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Stephen Sondheim, my mentor

Stephen Sondheim

I was at my ex’s birthday party when my sister called to tell me that Steve had died. My first thought was that I’d wanted to email him last year and hadn’t, and now regretted it. My second was that I’d never get to show him that all the time and thought he’d invested in me was worth it.

In the next few months, people will be giving different perspectives on Stephen Sondheim. I’m going to give mine of a young theatrical composer-lyricist who spent an age trying to get in touch with him, got an angry email from him when I did, was invited to visit him in his house in New York after reconciling, and then continued to correspond with him for years. I’ll publish extracts from our correspondence and conversation because they cover tips he didn’t give elsewhere, but also because the private Stephen Sondheim was different to his public persona, which was a lesson in itself. And perhaps there’ll be something to be learned for anyone else seeking a mentor.

It all started with a murderer.

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd

I fell in love with Stephen Sondheim’s work watching Tim Burton’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd in 2008. I would have gone to see it because it was a Tim Burton film rather than because it was a Stephen Sondheim musical, as I was wary of musicals in general. I loved music and loved theatre, but rarely liked it when the two came together, plus modern musicals were written in a style I wasn’t into.

Sweeney Todd was different. I know the exact moment I fell in love with Sondheim’s work: it was on the Cm9/F chord under the word “beautiful” in “The barber and his wife”:

If I had to try and explain why it’s so affecting I’d say that the song is in G minor, but that F is the dominant of the relative major, Bb, and Cm9 is a step before F in the circle of 5ths, so it’s as if Cm9/F is a step-and-a-half away from the relative major, a glimpse of sunlight in the darkness without ever actually reaching it. Plus it’s a stack of resonant perfect 5ths and major 3rds after a cluster of edgy diminished 5ths and minor 3rds. But of course if we could describe music in words there’d be no need for music.

More importantly, here was a character who was historically a caricature, a barber who kills his clients to turn them into pies, and yet with that chord Sondheim imbued him with depth and humanity. I was hooked.

The Lightbulb Moment

I didn’t become a musical theatre composer instantly, however, despite seeing the televised recording of Company with Raul Esparza and loving it. I was missing an insight.

I’d graduated in music from Cambridge a few years before and was primarily interested in composition, but struggled to work out where I fitted into the contemporary musical landscape. I loved the storytelling abilities of Bach and Schubert and Debussy and Stravinsky, but didn’t connect with the contemporary classical composers who claimed to follow in their tradition. Those composers’ true heirs seemed to me to be people like Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock, but they promoted their music by performing, and I didn’t have the temperament to perform. Plus I listened to a variety of genres: classical, swing, bebop, soul, funk, hip hop, and couldn’t work out what style I wanted to compose in.

The Proms put on a concert of Sondheim’s music to celebrate his 80th birthday year in 2010, and he did a live Q&A beforehand. I forget what question the audience member asked him, but Sondheim got quite agitated in his reply: “No, no, no, you don’t understand, it’s not a question of style, it’s about connecting with the audience.”

And there it was. The contemporary “classical” composers I’d heard of were primarily funded by the universities where they had positions, and so didn’t need to forge connections with audiences in order to survive, whereas Sondheim cut his teeth in the unforgiving world of Broadway, where a majority of his shows had to turn a profit or he wouldn’t get funding for his next one. He was a revolutionary in a conservative system. It was this tension between the avant-garde and the commercial that made his music so interesting to me. Plus his sentence solved the problem of style for me: in a theatre piece it’s largely dictated by the setting, the story, and the character. I wanted to write a musical.

That evening I heard the audience raise the roof when Sondheim appeared after “Side by Side”:

Our First Meeting

I became hell-bent on getting Sondheim as a mentor, and knew that he was doing another Q&A session at the Donmar Warehouse, in connection with a revival of his show Passion, and so asked the box office if they’d pass on a letter to him. They said they would.

I enclosed two songs along with a postcard that was a reference to a film Sondheim had co-written called The Last of Sheila. It’s a murder mystery in which suspects are handed accusations on postcards, like “YOU are a SHOPLIFTER”, or “YOU are a HIT-AND-RUN KILLER”, so I formatted mine to read:

The Last of Sheila

As a writer of cryptic crosswords, I thought that Sondheim would appreciate the fact that the first 6 items were an acrostic. I waited for a response in vain.

An opportunity to meet Sondheim in person arose soon afterwards, however, as one of my music students was the Vice President of one of the “Big Three” major record labels and had a VIP invite to the afterparty of yet another Q&A session, this time at the Royal Festival Hall. (The British public apparently had a lot of questions they wanted answered.) I managed to get in with my girlfriend and a friend of mine, who both went about destroying the nibbles. I was too nervous to eat, however. I was in a room with Stephen Sondheim.

At some point the theatrical giant was signing copies of his new book, Finishing the Hat, so I asked him to sign mine. My student mentioned that I knew Angela Lansbury. “Oh, are you Irish?”, Sondheim chirped, with the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old boy. Yes I was. Angie was a friend of my godmother’s husband in Co. Cork. I was too nervous to mention my songs, however.

Finishing the Hat

A middle-aged guy from the US approached Sondheim and said, “I just wanna shake your hand!”, and Sondheim gave him an all-American handshake.

My girlfriend and friend had by then eaten about half of all the canapés in the room, and were encouraging me to get in on the game. “These are the best canapés I’ve ever had!”, my friend said, with his mouth half-full. I was still sick with nerves, however.

At some point it looked like Sondheim was preparing to leave, so I summoned up the courage to approach him and said, “I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t talk to you.” His demeanour immediately changed, from his jovial public persona to his private, spiky self: “You did”. I explained that I’d left him a couple of songs with a cover letter at the Donmar, and he said he wouldn’t have got them, adding, “I don’t vet songs out of their theatrical context”. And then he left.

Well that was useful feedback. I needed to write a complete musical.

The friend who’d stuffed himself at the afterparty suggested adapting an idea from a Jorge Luis Borges short story, but I didn’t think it would work. However I played around with it and thought of a way to make it dramatic, and another student suggested raising some funding. I raised £5,000 by selling a percentage of the royalties in advance, which I later discovered is not a thing that people do, which allowed me to take time off my busy teaching schedule to write full-time for a while. I thought this would make me happy, but in fact it just weighted me down with a sense of responsibility. However I was buoyed by an early win.

Playing My Songs to Angie

As I’d explained to Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury was a friend of my godmother’s husband, and she spent a month in Ireland every year, at her house on the cliffs, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I’d known Angie for years, but primarily associated her with the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks that I’d seen as a kid, and with playing croquet on her lawn.

I now had a new perspective on her as a result of my deep dive into Sondheim’s work. He’d written the first musical she was in, Anyone Can Whistle, which only ran for 7 performances but which brought her from Hollywood to Broadway. And of course she’d originated the part of Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, a voice that she’d sometimes put on when serving up dessert. (It’s ironic that Sondheim wrote the song “The Worst Pies in London” for her, as Angie is one of the best cooks I’ve met. I once saw her cook a 3-course dinner for 10, with vegetarian options and 3 different desserts, entirely by herself at the age of 89.)

I was visiting my godmother in the summer of 2011, and she must have tipped off Angie that I’d gotten the Sondheim bug, since when I next saw Angela she said, “You and I have lots to talk about”. However, whenever I asked her a probing question, e.g. about the difference between performing Sondheim and Jerry Herman, she’d give an evasive answer, as if she were saying what she thought she should say if speaking in public.

One evening I invited her round to dinner with a friend of the family, and after dessert asked if I could play her a couple of songs. I’d barely started work on the musical and didn’t have a script, but wrote two songs upfront to demo to people even though I knew they were likely to get cut the moment I did. I gave Angie printouts of the lyrics, and played her these two piano arrangements, as I cannot sing to save my life:

The lyrics to the 2nd song were a “Dear John” letter to the protagonist:

Live your life now, Járo darling,
Now’s all we have.
Life may be hard
But your wars make it harder still.

Fighting takes time, Járo darling,
Time’s all there is.
If you can’t see that life’s running by you,
Soon you will.

Spend your time on what you love, Járo dear,
Not on fighting what you hate.
If you wait for things to change like you want them
Then it will be too late.

