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.
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.”
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.