Link by Link Making the Connection

I remember sitting in my grade ten classroom in French class the day after we returned from Christmas Vacation and the first thing my teacher had us do, as a way to delve back into the language after three weeks holiday, was to ask each of us what our favourite gift was that we had received for Christmas. Now, I went to a fairly prestigious Catholic Private School in Halifax, Nova Scotia from the time I was four until I was seventeen. It was the kind of school where students wore kilts and knee highs even before Britney Spears came along; a small tight-knit school where the boys disappeared after grade six and the girls struggled to get through adolescence without tearing each others hair out and spending too much time sobbing in the bathroom. Suffice it to say, I went to school with some girls for whom Christmas guaranteed a small mountain of expensive and trendy clothes and gadgets. I knew two girls who had cell phones with text messaging in 2001. In this way, I was greeted with various answers en Français about the cameras and the trips to Australia and the Abercrombie and Fitch wardrobes that my classmates had cherished this Christmas. When it came to my turn I knew that no one would understand the significance of the answer I would give, but regardless I said: “Mon cadeau préféré de Nöel est un disque compact d’une musicale de Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods.” Into the Woods. Some of my classmates thought that Christmas at my house must be a sad state of affairs if the only thing worthy of note was one lousy CD, but they didn’t understand. I had just gotten my introduction to Stephen Sondheim and I was in love.
Into the Woods played nonstop in my room the year that I was fifteen until the music pulsated in my bones. Even at fifteen I could feel the sophistication in the music. I knew that this man, this Stephen Sondheim, was a genius of the musical theatre. I wanted to own everything he wrote. I wanted to see his shows professionally produced. I wanted to learn everything I could about him and his work. This was difficult for a fifteen year old in Halifax where HMV’s idea of a “Musical Theatre Section” was having the Rent, West Side Story, Annie, Cats (Selections), Phantom (Selections), Grease (film), Sound of Music (film) and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat albums distributed amongst the film soundtracks. My Broadway CDs had to be ordered in from and were reserved only for Christmas and my birthday. Building my theatrical collection would prove to be a gradual effort at best. The following year I discovered Sunday in the Park With George, the zenith of the musical theatre experience for me, and in grade twelve I read Meryle Secrest’s Sondheim: A Life as a project for English Class.
It’s hard to articulate what makes Sondheim’s music so captivating, but perhaps it the fact that each show is like an onion. There are consistently more layers to peel away, interpretations to analyze and his material is the ultimate gift for actors- a genuine emotional playground in which performers immerse themselves in the throes of the very essence of the human experience. Sondheim’s musicals are cathartic in the same way as Greek Tragedies were in Athens, because the music thrusts forth that which has been buried or repressed. As a teenager, my mind was spinning with thoughts and questions about life, about art, and about love that my years of schooling, reading and writing had never addressed. His music was so personal to me; I felt like I was part of the painting.
In 2002 I embarked on an ambitious venture to secure an audition for a High School friend of mine for the Broadway production of Gypsy starring the phenomenal Broadway superstar legend Bernadette Peters. I wrote dozens of emails and letters asking for information pertaining to these auditions, but still found myself unsure of who the director would be and to whom I should send my friend’s headshot and resume. I decided to write to Stephen Sondheim. At seventeen I learned that as brilliant as Sondheim is as a composer, and as witty and poignant as he is while being interviewed, he is truly a gracious and generous man. I received a response to my query about Gypsy quite efficiently, and in hindsight, Stephen Sondheim could have responded to my question in a condescending manner or simply dismissed it altogether. I was, after all, a twelfth grader in Nova Scotia, utterly clueless about the audition protocol for Broadway shows, but adamant to learn by the seat of my pants and to do everything in my power to procure an audition for my friend. Stephen Sondheim treated me with the utmost respect and answered my questions as though I were a professional. Auditions would not be occurring for some time, and I should contact Sam Mendes, as he would be directing the project. And I did contact Sam Mendes, who wrote me one of the most inspiring letters I have ever received remarking on how “impressed” he was with me and allowing me to fax my friend’s headshot and resume to him at the Donmar Warehouse “for consideration”.
Stephen Sondheim, I feel, has given so much to me, it is no wonder that I considered that Into the Woods CD to be my favourite Christmas gift. His work has compelled me to strive for excellence in all the work I do, as I map out a sky or finish a hat with words. He has made me a more intelligent audience member, someone who seeks to challenge and to analyze the characters she meets in stories and to ask complicated questions and make convoluted connections in an attempt to put it all together. Most importantly, I think, Stephen Sondheim gave me confidence that I could achieve that which many saw as impossible. If I could impress Sam Mendes at seventeen, who knew what other great feats I could go on to accomplish?

I may never sing “Being Alive” at Carnegie Hall. I may never play Dot in a production of Sunday in the Park With George on Broadway. I may never write a musical to rival the success of Jonathan Larson’s Rent. Yet, as I take my place in theatre history, as I establish myself in the Canadian Theatre Community, I, like so many others, will always have a homage to Steve Sondheim in my heart. His music stands like a cathedral to the American musical, and I will always jump at any opportunity to honour his brilliant canon of work. We all seek to connect: piece-by-piece, bit-by-bit, dot-by-dot. There are few connections more magical than the one that evolves at the theatre when the room suddenly bursts into song. Come experience the magic for yourself at Sondheim in September, a series of Concerts featuring dozens of Canada’s most prestigious musical theatre stars singing a wide variety of Stephen Sondheim songs. September 21st, September 28th and October 5th. 8pm. Metropolitan Community Church. 115 Simpson Avenue. Toronto. Each concert costs $25.00 or you can buy a Season Pass for all three concerts for $60.00. These concerts benefit the Actors Fund of Canada. For more information, please visit this website.

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