Stop making plans for tomorrow,
There’s just today.
Don’t forget that your death might be just a
Day away.

Marry a wife, Járo darling,
Not your ideals.
Where’s an ideal
When you can’t get to sleep at night?

Things might not last but at least they
Last for a while.
Work towards what will be, Járo darling,
Not what might.

Give a woman what she needs, Járo dear,
Don’t forget she has a voice.
You can still pursue your dreams like you want to,
Don’t think that it’s a choice.

You said you’d die for me but it’s
Harder to live.
How can you give your life when you have no
Life to give?

I want a child, Járo darling,
You want a dream.
Dreams are just dreams,
But a child’s there when you awake.

Children are real, Járo darling,
Not just a cause.
You have none, yet you say you fight battles
For their sake.

Men are always making plans, Járo dear,
Making peace by making wars.
Women stick to making homes for their children
They find their peace indoors.

Live your life now, don’t you know to
Wait is to die?
I must go, so good luck, Járo darling,
And goodbye.

In retrospect the melody of the 1st song doesn’t sing very well, and the lyrics to the 2nd one aren’t very dramatic, but the songs were not totally incompetent. You could see the change in Angie’s body language. Her shoulders had dropped. Her defences were down. The songs were actually good. The friend of the family rather grandly and nicely said that he was just honoured to be there. It felt like a significant moment.

The next day Angie phoned to thank me for dinner, and then added, “And you must come and visit me in New York and play Steve your songs”. It felt like I’d made it.

Little did I know then that I wouldn’t get to visit Steve for another four and a half years.

Writing the First Draft

I went back home and wrote the show.

Playwrights at Work

I read Paris Review interviews with playwrights. I read Arthur Miller’s introduction to his Plays: One. I read Backwards & Forwards. And, of course, I read lots of lots of plays, keeping in mind the frameworks that I’d learned from the books. I also studied everything I could about the historical setting of the play (the modern-day Czech Republic at the end of the 19th Century), which in turn suggested a different time period and plot (the Prague Revolution of 1848). Those two songs got binned. At some point I ran out of money but hadn’t finished the show, and my girlfriend was studying, so we started living off the food from the local supermarket that was discounted because it was about to expire. They were good times.

The Waiting Game

I wrote Angie an email titled, “Suddenly I do!”, which was a reference to the song “Opening Doors” in Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along:

Who wants to live in New York?
Who wants the worry, the noise, the dirt, the heat?
Who wants the garbage cans clanging in the street?
Suddenly I do.

Merrilly We Roll Along

I don’t think she got the reference.

Benedict Westenra, Sat, 17 Dec 2011, 02:48

I’m sorry to have missed you before leaving Ireland, but very much appreciated your encouragement when you came round to dinner, which buoyed me on during my moments of self-doubt. After several few months of historical research, play analysis, writing, rewriting in response to criticism, and yet more rewriting, I feel I’ve got the musical to a point where I need a director to bring it forward […] if I’m going to talk to Mr. S at all now would be the time. If the offer to pick his brains in NY is still open I would love to take you up on it in late January, if possible, which would give me time to arrange and learn to play the songs first. I’m attaching the script in case either of you would like to see some lyrics before committing yourselves. The plot has almost entirely changed.


Angela Lansbury, Sun, 18 Dec 2011, 20:17

I’m so pleased to hear you have managed to work on the musical play project more to your own satisfaction.Were you thinking of traveling to New York in January? Or will you make a recording of the the score and lyrics which would, I assume, accompany the “Book” of the musical ? I have not been in touch with Steve Sondheim for several months, but knowing him he will be in New York City in the New Year. Patience on your part is going to be ” the name of the Game”!! […] Benedict, Because of my rehearsals in January and February It is a good idea not to get too set on results of a meeting with Steve S. Until my play is in previews in March.

And so began the waiting game. At the time, I was under the delusion that my life would not really start until my show was produced, which of course is a recipe for not appreciating the present.

We kept on exchanging emails. I was waiting to be invited to New York to meet Stephen Sondheim, but was too polite to remind Angela about it. Instead, life happened. Angie did her show. I turned down a large amount of money to cofound a music education startup when I really needed it. Angie got a hip injury. My girlfriend did her university entrance exams. We all ended up meeting in Ireland again a year later.

Driving Miss Daisy

The correspondence continued. Angie prepared to do Driving Miss Daisy with James Earl Jones. My girlfriend and I were amused to see that “The James Earl Jones” was one of the dishes at the restaurant where we went on a day trip (Cajun rubbed burger, blue cheese dressing & onions, if you’re wondering). Hurricane Sandy hit New York. My godmother lost a breast to breast cancer. That Christmas Angie sent my girlfriend and me a giant bauble full of Butlers Irish chocolates, and when Angie went on tour with Driving Miss Daisy in Australia I sent her daisies on the opening night.

First Contact from Steve

I got a bit more funding for the show, which allowed me to record proper demos, which I sent to Angela. She got round to listening to them a month later, and said she’d forward them to Stephen Sondheim if I was happy with them. I said yes, and created a hidden page on my website that contained the demos, a PDF of the script, and the following note:

Dear Stephen,

What follows is my attempt to put into practice everything I’ve learned from you about musical theatre. Your work has influenced not just the songs – making the sound and structure of the lyrics match their meaning, staging a song to within an inch of its life – but also their placement in the story. I probably got a lot of things wrong, but hopefully got a few things right as well. If you’d like to decide whether my musical is worth your time you could read the first 6 pages of the script and listen to the corresponding song (“Free at last”). If they don’t entice you to continue then that is useful feedback in itself!

With best wishes for your upcoming projects and profound thanks for everything you’ve done so far,


I first heard from him indirectly:

Angela Lansbury, Mon, 18 Mar 2013, 23:40

Dear Benedict,

Stephen’s response to my message says it all. I know he will listen to your score, but patience is what is called for in this instance.
Take heart and hang in there!

“Of course I’ll listen, but not for a couple of weeks. I’m way behind on the new show, due to breaking my wrist in September (I’ve only been able to hold a pencil for a month now and still can’t control it properly, and can only play the piano very lightly without pain, so the whole score is turning into a minuet). Now that it’s healing, I have to forgo all extracurricular listening until I can get rolling again and not be afraid of unconscious plagiarizing. But I promise I’ll sit with it and concentrate, after I get it transcribed onto a CD (I can’t stand hearing things on a computer).”

(The show that he was referring to was an adaptation of two Luis Buñuel films that he was working on with David Ives.)

And then directly:

Sondheim email screenshot

Stephen Sondheim, Wed, 20 Mar 2013, 18:44

Subject: “From Stephen Sondheim”

Dear Benedict –

Angela passed your music and links on to me. It will take me some time before I can listen, but I promise I will. Ordinarily, I don’t listen to other people’s music while Im writing my own for fear of unconscious plagiarism, but I’ll make an exception in your case.

Stephen Sondheim

(I liked the fact that he titled his email “From Stephen Sondheim”. He seemed to have a full awareness of the gravitas of his name.)

I responded, thanking him for letting me know and saying that I was excited to hear that he was writing a new show, and closed with the sentence, “I unconsciously plagiarized you several times in [my show], so you’d mostly be cannibalizing yourself.” I thought the writer of Sweeney Todd would appreciate a cannibal joke.


Steve Listens to My Songs

A month later, I received the following email. I remember reading it on my first-generation iPhone, sitting on my half-broken futon:

Stephen Sondheim, Sun, 21 Apr 2013, 04:02

Dear Benedict –

I finally had a chance to sit down and listen to your songs, which I did twice. Here, briefly, are my immediate reactions:

On the positive side, your music and lyrics are literate (and the latter rhyme properly, I’m conservative enough to say) and the songs all have a tone and style that is consistent for whatever piece you’re writing.

On the cautionary side, I think you should watch out for monotony of mood, tempo and approach. I’m not a fan of Brecht/Weill, except for “Threepenny Opera,” and I prefer your wit to Marc Blitzstein’s, but for me a little goes a long way. I know you sent me only a small selection of songs from the show, but my nose tells me that you’re wallowing in the tone. Variety, as someone once said is … etc… Watch the pace – loginess is lurking around the corner.

