Stephen Sondheim Letters: The Sequel

The other day, I posted a story about Stephen Sondheim’s letter to the Westport Country Playhouse.

The man who became one of America’s most celebrated Broadway composers had not yet started his career; in fact, he was still a student at Williams College. He asked for a few days’ delay before beginning a position that helped inspire him to stardom: summer apprentice.

Sondheim’s letters became legendary. After his death, an entire Instagram account was created about them.

More than half a century after his Playhouse note, Sondheim again wrote about Westport.

In 2003, Staples Players staged “Merrily We Roll Along.” An audience member loved it so much, he suggested that Sondheim himself see it.

He replied quickly and graciously:

That would normally be the end of that.

But — Players being so far beyond an ordinary high school troupe — there’s more to the story.

Had Sondheim seen the show, it would have been his first encounter with Justin Paul. The then-senior played composer Franklin Shepard in the production.

Paul and his composing partner Benj Pasek have gone on to great fame, with projects like “Dear Evan Hansen,” “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman.”

Their success is due in part to Sondheim’s mentorship, and support of their work.

Justin Paul in Staples Players’ “Merrily We Roll Along.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

But that’s not all.

If Sondheim had seen Staples’ “Merrily” — and gone backstage — he would have met Gina Rattan. A junior in 2003, she served as assistant director to David Roth and Kerry Long.

Gina is now Marianne Elliott’s associate director of “Company.” That Sondheim show is currently running on Broadway.

Now — in 2021 — Roth and Long say, “Alas, Mr. Sondheim didn’t make it to the production. But we are grateful for this letter, and love the connections with this show. The theater world really is a small one.”

Perhaps an idea for the next Pasek and Paul musical?

ENCORE! Click here for a link to some video clips of Players’ “Merrily We Roll Along” production, courtesy of Jim Honeycutt.

 

One response to “Stephen Sondheim Letters: The Sequel

  1. Dear Dan,
    You can’t imagine how startled I was this morning to see the letter I received from Stephen Sondheim published in your column. His letter was a reply to a letter I sent him regarding the Staples Players production of “Merrily We Roll Along” in 2003.

    The back story was that my eldest daughter was a sophomore at Staples at the time, and we, as a family had already been long standing fans of Staples Players Productions. What a great, convenient and inexpensive way to introduce quality theatre and musicals to our three daughters. (To this day we all remain fans and usually catch at least one production a year.)

    Anyway, it so happened that I personally had a professional involvement in Broadway productions and had also been one of Sondheim’s legions of fans. He had touched me in so many profound ways. And for me, the Staples production of “Merrily” (along with the original Sweeny Todd on Broadway in 1979, and a London production of Follies in 1985) was a positive gut punch. Perhaps that’s because in “Merrily”, the book starts when the characters are in their oldest years, and the story ends, when they are just kids – barely out of high school. How apt. I felt that with this youthful cast, this was how “Merrily” should have been produced on Broadway in the first place, rather than with a cast of older professionals.

    So after seeing the Staples production on the first weekend of its two weekend run, I called on a friend who had who had a connection to Sondheim. I asked if he could get the letter over to him – quickly, which he did. In the letter, I told Sondheim exactly how I felt about the Staples production, and invited him to see it as my guest and offered to have him driven up, and brought back to the city. A few days later, I received the letter you published in your column today.

    After receiving Sondheim’s reply, I gave a copy of it to David Roth (director of the Staples Players), who knew nothing of my initiative beforehand. I’m guessing now that he must have saved it and passed it on to you.

    …..Wow! what a tale. Thank you Stephen Sondheim, Staples Players, David Roth, Dan Woog

    Sincerely,
    Mark Finell
    Westport

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