Stephen Sondheim, San Francisco, etc
Hi, darling. Writing you from San Francisco today. This here ttalk might feel like it’s late if you’re in Europe but it’s still well before midnight here in SF, so I have technically made the weekly Sunday cutoff. Because timezones, etc.
It was a journey and a half to get here after the whirlwind last week of tour. I am a shell of a human. Here’s how our last show went:
Wake up early to fly from Warsaw to Lyon, with a layover in Frankfurt
Arrive into Lyon Airport
Drive 3 hours to Clermont Ferrand
Play the show (with a 10 minute line check before)
Finish the show at 1230 am
Drive 3 hours to Lyon Airport hotel
“Sleep” for one hour
Walk to airport at 430 am to check into 630 am flight
Fly from Lyon to Frankfurt
4. and. a. half. hour. layover.
Fly from Frankfurt to San Francisco.
A nightmare. But, in Fiddler on the Roof level miracle of miracles, we were upgraded to business class for that final 12 hour flight (when you spend the majority of your year on airplanes you accrue some perks)!
It was spectacular, and now we’re here.
Beyond the jet lag, I am experiencing the predictable culture shock of America. The size of the streets. The enormous amount of sensory input. The almost metallic taste of American harshness that breeds massive struggle, massive tension, massive talent and massive potential.
America. Landing here, specifically in San Francisco, feels right after such a nomadic year.
(I adore this city.)
It houses my best friend, beloved grandmother, aunties and uncles. And before I took on this life of planes being the majority of my days, San Francisco satisfied my wanderlust.
Its colors, its history, its soul spoke to me.
When I got my first apartment in Manhattan I bought an antique TWA poster of San Francisco. I carried it down from 26th street to the Lower East Side because I had spent every last dollar on that poster and the gold frame I picked to house it.
I proudly hung it above my bed (mattress on floor, of course) among my street thrifted furniture and the synthesizers I had on loan from a friend between his tours.
If you’ve been with me long enough, you know my Orchard Street apartment. I lived from 19 years old onwards in that rent stabilized paradise. When I grew a bit more into the place, TWA San Francisco moved to its rightful glory in the living room and became a fixture of the Orchard Sessions.
And when we finally moved up to Washington Heights, we brought TWA San Francisco with us to our dream place.
These days the poster and frame are wrapped in bubble wrap in my parent’s basement. Someday they will return. But for now I am reveling in San Francisco itself as an adult in 2021. Take, for example, the beauty of how it looked today.
That’s just some random photo I snapped while on the way to breakfast. Every street in San Francisco still feels deserving of TWA poster magic for me.
The city feeds my soul and sings back to me. While still firmly rooted in today, it is one of the few cities I know of on earth that honors its history and nostalgia without veering into Disneyland territory.
Nostalgia. A topic that graces these here ttalks often. And a topic well placed today as I remember Stephen Sondheim (may he rest, deservedly, in peace).
You’ve heard, of course, that Stephen Sondheim, almighty king of American theater, has transitioned.
A songwriter who transcended. Who changed an entire universe.
A songwriter who, among myriad other musical lives, ineffably changed mine.
Said change begins with a little play of his called Company.
In the past few years Company has really gotten its due, with a recent Broadway revival that included Stephen Colbert and Neil Patrick Harris. But in 2005, in a small suburb of Manhattan called Hastings on Hudson, it was a lesser known Sondheim play / the musical of my high school’s sophomore year.
(A ridiculous choice for High Schoolers in 2005.)
(Thank god for said ridiculous choice.)
Company is a play about Robert, a terminally single man in his 40s. Surrounded by married friends, he searches for meaning in his own life. It is a play with only 13 in the cast, and consists of painfully poignant vignettes that allow us to reflect deeply on relationships, sex, love, all of it.
(I think, often, about those moments that define us.)
(13 high school students in a suburb of New York City were the cast of Company in 2005.)
(It was alarmingly Hastings-esque.)
(Nobody asked any questions.)
(They said, “Sure, let the high schoolers reflect deeply on relationships, sex, love, all of it.)
And off we went.
I was cast as Marta, one of Robert’s three girlfriends in the show. If you aren’t a Sondheim buff yourself, a little window into the character: Marta is a young, voracious lover of New York City. She never shuts up and she needs to tell you about the latest thing she loves the most.
(Marta. Young, voracious, incesssant.)
(Needs to be the hippest, needs you to know what she loves the most at this moment.)
(Marta, played by a 15 year old.)
(Hastings! On! Hudson!)
Her signature song, about Manhattan, is called Another Hundred People.
It's a city of strangers,
Some come to work, some to play.
A city of strangers,
Some come to stare, some to stay.
And every day
The ones who stay
Can find each other in the crowded streets and the guarded parks,
By the rusty fountains and the dusty trees with the battered barks,
And they walk together past the postered walls with the crude remarks.