I’m curious: Do you have orchestration in mind? I write pianistically because the piano is my only instrument, and these songs are also very pianistic. I bring it up only because certain pianistic tropes are really difficult to translate, as Jonathan Tunick has told me more than once.

Hope this helps. Please understand that my cautions are just that, and that the audience will test them for you. Good luck with the show, and when it’s done and you’ve tried it in front of an audience and adjusted things, I’d love to hear the whole score.

Yours truly,

Stephen Sondheim

Hmmm. It was amazingly generous of him to listen to the 6 songs twice all the way through. What baffled me was that he appeared to have vetted the songs out of their theatrical context, i.e. without looking at the script, which is precisely what he told me he wouldn’t do when I met him at the Royal Festival Hall. I was more than open to criticism, but was hoping it would be more targeted and implementable than this.

Benedict Westenra, Sun, 21 Apr 2013, 14:30

Dear Stephen,

Goodness. Thank you! And thank you for listening to the songs twice. I’d have trusted your instincts on first listen – a little like Bach’s ability to predict the structure of a fugue from its subject – but I appreciate you investing the time to check yourself, especially as you have your own show to attend to.

Yes, monotony is a danger that I’m aware of […] However, one of my favourite scores of yours is Passion, and it strikes me that it has a more uniform mood than your other shows. […] I imagine your justification would be that you were evoking the claustrophobic nature of the setting and the all-pervasive influence of Fosca on Giorgio. If so, then […] I think that White & Red has an even better justification for such an approach. […]

With regards pace, […] Act One is a farce, and I’m aware that the songs become fewer and further between in Forum because of pace, so I tried to work around that by using the device of having other things happen while the songs are going on. […] I don’t know if you think of this as a “trick” that shouldn’t be overused […] but [playwright] uses it repeatedly, and arguably successfully, in [highly-acclaimed Broadway musical].


I’d be very interested to know if you didn’t read the script because of time pressure or because the first 6 pages didn’t entice you to continue. If the former then I completely understand, of course, but if the latter you can tell me what put you off – I can take much harsher criticism than you’re currently throwing at me! […] I’m comparatively confident of my songwriting abilities but am trying to pull off something quite difficult dramatically, which I don’t think has been attempted in a musical before, so am less sure of that.

Many, many thanks again for your encouragement and feedback. There’s nothing more valuable than someone taking the time to tell you what you’re doing wrong, and I know that your time is even more valuable than usual at the moment. I can’t wait to hear the new show!

Yours, with gratitude,


Stephen Sondheim, Sun, 21 Apr 2013, 17:19

Benedict –

I didn’t read the script because I didn’t receive it. It would have helped me assess things properly and perhaps more accurately.

As for “Passion,” I don’t need a “justification” for its continuity of mood. it was meant to be one long rhapsodic piece, with no applause at the ends of “songs.” This is not true of your piece, at least not on the evidence of the songs you sent me. They sound as if they have endings – cadences which would elicit applause, which then of course chops the piece up into slices, as musicals conventionally do and as audiences expect.

As for all the songs using “other things that happen,” it smacks of schematic usage, but only playing it out in front of an audience will tell you whether it works or not. I wasn’t aware of this technique in [highly acclaimed Broadway musical], but then I had trouble concentrating on the songs after a short while because of their similarity in form, something which becomes stunningly apparent on the recording.

In any event, I’m happy to know that much of your show is a farce. I’m certainly curious to find out what you’re trying to do that “hasn’t been attempted in a musical before.”

Again, good luck,

Stephen Sondheim

I was now receiving angry emails from Stephen Sondheim. This was certainly not a situation I ever intended to be in, but I recognised that it was a quality problem to have. I was struck by the fact that he trashed a musical that he’d been very complimentary about in public, and realised that someone’s public persona is exactly that. It also occurred to me that if he didn’t like that musical, which was clearly heavily influenced by his work, then he probably liked almost no contemporary musicals, which must have made him feel creatively isolated. I thought that “I’m happy to know that much of your show is a farce” was quite funny.

Benedict Westenra, Sun, 21 Apr 2013, 18:20

Dear Stephen,

I seem to have offended you. I’m really sorry. I love your work to pieces and am deeply touched that you listened to my songs, so that’s the very last thing I’d want to do. Please accept my apologies.

The script was linked to on the webpage Angela forwarded to you – sorry that wasn’t more obvious. I’m attaching it in case you really are curious to look at it, but of course I don’t expect you to read it.

Again, many thanks for your encouragement and feedback. Your continuing career is an incredible inspiration to me.

Yours affectionately,

I was in the frozen food section of the local Tesco when I realised what had probably happened: Sondheim had written to Angie that he’d “get [my tracks] transcribed onto a CD”, as he “[couldn’t] stand hearing things on a computer)”, so had probably forwarded my link to his assistant without clicking on it, with instructions to copy the tracks to CD, and his assistant had probably followed his instructions without telling him about the script because they assumed he already knew about it.


I wrote to Sondheim again, explaining the misunderstanding.

Stephen Sondheim, Mon, 22 Apr 2013, 00:56

That’s exactly what happened. And I repeat, it would have helped me enormously to place things in tonal and dramatic context. Sorry about the oversight.

Steve S

Nice that he was now signing off “Steve”. I commented to my girlfriend that my life always seemed to follow a “film arc”, with breakthroughs invariably being preceded by crises.

I then accidentally triggered the following rather bizarre correspondence:

Music theory discussion

Benedict Westenra, Mon, 22 Apr 2013, 01:14

No apology necessary. I can’t tell you how happy I am that my musical is in your hands – please think of it as a tribute rather than a chore. If proof is needed, I even stole the first 2 chords of Passion for one of the songs (since cut for plot reasons – scroll down to the bottom of the page):

[link to “Járo Darling”]



Stephen Sondheim, Mon, 22 Apr 2013, 03:22

I don’t hear the Passion chords, but I like the tune.


(I think Steve was listening to “A soldier’s life” by mistake.)

Benedict Westenra, Mon, 22 Apr 2013, 09:22

?! The first chord of Passion is Gbmaj9#5 with the 3rd on top, and the first chord of “Járo Darling” is the same but on A. You must have been watching the wrong video! The lyric might be better than anything that’s made it into the current draft.

However, don’t let me keep you from work…


Stephen Sondheim, Mon, 22 Apr 2013, 16:56

I thought you were referring to the first chord under the first vocal – the bitonal one (the vamp).



Benedict Westenra, Mon, 22 Apr 2013, 17:14

Ah, that’s interesting, you’d think of that as bitonal. I’d still think of it as Amaj9#5 – the same as the first chord – rather than C#7/A, although I tend to compose in my head to avoid having to think about notation. I realize I have a lot to learn about harmony. Time constraints prevented me from memorizing your work inside-out when writing the musical, but if I had the music would have been much more sophisticated.


Stephen Sondheim, Tue, 23 Apr 2013, 22:50

Benedict –

Confusion added to confusion. first of all, the opening (as performed and as printed in the vocal score) is in Gb. What copy are you reading from that’s in A? Second, even if it were in A, neither of your notations accounts for both the fifth and the sharped fifth, which are part of the chord when it turns into the accompaniment figure. It’s the presence of the two 5ths that makes me identify it as bitonal: a B-flat triad superimposed on a G-flat triad with suspended 4th? (At least that’s the way I thought of it.)



Benedict Westenra, Wed, 24 Apr 2013, 00:04

Ah. I (egotistically) thought you were referring to my song, which also introduces a 5th as well as a #5th when the vamp starts (because it’s a shameless rip-off of yours), hence the confusion about keys. And, of course, you’re absolutely right that the presence of both 5ths makes both vamps technically bitonal. It’s just that I never think of any music as being bitonal, even when it goes outside of one major or minor scale. That’s because, for me, superimposing chord III over chord I, say, has the effect it does because you’re adding a #5th and a major 7th to a major triad, so I prefer just to think of everything in relation to the root – if the extensions happen to add up to a triad that’s just a coincidence. Also, you use {the major scale + #5} so much that I almost think of it as a stable tonality, e.g. at the start of “Another Hundred People”, except that you notate the #5 as a b6 there, I guess because it’s a chromatic passing note from 6 to 5 via an octave displacement. Liszt uses exactly the same scale in a similarly stable way in the second version of La lugubre gondola:


However, if I were faster at harmonic arithmetic “III/I” might make more sense to me.

