Entertaining Celebrity II

An evening with Stephen Sondheim is one of life’s great pleasures.

He is charming.  Funny.  Insightful.  A lifetime of experience distilled into an hour and a half on stage.  It’s an encounter I won’t soon forget.

He’s learned to relax more around crowds, I think.  In his early years he was known for his snappy temper and anti-social habits.  His mother fucked him up in the head, and for many years he was in therapy because of the mental abuse heaped upon him by “Foxy” Sondheim.  (I can somewhat relate.)  At the same time, while on stage he erected a certain barrier between himself and the audience, and was expert at telepathically letting everyone know, somehow, that certain subjects, certain questions, and a certain familiarity, were strictly off-limits.  He did it with great graciousness and skill, but, for example, I knew instantly he would not be sticking around afterwards for autographs, chat, or anything else, and such was the case.  I didn’t even bother to ask the many many security guards forming a perimeter around his general space (President Obama, take note: this is how you want your security detail to behave) whether I could speak with him.  There was no doubt of the answer.

Oddly, though, I had already decided I didn’t want to seek him out.  There was something about what he put forth that was just enough.  To ask him more or pursue him beyond the generous hour and a half he allowed didn’t seem dignified, and Sondheim above all exudes dignity.  Oddly, I felt no such qualms a couple years ago when I met, after a Broadway performance, Claire Danes.  Maybe it’s because, at 79, Sondheim has earned a certain right to privacy and isolation that the young Ms. Danes, still forming and formulating her career, hasn’t.  That night I realized there just may be different levels of celebrity and privacy for different people.  I recall a story Isaac Asimov told in his autobiography where as a boy he encountered Albert Einstein in a museum.  Asimov says a crowd followed Einstein but always at a respectable distance and in utmost silence, “Without anyone being crass enough to ask for an autograph.”  I understand that feeling now.  So I’m afraid I got no afterwards photos of me and Mr. Sondheim, no autographs of the Playbill to show off—and for some reason I’m not the least bit upset that I didn’t.  I don’t think anyone else in the audience sought him out  either.

I didn’t even get any pictures of him on the stage.  I was seated quite a few rows back, and in the lighting that was available I knew I’d getting nothing more than a bright smudge in a sea of darkness, unless I used a flash, and the stage crew vowed to eject anybody who did such a thing.  No one else as far as I could tell attempted a photo either.

Mr. Sondheim said he’d never been to Santa Rosa before or even north of San Francisco, a city he’d visited only about six times in his life.  He really is an east-coast guy.  Odds are that he won’t be back either, as he doesn’t travel much, and certainly not to the west coast.  So I consider myself lucky–photo or no photo.

3 responses

  1. Charles

    So was there any particular concept he was trying to bring across, or was it really more like a fireside cozy discussion?


    October 26, 2009 at 3:46 pm

  2. He talked about his life and work, and took questions from the audience pre-submitted on slips of paper at the door. I wrote one, but they never got to it. he also talked about revivals of works, and mentioned that talks for a motion-picture version of Follies are going on, though in VERY preliminary stages. Hope I didn’t jinx it.


    October 26, 2009 at 4:12 pm

  3. James Hartmann

    Wow, I envy you. I too live in the Bay Area (Millbrae) and I had no idea he was appearing, or I’d have been there. Hopefully someday he’ll come back. And I can really relate to what you wrote about fame and our reaction to it, by the way. Great blog, keep it coming.


    October 26, 2009 at 6:10 pm

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