And they meet at parties through the friends of friends who they never
"Do I pick you up or do I meet you there or shall we let it go?"
"Did you get my message? 'Cause I looked in vain."
"Can we see each other Tuesday if it doesn't rain?"
"Look, I'll call you in the morning or my service will explain."
And another hundred people just got off of the train.
The director cast me as Marta for a reason, of course. The director, however, had not bargained for what a terrible actress I am (fun tip - living dramatically does not equal being able to dramatically live!).
It was fine. I sang the part well because my voice has always been my strength. My mom took me down to the West Village and we bought a vintage leather fringe tanktop and cowboy boots. It was in that weird part of the early 2000s where film photos were transitioning to crappy digital cameras, so there is no evidence of it.
Still it delved, inevitably, into my brain and my psyche.
Man. Everyone in that show was a star. The girl who sang Ladies Who Lunch was the meanest girl in school. She spent most of her time bullying other girls, well into adulthood when I thankfully detached from that small little world.
Who knows what she’s like these days … I truly hope she’s happy and nicer to herself and those around her. In any event, I remember all this mercifully transcended when she magnificently stepped into the role of Joanne.
(Joanne. Caustic, sardonic, multiple times divorced.)
(Joanne, played by a 15 year old.)
(Hastings! On! Hudson!)
All of that bully’s cruelty, all of her teenage jealousy, all of it just channeled perfectly into Joanne. And through the lens of Joanne — this cantankerous, wounded, magnificent character — I was able to see and love my high school bully. In that moment I forgave her.
I simply sat there backstage with my jaw on the floor.
Because Stephen Sondheim.
(It was enormously hard, by the way, to pick one section of this song. but here’s where we ended up)
Here's to the ladies who lunch—
Lounging in their caftans
And planning a brunch
On their own behalf
Off to the gym
Then to a fitting
Claiming they're fat
And looking grim
'Cause they've been sitting
Choosing a hat
Does anyone still wear a hat?
I'll drink to that
Later I would come to fall in love, again and again, with Elaine Strich’s legendary interpretation of the song. I’ve watched the below video just… thousands of times. The power, the work ethic. May she, too, rest.
Sondheim. Sondheim, Sondheim, Sondheim.
Another set of 15 year olds sang the magnificence that is “Sorry Grateful.” I remember even then reconsidering what a love song could be.
You're always sorry
You're always grateful
You're always wondering what might have been
Then she walks in
And still you're sorry
And still you're grateful
And still you wonder
And still you doubt
And she goes out
Only maybe slightly rearranged
Why look for answers
Where none occur?
You always are
What you always were
Which has nothing to do with
All to do with her
Contradictions, complexities. Storylines inside storylines and perfect strophe. We were 15, singing about concepts that still to this day feel more complex than I could ever handle.
How could I possibly have come out the same?
When I went to Jazz school, musical theater was frowned upon. I put that part of my heart in a little box and kept it for myself. But when I finally found the right human being for me (his initials are jj, you may have heard of him), I told him about it.
He had “Finishing the Hat” more or less memorized, and celebrated by adding it to my coffee table books. But he didn’t know Company.
And so 15 year old me came out of the fossilized amber and told him of the crown jewel, as far as I’m concerned, of Company.
The song “Being Alive.”
A magnificent, sweeping love song.
Later on, José would sing me “Being Alive” at our wedding. He orchestrated the entire thing as a surprise with my parents and their tight knit best friend group playing the supporting characters.
(Those moments. Those real, real moments.)
(Our wedding was actually incredibly difficult for me, maybe we’ll talk about it someday).
(But that was one of the key moments where I remembered: I’m marrying this person.)
And God, do I love him. Almost (!) as much as I love the song. Which I’ll include in its perfect entirety.
Someone to hold you too close
Someone to hurt you too deep
Someone to sit in your chair
And ruin your sleep
Someone to need you too much
Someone to know you too well
Someone to pull you up short
To put you through hell
Someone you have to let in
Someone whose feelings you spare
Someone, who like it or not
Will want you to share
A little a lot
Someone to crowd you with love
Someone to force you to care
Someone to make you come through
Who'll always be there
As frightened as you
Of being alive
Somebody hold me too close
Somebody hurt me too deep
Somebody sit in my chair
And ruin my sleep
And make me aware
Of being alive
Somebody need me too much
Somebody know me too well
Somebody pull me up short
And put me through hell
And give me support
For being alive
Make me alive
Make me alive
Make me confused
Mock me with praise
Let me be used
Vary my days
Somebody crowd me with love
Somebody force me to care
Somebody let me come through
I'll always be there
As frightened as you
To help us survive
Crowd me with love.
Force me to care.
Let me come through
I’ll always be there.
As frightened as you to help us survive.
God, it still makes my eyes mist even here in this room backstage while king jj sings Christmas songs at SF Jazz in 2021.
May you rest, king. Thank you for everything you’ve brought me.
And thank you, you, for being here another week. More next time.