(An explanation of the previous few emails for you music buffs out there – click the image to download the score:)

Sondheim music examples

Stephen Sondheim, Wed, 24 Apr 2013, 00:39

You’re too knowledgeable for me, but you’re fun to listen to.


In retrospect it’s clear that Steve was trying to diplomatically shut me down, but I pushed whatever opening I had:

Benedict Westenra, Wed, 24 Apr 2013, 01:05

Well, my play’s probably more entertaining than my emails…

Last ditch attempts to meet

This didn’t work, so after a week of mulling over it and talking to friends, I wrote saying that if he could look at my play “I’d move mountains to make it to Manhattan to meet”.

Stephen Sondheim, Thu, 2 May 2013, 21:02

Benedict –

I’m terribly sorry, but I simply can’t take the time for anything extracurricular. I’m six months behind on my new show (the time it took for my broken wrist to recover enough to hold a pencil), with a collaborator who’s waited patiently. Reading a play and making judicious comments takes time and effort, and I have to be selfish until I finish this score. Please forgive me.

Steve S

Oh well. I wasn’t sure what to make of all of this. On the one hand, Steve didn’t really get to know my show, which was my main goal. On the other, we’d had a disagreement, reconciled, and ended up on abbreviated first-name basis while we debated music theory, which probably happened to very few musical theatre composers.

I saw Angie in Ireland again that summer and made one last-ditch attempt to get closer to him. I had the feeling that if I could just get him to see how I’d incorporated the songs into the show or meet him in person, I’d cross some kind of threshold.

Benedict Westenra, Thu, 29 Aug 2013, 16:18

Dear Steve,

I’ve just seen Angela in Ireland, and she said that you were struggling with your latest work. If you’d benefit from having a musically and lyrically (and dramatically) literate assistant, give me a shout.



Stephen Sondheim, Fri, 30 Aug 2013, 00:36

Thanks for the offer, but the problem is not the struggle, it’s the desire to work.


Steve S

Okey doke.

Working Solo

I stopped trying for anything more. Instead, I developed my show on my own steam, which is best summarised in my own words from 2015, when I sent Steve an update to show that I’d been implementing his advice:

Benedict Westenra, Sun, 11 Jan 2015, 11:18

Dear Steve,

I just wanted to tell you how especially useful your feedback on my songs is now that I’m rewriting them all in preparation for my second workshop.

I was lucky enough to get a £15,000 Arts Council grant to develop my musical last year, and I workshopped it for a week with some very good people, including an actor from the cast of One Man, Two Guvnors and a dramaturg from the literary dept. of the Royal Court. Afterwards I rewrote the book from scratch, which appears to have enormously improved it, judging from the reaction of the new directors I’ve run it past, and I’m now rapidly rewriting all but one of the songs.

You warned me to “watch out for monotony of … approach”, which I’m trying to heed: while some numbers are monologues, others are now 4-way arguments, to which end I’m restudying songs like “A Weekend in the Country” and “Your Fault” with renewed awe. You also told me to “watch the pace”. In the “Songwriting” chapter of Sondheim on Sondheim [I meant Sondheim & Co.] you’re quoted as calling alliteration “the refuge of the destitute” (itself a quotation from a counterpoint book), which I now realise my opening number was very guilty of. Having reframed my songs so that they now advance the plot more and leave the audience somewhere very different from where they started, I’m finding myself struggling to cram what I want to say into the number of lines I have rather than struggling to fill up space, which I suspect is the better problem to have.

Thank you again for taking the time to listen to all of my amateurish scribblings – time is something I appreciate more and more the older I get – and please don’t worry about replying to this email. I look forward to hearing the mash-up of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel – I myself have always wanted to write a García Márquez mash-up with the title Love in the Time of Solitude.

Best wishes,

Angie Sets Up a Meeting

Meanwhile, I stayed in touch with Angie. She came to London to do Blithe Spirit in spring 2014 and gave my girlfriend and I free tickets to the opening night. We met Barry Humphries on the way to her dressing room, and I kicked myself that I was too broke to have booked tickets to his farewell tour as Dame Edna. There was a vast reception afterwards in the basement of the Rosewood Hotel, and I left Angie alone to deal with the producers, press, and fans. At some point I was talking to another young musical theatre composer that I’d found, and felt an arm lock into mine. She’d tracked me down and had come to say hello.

Angie in Blithe Spirit

A few weeks later my girlfriend and I invited Angie round for dinner, and her friend told us about the AIDS epidemic in New York in the ’80’s. “I remember a friend came to see me saying he had lesions on his neck. He didn’t know what was wrong with him, but I knew he had 6 months to live.”

The following year I was on the top deck of a double-decker bus when I phoned Angie to congratulate her on her OBE and honorary Oscar, and wondered if the other people on the bus wondered who I was talking to. I saw her in Ireland that summer, and then made plans to visit New York in November, a month after her 90th birthday. I was in the queue to get tickets to see Imelda Staunton in Gypsy in London and two theatre buffs in front of me said that Angie was the best Mama Rose (she was really phenomenal in Gypsy). I couldn’t resist writing to tell her, and in her reply she mentioned, “We have a date to visit Steve Sondheim for a drink at his house the day before you leave to return to London.” It was finally happening. After getting my tickets for the show I went for a walk before it started and saw a car advertising “Sweeney Todd Flooring”:

Sweeney Todd Flooring

The following day Angie added:

Angela Lansbury, Tue, 10 Nov 2015, 17:40

Don’t worry about having to “perform” for Stephen. He is unpredictable to say the least , I believe a Conversation is most likely, and hopefully a lively one at that! He has two very large French Poodles,who tend to suddenly rush in and upset the status quo, but are fairly quickly plucked away by Jeff, Steve’s friend and companion. If you are uncomfortable you can always say ,”0h My God…I’ve got to go home and Pack!!! Just kidding !

If I was uncomfortable I could leave? Why would I leave a conversation with Stephen Sondheim prematurely after waiting so long to get it?

With Angie in New York

I arrived in a downpour. It was a dramatic start to a glorious trip.

One day I told Angie what a great melodist I thought Jules Styne was, citing “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” as an example, and she sang me the whole song in her living room. Another time we were talking about Anyone Can Whistle and she performed her opening number accurately from memory, despite not having done so for 51 years.

Another time, on the way to Central Park:

Angie: I’m going to walk with you for a little while, and when I get tired I’ll let you off the leash.
me: You know I’m a cat person, right? You shouldn’t be comparing me to a dog.
Angie: Perhaps you’d prefer it if I told you to fuck off? That seems more your style.

I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gave me for Angela Lansbury to (almost) tell me to fuck off.

We went to see James Earl Jones, of burger fame, and Cicely Tyson in The Gin Game, and went backstage afterwards. I marvelled at how girly and flirtatious Cicely Tyson was, and understood why Miles Davis married her (I’d read his autobiography when I was working in a jazz band). I discovered afterwards that she was 90 years old. I told James Earl Jones that listening to him speak was like listening to music, and told Cicely Tyson that she was like a puppeteer and the audience was her puppet, which made them both laugh. Somewhere there’s a picture of Angie and Cicely and me together.

The Gin Game

I suggested going to the new Whitney Museum as an outing, and when Angie and I were queuing for tickets, someone approached her and said: “Hi. Angela Lansbury? I’m Todd Haynes.” He said his name like it was hyperlinked in a blog post, and it definitely rang a bell, but neither of us could place him. He said he was a fan of Angie’s acting over her whole career, Angie gave a somewhat vacant response, there was an awkward silence, and then Todd made an excuse and left. When I got back to the flat I Googled him and realised that he’d directed Far From Heaven, which I’d seen, and that he’d written and directed Carol with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, which was currently being fêted in the cinema. I felt like an inept aide. (Sorry, Todd, if you’re reading.)


Another evening Angie and I went to a dinner party with a childhood friend of my godmother’s, and one of the guests looked familiar. I asked him who he was and he said he was John McMartin, who’d played Ben in the original production of Follies, and who I recognised from the video of Sondheim’s 80th birthday concert where he reprised “The Road You Didn’t Take”. When I said I was meeting Sondheim on my last day, he said, “Oh, that will be interesting“, looking me straight in the eye with a cautionary gaze, and I understood why Angie had told me I could leave if I felt uncomfortable: everyone who’d ever worked with Stephen Sondheim was apparently scared of him. Before I left I told John McMartin that I wished I could go back in time and the original production of Follies, and he replied, “So do I”.

