STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Sept. 25, a Little Death

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Sept. 25, a Little Death Every year when Sept. 25 rolls around, I always think of Stephen Sondheim.

Every year when Sept. 25 rolls around, I always think of Stephen Sondheim.

For on that date in 1965, Sondheim saw Do I Hear a Waltz? the musical he wrote with Richard Rodgers, close after 220 performances, at a close-to-total loss of its entire investment.

Think how down he must have been.

Let's go back to 1962, when Rodgers' previous show, No Strings was a hit. Not a smash, mind you, but a hit in the days when 580 performances was a nice run and everybody made money.

Better still, No Strings was a personal triumph for Rodgers. For the first time in his career, he'd provided lyrics as well as music. (Oscar Hammerstein had died in 1960.) And those lyrics were very good. Maybe not great, but good enough, and set to a fine -- and surprisingly -- jazzy score, the kind he used to write with Lorenz Hart. He hadn't sounded this youthful in 30 years. This from a man pushing 60. Rodgers showed no signs of slowing down. He immediately started collaborating with Alan Jay Lerner on an original musical called I Picked a Daisy -- and abandoned it because he felt Lerner wasn't working quickly enough. That's how young he felt.

Time for a new show -- but with or without a lyricist? With or without Sondheim? Hammerstein had told him he'd like him to work with his protege. But how much did Rodgers need him?

Of course, Sondheim was a known quantity as a lyricist. He'd had a stage success and movie smash with West Side Story. But it wasn't known as Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story. Sometimes Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, Arthur Laurents' or Jerome Robbins' West Side Story -- but never Sondheim's.

Next was Gypsy, another household-name musical. But it still wasn't Stephen Sondheim's Gypsy. Sometimes Jule Styne's Gypsy, or (again) Arthur Laurents or Jerome Robbins' Gypsy - but never Sondheim's.

Rodgers? Throughout his entire career, he was always-always always top-billed over Hart and Hammerstein.

When Sondheim made the leap to composer-lyricist (the same season Rodgers did No Strings), he had a big hit. But A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was then said to have succeeded in spite of him, not because of him. A Funny Thing has arguably the most number of genuine laughs of any Broadway musical (even without the loathsome "improvements" that have sadly become its trademark). It got Tonys for Best Book and Best Musical, 1963.

Sondheim didn't win for Best Score, though, for the most air-tight reason of all: He wasn't nominated. Lionel Bart won for Oliver over Coleman and Leigh (Little Me), Newley and Bricusse (Stop the World). Excellent work all. But try to find someone who'll support Milton Schafer and Ronny Graham's Bravo, Giovanni over Funny Thing's now much-admired score. Now we agree that Sondheim wrote one of musical theater's best opening numbers; one of its best show stopping vaudeville turns ("Everybody Ought to Have a Maid"); and one of its most deft lyrics: "Today, I woke too weak to walk." The English language contains five vowel sounds, and Sondheim matched three of them to the same consonant in one line. Well, I'm impressed.

But the Tony committee wasn't.

Rodgers in the Tony race with No Strings? Oh, he was nominated. And he won, a year earlier. (No Strings opened in March; the '61-'62 Tony deadline was April; and Funny Thing opened in May, eligible for '62-'63.)

To further stack the deck against Sondheim: Just before commencing work on Waltz, he wrote the score for 1964's Anyone Can Whistle, which would stay on stage 1/35th as long as No Strings. A humiliating nine performances, beginning and ending on successive April Saturdays.

So here was Rodgers, happily wondering what he'd next write AND produce (don't forget that fact). Here was Sondheim, hoping someone would encourage him to write both music and lyrics, and produce the show for which they were written.

Now, of course, most every other wordsmith in the business would have been thrilled and honored to be anointed by the one, the only, Richard Rodgers. In the previous three-plus decades, he'd had great success in two completely different styles with two lyricists. Get this -- by the time Sondheim was born in 1930, Rodgers had already provided music for 18 Broadway productions and three London shows. That means he'd already composed "Manhattan," "Mountain Greenery," "My Heart Stood Still," "Thou Swell," "You Took Advantage of Me," "With a Song in My Heart," "Dancing on the Ceiling," and "Ten Cents a Dance," before Foxy Sondheim delivered her and Herbert's Broadway-to-be-Baby Boy.

Still, Rodgers -- who'd had a hit after doing both jobs on his previous show and, according to many, didn't need a lyricist -- met with Sondheim -- who'd just had a flop, possibly because he did both jobs, possibly because he needed a composer.

Yes, Sondheim was getting the bigger break, The Musical Theater's Greatest Possible Opportunity. I often picture Sondheim coming into Rodgers' office, and The Man curtly saying, "Hey, you -- wipe your feet before you come in here."

Sondheim must have felt terrible at even considering a lyrics-only position. He'd almost walked from Gypsy because Merman insisted that Styne do the music. Returning to lyrics-only had to feel like Rodgers was in control, and Sondheim was a hired hand.

So that may be part of the reason why, whenever I've seen Sondheim on a panel and he's inevitably asked "What's your favorite show?" he always answers that he doesn't really know, but he does know that Do I Hear a Waltz is his least favorite.

It was pretty good, by the way. When you see Summertime, the movie version of its source material, you'll find places for songs. The ones Rodgers and Sondheim came up with are quite good. The main flaw was that it was a formula show, not innovative -- which are words Sondheim has never embraced.

To exacerbate Sondheim's pain, by Sept. 25, 1965, Rodgers' The Sound of Music movie was en route to becoming the highest-grossing film up to that time. Rodgers had written two new songs for the smash -- music AND lyrics. Now was there any doubt that he was the master, and that that Sondheim boy had been just a little overrated?

By Sept. 25, 1966, Sondheim was working in television, waiting for his Evening Primrose to air on ABC, then the runt of the three networks. Never mind how Sondheim felt on Sept. 25, 1965. How did feel on Nov. 17, 1966, after Evening Primrose received lackluster reviews?

How did he feel on Sept. 25, 1967, when he had no show either on TV or Broadway? Or Sept. 25, 1968, when that was still the case. Or Sept. 25, 1969, when it STILL was?

But Sondheim, deep down inside, still knew he could show the world a thing or two. And of course he did. By Sept. 25, 1970, he had his music and lyrics Tonys for Company. And then the deluge. By Sept. 25, 1973, Sondheim had won Tonys in three consecutive years, and was the reigning King -- nay, god -- of the American musical theater. When it comes to respect, no one has since unseated him, right up to and including this Sept. 25, 1997.

But on Sept. 25, 1965, Stephen Sondheim could have been pardoned if he ocassionally wondered if he were down-and-out, now-and-forever. He obviously didn't. He obviously wasn't. Something to remember the next time we become discouraged and think our lives are over.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star Ledger.You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com