Stephen Sondheim’s Westport Years: Helping Lee Strasberg, Cleaning Latrines

The Stephen Sondheim stories keep coming.

A recent New York Times story notes that the composer was famous for writing letters. Sent to “students and professionals and fans, they were thoughtful and specific, full of gratitude and good wishes, each on letterhead, each with the elegant, sloping signature that’s familiar now from the Stephen Sondheim Theater marquee.”

One of those notes — written very early in his career — has a Westport connection.

In the spring of 1950 Sondheim graduated from Williams College, and was accepted for a summer apprenticeship at Westport Country Playhouse. He replied to managing director Martin Manulis (below).

He apologized for his delay in responding to the offer , said he would not need a room as he would be commuting from his parents home in Stamford — and asked for a delay of 12 days before starting.

He wanted “a few days’ rest before transferrin from the ivory tower of education into the cold, cruel world.”

The Playhouse agreed.

More than 50 years later — in preparation for a Playhouse tribute to him, hosted by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward — Sondheim was asked by the Times about that letter.

“I just wanted a week off,” he said.

The Westport Country Playhouse, as it looked for many years.

Sondheim’s summer at the Playhouse was eye-opening.

“You learn about all the intricacies of putting on a play: how many people are necessary to make a moment work onstage, from the writers to the stagehands,” he said.

“At Westport I got to work with non-musicals and have different actual jobs instead of just fetching coffee and typing scripts. Now the best way to learn the theater, always, is to be a stage manager, and one of the great things about the Westport program was that you got to be an assistant stage manager on at least one show during the summer.”

He did that on “My Fiddle’s Got Three Strings,” directed by Lee Strasberg and starring Maureen Stapleton. When the actors started reading, I couldn’t hear one word. You want to talk about mumbling.

He was surprised how many actors mumbled during the read-through. And the reality of watching Strasberg direct was far different than hearing him talk about his craft.

“There is a difference between theory and practice,” Sondheim said.

“To listen to what Strasberg said was amazing. To see it was terrible.”

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).

Sondheim’s apprenticeship covered a range of duties. He — and fellow apprentice Frank Perry, who went on to a noted career directing films — fetched props, sold Cokes, parked cars and “cleaned latrines,” among other duties.

Stephen Sondheim’s association with the Westport Country Playhouse was long and important.

And today, his long-ago letter — with that very recognizable signature — is an important piece of Playhouse momoribilia.

3 responses to “Stephen Sondheim’s Westport Years: Helping Lee Strasberg, Cleaning Latrines

  1. At least three are holding cigarettes in the picture taken at the Jolly Fisherman. It’s just an observation. After all, it was 1950.

  2. I happened to be refiling old stuff just the past few weeks, and saw a couple of my own letters from college applying to summer internships. Although my letters were almost 30 years behind Sondheim’s, the old typewritten look is just the same — and I’m glad to see the occasional strike-out was okay in Sondheim’s day as it was in mine.

    I do suspect, however, that if the letter were addressed to, say, David Merrick of Broadway instead of the Westport Playhouse, Sondheim would have retyped it when spotting the typo…or simply hired a typist to do it in the first place. (Typing other students’ term papers — do you remember when kids used to do that for extra cash?)

    Re Jack Backiel’s comment about smoking while being photographed, it’s amazing how many book jacket photos show the writer in a deliberate pose holding a lit cigarette. (Not to speak of Rod Serling and Johnny Carson copiously smoking in front of the TV camera.) This convention persisted even after the 1964 Surgeon General’s report, and probably did not end until the “Thank you for not smoking” era of the late 70’s/early 80s.

  3. Hi, Dan,
    Even I have a story about Sondheim. And I am a nobody in Virginia.
    Tony Perkins’ mother was my friend and mentor in the early seventies. I was a Tony fan but his mom took a shine to my energy and persistence and eventually Tony asked me for a favor.
    Janet Perkins contacted me to find a recipe in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel for a special Walnut Date Loaf created by the hotel restaurant’s top chef. Tony and Steve (Sondheim) needed it for their ‘Scavenger Hunts” they had in Manhattan in the early 1970s (I believe this was 1972). The next day I called the hotel to find out when the Chef would be in, hopped on my Columbia racer and rode to the Blackstone. I was a theater kid who had ushered at the Blackstone Theater so that certainly didn’t hurt! On a slip of white paper and in longhand the chef wrote the recipe. I headed to a pay phone. and depended on the mailbox off to 250 W 50th St., but I got it!