John McMartin in Follies

On my walks I took the following photo and sent it to my sister:

Meeting Steve at His House

Finally, on the last day, Angie and I went to visit Steve. He’d managed to fit me in between being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in Washington and driving to Connecticut for Thanksgiving.

We arrived early and got tea in the Le Pain Quotidien at the end of his street. Angie was lower energy than usual, and later told me, “I’m feeling my age. And I don’t want to be feeling my age.” As we approached his house I commented how terrifying it was how events in the future arrive and then fly by, quoting Mrs. Lovett’s lines from Sweeney Todd, “Now goes quickly, / See, now it’s past!”

(After the meeting I wrote down the conversation as best I could remember it, so the following is pretty accurate:)


We went down a few steps into an inconspicuous building, and through a wood-panelled corridor that lead into an elongated sitting room, with a dining room at the back. The sense of a huge house behind a small exterior.

Steve’s housekeeper welcomed us in, and then Steve came down the stairs behind me in a bright red Actors’ Guild T-shirt. I braced myself for something acerbic. Instead, he said:

Steve: Welcome to New York.

Two ridiculously big black poodles appeared, Willie and Addie, named after the Mizner brothers, the protagonists of Road Show. Willie wouldn’t get off the couch.

Steve: Down. Down. Down. Down. Down. As you can see, they’re very obedient.
me: You’re obviously an excellent dog trainer.

New York & theatre

Sleep No More poster

Steve: So, what have you been doing in New York, apart from spending time with Angie?
me: I saw Sleep No More on Monday.
Steve: I liked the concept, but not the masks. The masks are really uncomfortable. (To Angie.) Did he tell you about the show?

me: And The Gin Game.

me: I saw [contemporary Broadway play] last night, but didn’t like it very much.
Steve: The original lead is no longer in it.
me: I thought it was very mechanical – you could tell what was going to happen in the first 5 minutes.
Steve: Yes, yes, it is.
me: And it was very derivative. Of [X], and [Y].
Steve: I didn’t think it was derivative of [X], I thought it was saying something important about America today. But it went off the rails at the end, it was like watching a train wreck.

me: And the other day we went to the Whitney Museum and walked the High Line.
Steve: Oh, I want to go to the new Whitney Museum. And you know there’s a new museum of mathematics. And of sex.
me: Sex and mathematics? This is what I’ve been missing in New York.
Steve: And they’re 3 blocks from each other.

me: And we had a lovely dinner on Saturday with – I don’t know if you know Andrea Anson?

Steve shook his head.

me: A friend of Angie’s and also of my godmother’s. And John McMartin was there.
Steve: Oh, he’s a sweet man.
Angie: Benedict spoke to him about Follies.

Steve then said something staggeringly complimentary about John McMartin that I won’t repeat for fear of making other actors jealous.

Angie: He’s just desperate for a show.
Steve: Oh, really? Isn’t it amazing at that age. He was a friend of Burt Shevelove’s, who, (to me) you know, cowrote Forum, and I got to know him that way. And he told me that Jackie’s [John McMartin’s nickname] stage début was at the age of 23 playing a 76-year-old man. Can you believe it?

me: So one day I walked up from Angela’s flat through Central Park, past the Jackie Onassis reservoir, up to Columbia University. And yesterday I took the subway to Battery Park and walked up to Broadway, though Chinatown and Little Italy.
SS: Oh, that’s nice. New York is not as much of a walking town as London, but yes.

(Battery Park makes me think of the lyrics to “Broadway Baby”.)

Jeff arrived, Steve’s partner.

Jeff (on driving to Connecticut): It usually takes 2 hours. I’ve decided that if we can do it in less than 4 I’ll be happy.

He headed off to continue preparing for the trip.


Steve: So, what’s happening with work?
me: Well, I’m lucky enough to have a flexible schedule, so I write in the mornings and early afternoons and teach late afternoons and evenings.
Steve: And what are you teaching?
me: Private students. Piano, and music theory, and composition.
Steve: Classical composition?
me: Um, some. There isn’t such a market for classical composition lessons.
Steve: And how do you teach them?
me: I tend to think that transposing from memory is the key to all music. Because if you can transpose a piece from memory you have to have extracted the pattern, you can’t just transpose all the individual notes.
Steve: And the patterns are different in classical and popular music.

I didn’t get to answer this, but obviously I knew this.

Angie: Benedict worked in a jazz band on a cruise ship.

Angie was setting me up for an anecdote here, which I didn’t get to tell.

Steve: I was once – Angie, I don’t think I’ve told you this story – I was taking a cruise from America to England when I was writing Company. And I was writing “The Little Things You Do Together” and the ship was keeling – (singing the accompaniment) kerplunk! And there were two ladies in the lounge and I think they thought I was the cocktail pianist. And they sat listening to me for half an hour even though I was going duh duh duh duh duh (wrong note), duh duh duh duh duh (different wrong note).

Steve: But if you’re the cocktail pianist you can play anything you want, right?
me: No, I was in a jazz band.
Steve: Oh, you were in a band, that’s completely different.
me: We were contracted to play for 5 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was a great training. My daily goal was not to get fired.

I’ll type up my stories from the ship sometime.


Steve: And you’re writing the music and lyrics?
me: I’m actually stupid enough to write the book, music and lyrics. I know it’s not a good idea.
Steve: No, it’s fine. you just need to make sure you have someone you can argue with.
me: Right. I have people like that.
Angie: Well, sorry to step in, but I don’t know that you do.
me: Whoa, whoa, whoa! Don’t listen to Angie! No, I have lots of people I’ve been getting feedback from. In my first workshop I was working with a dramaturg from the Royal Court, who was dramaturg on Simon Stephens’s latest play.
Steve: Oh, well, you couldn’t work with a better playwright.

The Wasp

me: And the director on my second workshop was Tom Attenborough, who’s the son of Michael Attenborough, who used to run the Almeida. He directed The Wasp which transferred to the Trafalgar Studios.
Steve: The Aristophanes play?
me: No, it’s a new play.

me: The second director’s first note when he looked at the script was very hard to take. It was “get rid of Act Two”. And he was right.
Steve: (Laughs.) That sounds like an Arthur Laurents note. (To Angie.) You know what he said when he came to see Passion? He just said “close it”.
me: “Steve, I’m telling you this as a friend, close it”!
Steve: Just that: “close it”.

Steve: You need someone to argue with. Not aggressively, but …
me: “I collabor him and he collabors me.”
Steve: (Laughs.) Right.

This is a quote from Merrily, that Steve used as an epitaph for his book, Finishing the Hat.

Steve: So who were the people in the workshops? Friends of yours?
me: No, we had a casting director.
Steve: Oh, wow. And did you have the same cast for each of the workshops?
me: No, I deliberately used different casts in each one, so hear how the same material sounded on different people. So I heard the same parts read by 4 different casts.
Steve: Right, I was going to say you need to hear the different colours.

White & Red invite

me: And he just directed Dinner With Friends at the Park, which I wasn’t crazy about.
Steve: Well over here it won a Pulitzer Prize.
me: Actually, I invested in that show.
Steve: No! Never invest in a theatrical production! (Makes a cross sign.) Argh, garlic!
me: Well I made my money back.
Steve: Don’t invest in theatrical productions! Angie, do you remember that time we invested in a show? Hal Prince was doing a … What was it called?

Angie couldn’t remember.

Steve: [name of the play]. That was it! And we lost all our money. Hal should never direct straight plays, he’s a mise en scene guy. But he’s very good at persuading people to invest who know better, like you and me.

me: Well, I don’t know if you believe in the phrase “workshopped to death”.
Steve: That was going to be my next paragraph.
me: I mean, I’ve been working on this thing for, 3 years? And I think if anything needs fixing it’s either in the opening scene, which is only 4 minutes long, and is dialogue, so is quicker to rewrite than music and lyrics. Or it’s in the last 2 minutes.
Steve: You want to make sure the opening is right.
me: Oh no, I think it’s right.
Steve: George Abbott once gave Hal Prince the advice: fix the first minute, then the second minute, then the third minute, and so on. Because you don’t know if the rest works until you’ve got the opening right.

