. Also in the photo: future film director Frank Perry (front row, left) and Richard Rodgers' daughter Mary (2nd row, 4th from left).

According to a 2006  New York Times story,

He was 20 but not totally untested: he had written two shows in college, one of which was staged. He had won a composition prize that would help finance his further studies. And Oscar Hammerstein II, a neighbor from previous summers in Bucks County, Pa., had been giving him assignments in musical theater writing, critiquing the results without condescension.

Still, he had not moved many sets or called lighting cues from a booth and didn’t yet have the practical knowledge of stagecraft that would eventually inform his scores, helping to create the seamless style of works like “Company” and “Sweeney Todd” decades later. And if there’s one thing a summer theater apprenticeship can deliver on, among the many things it necessarily cannot, it’s the promise of plenty of time spent living the less glamorous life backstage.

An undated photo of the Westport Country Playhouse -- before the most recent renovation.

He applied to the Playhouse because it was near his father and stepmother’s home in Stamford. Perhaps more importantly, he said, “in those days (it was) the most prestigious summer theater in the country.”

One of the great things about his apprenticeship, he added, was that

you got to be an assistant stage manager on at least one show during the summer. I got to do it on a show called “My Fiddle’s Got Three Strings,” directed by no less than Lee Strasberg and starring Maureen Stapleton. It was my first taste of the Actors Studio. When the actors started reading, I couldn’t hear one word. You want to talk about mumbling.

Back then, Sondheim told the Times, there was a different show each week. Apprentices learned everything — from getting props and parking cars to selling Cokes and cleaning latrines.

Nothing was beneath anyone. “We were kids in the theater,” he said.

Stephen Sondheim today.

The occasion of that Times piece was a tribute to Sondheim. The Playhouse benefit was hosted by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

We think — rightly — of that wonderful couple as two of the Westport Country Playhouse’s most devoted benefactors.

But Stephen Sondheim was there nearly a decade before they moved to town.

Starting tomorrow, he’ll be there — in the form of “Into the Woods” — once again.

That’s a lot more than a little night music.

4 responses to “Stephen Sondheim: 62 Years In Westport

  1. Thanks for that bit of history, Dan. I look forward to seeing the play next week.

  2. Dan, I believe that Tina Louise ( Myers ) was also in that class. Or it may have been1949.

  3. A commuter, who loves westport.

    I have 2 tickets for saturday performance, May 5th @ 8pm. Unfortunately can’t go. Please e-mail me if you would like the tickets.