This is the single best piece of playwriting advice I’ve ever been given.

Steve: And do you have a producer?
me: Well a West-End producer came to the reading at the end of the second workshop, and is putting money in the show.
Steve: Hold on, a producer? Or a guy with money who just puts money in shows.
me: A financier.
Steve: You have to be very careful taking money. So many writers are so happy to take money: someone offers them twenty thousand pounds and then they lose control of their play. You need someone with experience of putting on shows.
me: Oh, well I have someone like that too. He was general manager on my two workshops.
Steve: Perfect.

me: A few weeks ago I emailed the West End producer asking if we could have a coffee in a couple of months’ time, saying I wanted to put a deposit down on a theatre so I had a deadline.
Steve: Very smart. Very smart.

Steve: And where are you thinking of putting it on?
me: I’m thinking either the Southwark Playhouse
Steve: Right.
me: Or the St James.
Steve: Great.

Steve (on the general manager): He should be salaried. He shouldn’t have money in the show. You don’t want his friend saying something like, “oh, you shouldn’t be investing in that, you’re going to lose all your money”.

Steve: The three things should always be separate (gesturing): the financing, the running of the show, and the creative team. Don’t mix them up.

Steve: The play starts when you enter the venue. Angie, do you remember? When we opened Sweeney Todd at that massive theatre, the Uris. Sweeney Todd is a musical about a small group of people – two really – and I thought it wouldn’t work in this huge theatre, but you stood me on stage and said, “See, Stephen, the theatre welcomes you with open arms”. Because there’s something about that theatre that is welcoming, and it worked.

I was used to Angie being Angie, and was very much in the present when talking to Steve, but when he said that I was suddenly stepped out of the situation and thought, “Holy fuck, I’m a room with the people who created Sweeney Todd!”

Sweeney Todd original cast

I’d actually take Steve’s insight further: I think the play starts when someone first hears about it. Their perception of the event itself is shaped by the context in which they experience it.

me: So I can’t decide whether to lose money on a 90-seater venue or potentially make money on a 100-seater venue.
Steve: It shouldn’t be up to you, that’s the producer’s decision. You shouldn’t have to decide that.


me: I should probably describe the concept of my play, because it’s quite high-risk. I try to keep in mind that quote of Leonard Bernstein’s, to always fall ‘from the top rung of the ladder’.
Steve: That wasn’t Leonard Bernstein, that was something I said, that I learned from him.
me: Oh! Misattributing a quote in front of the person who originated it. Well, …

Sondheim & Bernstein

I explained the central concept of the play.

Steve: Oh, alternative realities are … chic nowadays. That’s not the word, but …
me: Audiences understand them.
Steve: Right.

Steve: And is it through-composed?
me: No. I like going for things that are hard to pull off, and I remember what you said about Merrily, that it’s harder to write 32-bar songs and have them properly dramatic than it is to write something that’s through-composed. So the songs are quite –
Steve: I remember the texture of the songs.


Steve: You’ve probably heard this before, but Pirandello said: tell them what you’re going to show them, show it to them, and then – and this is the bit people miss – tell them what you’ve shown them.
me: Yes. [contemporary Broadway play] did that very well.
Steve: Yes, it did, I just didn’t like the previous 20 minutes. They should have kept with the meanness.

Steve: It must be clear to the audience, otherwise they’ll disengage. And rightfully so.

Steve: You keep saying “the protagonist”, like he doesn’t have a name.
me: His name’s Jaroslav.
Steve: Jaroslav? Okay. (Looking at Angie and laughing.) We’ll stick to “the protagonist”!

Steve: But how do we know that it’s the protagonist’s fantasy? You have 2 people on stage.
me: Well, when we got into the fantasy world one of the characters freezes.
Steve: Right, but what about the other one?
me: Well, the first 4 pages, so 4 minutes, is just the couple. The soldier only appears for a page before we go into the fantasy world, and when we do his style of dialogue changes.
Steve: Yes, but –
me: And just beforehand the protagonist has a monologue, saying, “Why can’t life always be like this? You should have seen the protest. Everyone was singing … Why can’t life – ?”
Steve: Right, if you have a “why can’t” speech then, of course, you answer the question.

Steve: Well, you seem to know what you’re doing. I look forward to seeing it.

These were the last words Steve said to me in person. He never got to see my show.

At one point during our meeting Steve went to the “little boys’ room”, as he put it, and I turned to my left to see Angie sitting in the armchair looking ruminative. I was half-tempted to take out my phone and snap a photo as it was such a beautiful image, but I didn’t want to destroy the personal nature of the meeting, so it lives on in my memory.


Benedict Westenra, Wed, 25 Nov 2015, 20:42

Dear Steve,

Thank you again for meeting up – I know you’ve just come from London and Washington and are running off to Connecticut.

The three questions at the forefront of my mind with regards White & Red were:

1) what production structure to use,
2) who to hire as director, and
3) which venue to hire,

and you answered all of them:

1) keep the financing separate from the general management,
2) don’t hire a director who doesn’t love the show, and
3) let the general manager decide on the venue.

Three more bullets dodged, thank you. Many more to come, I’m sure. I’m now sitting in a café writing down everything else I can remember from the conversation for my own personal record, but those were the biggest takeaways for me.

[I then linked to bootleg footage I found of the moment the Weismann Theatre turns into Loveland in the original production of Follies, which apparently Steve didn’t know existed.]

Have a great thanksgiving,


Stephen Sondheim, Thu, 26 Nov 2015, 02:50

Thanks for the info, Ben (I think), and good luck. And never hesitate to ask for advice or assistance. It would give me pleasure to supply it.



Benedict Westenra, Thu, 26 Nov 2015, 17:39

Thank you, I won’t.

Angie slipped in calling me “Ben” at your place but that reminds me of school, and not in a good way! Some of my friends call me “Bene” (one of them has an Italian husband) and my family call me “Bandit”. I’ll let you pick.


Stephen Sondheim, Thu, 26 Nov 2015, 21:13

Sorry about that. I’ll call you Mr. Westenra.


If the meeting was a test, I’d clearly passed.

Ongoing Correspondence

That was the last time I saw Steve. But we kept corresponding for years. Here are some edited highlights:

Finding a co-producer

I wrote to Steve that I was treating “email Sondheim” as a “break glass in case of emergency”, hence the subject of my next email:

Benedict Westenra, Mon, 18 Jan 2016, 09:59

Subject: “Glass broken”

I spoke to a couple of friends and they pointed out that it’s better to avert a problem than to solve one, so I’m taking you up on your offer of assistance.

The current plan is to put White & Red on in, ideally, the Park200 in Autumn or Winter of this year, with a budget of around £110k. I’ve managed to persuade [producer] of [West-End production company] to guarantee 50% of the money and he’s approaching more experienced producers to raise the rest and run the show. I can probably raise 10-15% myself. However, I’m beginning to feel that the more I can raise myself and the less dependent I am on [the producer] the better.

You might feel that you don’t know me or my work well enough to do this (I have, after all, either cut or completely rewritten every song you’ve heard of mine), but if you were able to introduce me to any producers who might be interested in this kind of project that could be extremely useful. If not, the show should still get produced!

Many thanks again for your time,
Mr. W


Stephen Sondheim, Mon, 18 Jan 2016, 18:58

Benedict –

As you may imagine, I get a lot of requests like yours. The fact is that I don’t know many producers, and never did. I know a couple of non-profit ones, but the problem is that if I recommend your show, I have to recommend them all or risk hurting people’s feelings. So I’ve had to say “no” to everybody. Please forgive me.

Steve S

This is a masterclass in how to say “no” to someone.

Production problems

Benedict Westenra, Tue, 1 Mar 2016, 19:48

Dear Steve,

You might be able to assist in an important decision. No worries if not.

My “producer” (an ex-finance guy), who I’ve managed to negotiate into pledging 50% of the budget of my show, has arranged a meeting with a potential co-producer and director next Monday: [co-producer], from the Menier, and Adam Lenson, who directed the UK premiere of Songs for a New World. However he’s currently back-pedalling on his agreement to put a deposit down on a theatre, which I insisted on so that we had a deadline to work towards, and is now talking about holding a third workshop and letting the development process continue indefinitely, even though I told him that you agreed with me on the dangers of “workshopping a musical to death”.

My inclination is to agree to a reading, sans music, on the condition that the producers book a theatre space first, for this year, otherwise we call the whole thing off, to quote one of your favourite lyricists (I still own all of the rights). If the producers call my bluff then I simply start working on other music and theatre projects without them, which I suspect would turn out much better than my current show (White & Red is already beginning to feel like the work of a much younger writer). Is that an incredibly stupid plan?

I’m aware of the number of false starts and discarded drafts you’ve had in your career and don’t expect mine to be any easier. I’m focused on quality and in this for the long term.

Hope you’re well,


Stephen Sondheim, Mon, 7 Mar 2016, 03:32

I can’t help you, Ben. Producers and writers making “If you don’t, then I’ll … ” demands of each other is a dead end. Your producer is obviously not all that eager to go ahead with your show, for whatever reasons. My instinct: Get another producer or set of producers. These guys (and you) are sort of playing the game of “Producer,” with all the trappings of phone calls, insistences, meetings, threats, etc.

And whatever producer you get, don’t let it be just a money guy. Get an experienced one – it’s the one branch of the theater that never benefits from eager young amateurs.

Steve S

I replied saying that this was “a reminder for me to be more Charley Kringas and less Franklin Shepherd” – another reference to Merrily. (As it turns out, I got everything I wanted in the meeting.)

Charley and Frank

Sending an update

In Nov 2016 I sent Steve an update about doing a workshop with a rising star.

Stephen Sondheim, Wed, 23 Nov 2016, 01:31

It’s not clear to me what you want of me.

Steve S


Benedict Westenra, Wed, 23 Nov 2016, 01:47

From that email or in general? I wasn’t trying to get anything out of you with that email, or even expecting you to reply, I just heard once that the one thing you can give someone who has more money and success than you is that you can tell them that they helped you.


Stephen Sondheim, Wed, 23 Nov 2016, 21:47

Sorry, I totally misunderstood. You mentioned my offer of assistance at the top of your note, so I figured that was the subject matter. I wasn’t taking offence, merely baffled. I’m glad to be of help so far, and my offer still holds good should you ever want it.



Benedict Westenra, Fri, 25 Nov 2016, 19:09

My fault, I was breaking Taft’s rule: “don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you can’t be misunderstood”.


My only desire is that I think it would be nice if you heard my work in context at some point, since it’s improved quite a bit since I sent you demos. In the past few decades a lot of people have been hailed as “the next Stephen Sondheim”, which is a ridiculous formulation to start with, but I find that most of them fall down on one of the triumvirate of drama, lyrics, and music, which I imagine must be frustrating for you. I flatter myself that I’m one of the few people who’s equally good at all three, and that you’d find it satisfying to see your principles applied in innovative ways.

That was quite an arrogant email on my part, a tendency that Steve comments on in a later exchange.

Stephen Sondheim, Sat, 26 Nov 2016, 00:24

I’d be happy to listen to your recent stuff, but not until I finish my own. I don’t want to be influenced by any music I haven’t heard before.

Meanwhie, good luck. And the Taft (which Taft, incidentally?) quote is lovely. Thanks for that.



Benedict Westenra, Sun, 27 Nov 2016, 09:04

([…] it was President Taft. I guess you’re less knowledgable about presidents who died of natural causes.)

(Assassins joke.)

Finding people smarter than yourself

On Sun 19 Mar, 2017 I wrote him an unreasonably long (600-word) email, asking him 2 questions:

1) Whether he recommended his rule of not listening to other composers’ music while composing to other people.

2) I’d been lucky enough to work with some very good dramaturgs and experienced a thrilling steep learning curve because of them, but felt that I’d learned what I could from them with regards this particular project and was struggling to find people who gave me the same useful critical feedback.

I finished, “How have you dealt with this problem – I imagine you’ve lived with it for a long time – or do you think I’m deluding myself?”

Stephen Sondheim, Sun, 19 Mar 2017, 21:49

Benedict –

I don’t even have time to read your questions, much less answer them, as I can see from their length that they’re complicated. I’m working deperately to meet a deadline one week away, which will be the start of rehearsals for our workshop. I’ll get to them after April 7th.

Steve S

I was in Barcelona when I received the following reply, just as a friend returned from the Picasso Museum:

Stephen Sondheim, Thu, 20 Apr 2017, 18:40

Benedict –

I know I’m late in responding (the reading was two weeks ago), but I’ve been catching up on the part of my life I neglected when I was fiercely meeting deadlines.

Briefly, in answer to your questions:

If listening to other previously unheard music while you’re writing your own stimulates you, go to it. It has a braking effect on me – a combination of fear of appropriation and fear of feeling old-fashioned and uninventive.

As for suffering from competence, you’re deluding yourself. There are always people smarter than you, you just have to be smart enough to find them. Your own expertise hasn’t been tested yet, and the feedback you get from friends and “those involved” is not to be trusted unless “those involved” are smarter than you, which makes your assumption a paradox.
Theatrical competence is as much a matter of professional experience as it is of creativity or I.Q. I’ve been fortunate enough to work almost exclusively with people who are at least as smart or as creatively gifted as I.

A healthy ego is good and necessary, Benedict, but it’s a millimeter away from dismissive arrogance. And unless you’re Stravinsky or Picasso or Wagner, that’s not a good thing.

Hope this helps.

Steve S

Recording a podcast

In September 2018 we were in contact about recording a podcast, and I commented:

Benedict Westenra, Mon, 24 Sept 2018, 15:25

I never cease to marvel at how quickly you respond to my messages. Your efficiency is one of the many lessons I’ve learned from you.

This is true. I had repeated problems with the director I was working with not getting back to me, and yet Sondheim was in his 80’s, had innumerable demands on his time, and if you check the time stamps of his emails you’ll see that he always got back to me within 24 hours, or let me know if he couldn’t.

A social visit

Benedict Westenra, Wed, 18 Dec 2019, 01:13

Dear Steve,

I’m going to be in New York from next Mon 23 until Sun 29 – it would be lovely to drop in and say hello for half an hour if you’re in town and accepting visitors. No plans to ask for any advice or favours, it would be purely a social visit.

Hope life is treating you well,


Stephen Sondheim, Wed, 18 Dec 2019, 02:51

Unfortunately, I’ll be in Connecticut from the 20th until the New Year.

Welcome to the USA anyhow and have a good time.

Steve S

And that was the last I heard from him.

The Pandemic

My main goal at the start of 2020 was to get my two shows produced, and I got as far as getting posters designed for both of them. I’d renamed my musical farce Czech Yourself, and gave it the tagline:

A serious political drama about spinning too many plates when you probably shouldn’t be spinning plates in the first place because they’re not your plates and I’m not inviting you to dinner again oh God look what you’ve done to my carpet

Czech Yourself

Plus my relationship with the girlfriend I’d crashed the RFH party with had ended after 5 years, and I tried to make sense of it in a play about a girl, giving it the tagline:

a kind of Muslim Annie Hall

a play about a girl

I also had a composing commission for a group exhibition in a palace in Moscow, in which I was going to collaborate with LED designer Moritz Waldemeyer to fill a ballroom with a music-responsive sculpture and a custom scent by Tom Dixon.

Spiridonov House

Then the pandemic happened, and all my creative projects got cancelled.

In the depths of the first lockdown I wanted to write Steve an email, commiserating the changes we were seeing:

  • The theatre world, which was financially shaky to begin with, was suffering huge losses, and this was going to make it even harder for higher-risk new writing to break through.
  • New York, where Steve lived all of his life and immortalized in shows like Company and Merrily, was changing irreversibly (as one indication, to date over 1,000 restaurants have closed their doors for good).
  • Finally, even before the pandemic, I had a feeling that the theatre world was becoming increasingly politically uniform. The counter-cultural values of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s had become the establishment while still pretending to the revolution, and the theatre world to me should always be a space to question the establishment.

However, I didn’t want to waste his time by writing to him without having advanced my show, and so never sent the email.

Then he died.

A Realisation

Bloomsbury Lanes

It wasn’t until two days after hearing the news that Steve’s death really hit me. I was about to go bowling with a model (I have a tough life), and I leaned my head against the bathroom wall and cried. It was only then that I realised why I was so driven to forge a relationship with him: I was looking for a parental figure. It’s so obvious in my last email to him: I didn’t want a professional meeting, I just wanted a relaxed conversation about life.

There’s a strange phenomenon when you connect with someone’s work: you feel like they understand you even though you’ve never met them. That’s part of the appeal, realising that someone’s felt what you’re feeling. I was lucky enough to have gotten to know one of my idols in person a little, and it’s hard for me to disentangle how much of our connection was real and how much was imagined.

If I lived in New York, Steve would probably have come to see one of my workshops, and then he’d have seen what I was I was trying to do dramatically with my show and likely relaxed around me more. As it is, I’ll never know how much he saw in me. But then Hammerstein never got to see Company. As Steve wrote in Into the Woods, “Sometimes people leave you / Halfway through the wood”. I’ll have to make do with making something good.

Tips for Contacting Your Idol

For anyone else wanting to develop a relationship with someone they admire, here are a few things I either learned or confirmed along the way:

Something I got right:

1. Do the work

If you have work you’re presenting, make it as good and as complete as you possibly can before showing it to them. And study their entire body of work and everything they’ve ever said on record so that you don’t waste their time by asking them a question you could have answered with Google. My interactions with Steve are littered with references to obscure aspects of his work (The Last of Sheila, Buñuel, “I collabor him and he collabors me”) to show that I knew his work inside-out, which I think is one of the reasons he continued to interact with me.

Something I got wrong:

2. Keep it short

Rereading my emails, it pains me to see how much I say I value Steve’s time and then how long I make my emails: a disjunct between what I’m saying and what I’m doing.

If you’re a younger person who hasn’t made it yet, you cannot imagine how busy successful people are. If you’re drafting a message to them, make it as short as you possibly can, and then halve it. (As a counterexample, look at Steve’s emails to me and see how concisely he conveys so much.)

Something I got right:

3. Treat celebrities as people, not as things

If your top priority meeting celebrity is getting a photo with them, then you’re treating them as a thing, not as a person. I never asked Steve for one, and resisted the temptation to photograph Angie in his house. So I missed out on a couple of documents of our time together, but in doing so ensured that we had a good personal relationship.

Something I got wrong:

4. Remember that life is not a goal-orientated activity

Throughout my interaction with Steve, I was focused on getting my play produced. Now that he’s gone, I can see even more clearly that “the journey is the reward”.

Something I got right:

5. Do things that are financially painful to spend time with people you connect with

Reviewing my correspondence with Angie, I was reminded that all the time I was doing this I was flat broke, constantly dipping in an out of my overdraft. And yet I still made it to Ireland, and New York, and sent Angie flowers on her opening night in Melbourne. The one time I didn’t follow the above rule was when I didn’t buy tickets to Barry Humphries’s farewell tour as Dame Edna, which meant that I later missed out on connecting with him in person. Don’t be extravagant and spend money on unnecessary things, but do remember that life is ultimately about spending time with people you care about.

Something I learned halfway through:

6. Recognise that success doesn’t make you happy

Before I got to know Steve in person, I imagined that he must be elated at being a living God in the theatre world (he had a Broadway theatre named after him while he was still alive). So I was shocked to discover that, e.g., he still appeared to be bitter about the box office failure of his show Passion. One evening when I was chatting to Angie in her flat in New York, she said that Steve had always wanted to be a household name, “like Irving Berlin“, and the fact that he wasn’t was a constant source of frustration to him. (I think he might achieve this status as more and more film adaptations are made of his work.) This is, perhaps, a reminder not to have unreasonably high requirements to be happy.

Closing Thoughts: Sondheim’s Legacy

When Steve died, a lot of British newspapers carried headlines starting, “Stephen Sondheim, composer”. I love Sondheim’s music, but I don’t think his music is his greatest achievement. There’s an incredible quote from Leonard Bernstein that I was shocked Craig Zadan included in Sondheim & Co., given that it was published during Sondheim’s lifetime:

I went wild, I thought he was a real, honest-to-god talent. The music wasn’t terribly distinguished – it sounded like anybody’s music – but the lyrics didn’t sound like anybody’s lyrics by any means.” (p. 12)

To me, Sondheim’s supreme achievement is being the greatest dramatic lyricist that ever lived. After familiarizing myself with his work, it’s hard to go back to Wagner, or Puccini, or even Lorenzo da Ponte, because they all sound dramatically clunky by comparison.

Hammerstein & Sondheim

As a dramatic composer-lyricist, Sondheim was lucky. He was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein from the age of ten, and knew Dorothy Fields growing up, referring to her as “Aunt Dorothy”. Hammerstein laid the dramatic foundations and Sondheim came along and finessed them – in a sense, Hammerstein was Haydn to Sondheim’s Mozart.

As a human, Steve was perhaps less lucky. I got the impression from his one angry email to me and from his friends that he was generally dissatisfied. A couple of passages from Meryle Secrest’s biography of him give an idea as to why that might be:

It was [Sondheim’s mother’s] pattern to become irrationally angry, say the most hurtful thing she could think of, and then be amazed when the other person bore a grudge. “She was actually baffled, because I got a couple of letters from her after that saying, ‘I don’t understand what you feel. What can’t we have fun the way we used to?’ And I just, literally, photocopied the letter she had sent and sent it back to here. She was an impossible person.” (p. 270)

Sondheim was in London when his mother died and did not return for the funeral. Alan Ayckbourn recalled the occasion and remembered Sondheim saying that he did not want the usual expressions of sympathy because he did not need them. His feelings had not changed since the time when writing to Henry and Mary Guettel he had said “Thanks for the plate, but where was my mother’s head?” Arthur Laurents said, “Shortly after she died somebody asked him about his mother and he said, ‘She’s the same.’ Then he added, ‘Oh, I forgot. She died.'” (p. 272)

And yet he had this extraordinary empathy that allowed to him write for such a diverse array of characters so psychologically convincingly. How incredible for a man who, at the time, never been in a relationship to write the music and lyrics to Company.

I could point to some of my favourite Sondheim lyrics, like “A Bowler Hat” from Pacific Overtures, or the bridge of “Every Day a Little Death” from A Little Night Music, but those songs are well-known already. Instead, to give an idea of the quality and quantity of his work, consider the song “Come Play Wiz Me”, from Anyone Can Whistle. It’s so catchy, the lyrics are so witty (especially the “Mais oui! / We may” pun), and they fit the music perfectly (which is also beautifully arranged by Don Walker). And yet I suspect even most Sondheim fans haven’t heard of this song. How good do you have to be for this not to make the list of your hundred greatest songs?

Or consider “Silly People”, cut from A Little Night Music for length. This is a better song than many theatrical composer-lyricists write in their entire lifetime, but it never even made it to the stage:

People justly praise Sondheim’s wordsmithery, but one of my favourite lyrics of his is, “I’m fine, Johanna, I’m fine”, sung by Sweeney Todd to his absent daughter as he slits a customer’s throat (warning: the video link is pretty graphic!). It’s not a clever line, it’s not a pun, it’s not a novel rhyme, but it’s so moving. In one uncomplicated line, we get Sweeney Todd’s motivation (reconnecting with his daughter), and the tragedy of its impossibility (he’s too damaged and deluded).

For myself, I’m not going to remember Steve for his cleverness, or cultural impact. I’m going to remember him as someone who had an unusually painful experience of life, but who used his deep empathy to transform his pain into something beautiful.

I’ll miss him.

Contact me

Young Stephen Sondheim

An intermediate piano arrangement of Evanescence’s My Immortal. The LH uses a lot of arpeggiated root-5th-root chords.

A beginner piano arrangement of Vanessa Williams’s Save the Best for Last, written by Phil Galdston, Wendy Waldman, and Jon Lind.

An intermediate piano arrangement of The ‘In’ Crowd by Billy Page, as played by The Ramsey Lewis Trio. Coda transcribed by Roc Vega Vegara.

A beginner piano arrangement of John Lennon’s Norwegian Wood, performed by The Beatles, which later became the title of a Murakami novel.