The Sondheim Tapes

March 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

In early recovery, I was sponsoring someone who ended up sponsoring me.  Bob F. was the house manager of a theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and before that he had been a sheriff in a town in Connecticut that I forget the name of, if I ever knew it, which I don’t think Bob ever told me.  Bob was sponsoring me because he knew a lot more about how to be in a relationship than I did and I wanted to be in a relationship with somebody.  I was sober now.  It was time to meet some fellow citizens!

But I wasn’t quite sober enough.  In those first sleepless days of sobriety, I would get crushes on guys who were very newly sober and whenever that would happen, Bob, the good sponsor, would ask as a way of gauging the seriousness of the crush (and thus the potentially disastrous aftershock of being crushed by the crush) did you give them the Sondheim tapes yet?  He was referring to that moment where – because these crushes were always on people who were too young to know Stephen Sondheim’s music – I had come to a kind of musical rescue, turning my beautiful boys on to a beautiful kind of music they would fall madly in love with.  More than any composer I know, Sondheim’s music is in my head more than other music and I wanted my objects of obsession to hear it, too.

I loved being Stephen Sondheim’s secret messenger (though, I strongly suspect, as a group of gay men, we are legion), not only because the composer meant so much to me in my own life, but because anyone who truly appreciated him was somehow – in my humble recovering opinion – a sophisticate able to see another man as a diva, as much as the old way of seeing a woman that way.

But my dead twin trumps me when it comes to the iconic composer.  Kevin wrote letters to Sondheim and I have a shoebox in my closet full of the letters Sondheim wrote back.  The correspondence started when by brother wrote a love letter after seeing Sweeney Todd.  I don’t know what Kevin said but it must have been interesting enough for Sondheim to have written back.  Kevin was a bit of a serial letter writer and much like the fate of messages shoved into bottles, it was always a surprise whenever a message had actually reached its destination – made golden by an actual response. I remember the letters from the fiction writer Joseph Hansen to my brother as particularly filled with writerly advice – advice of someone who traveled quite a bit and was very much in the world, as opposed to my brother, who rarely left his room. You have to get out of your house and see how other people live he told him in one letter.  Kevin wrote back two words to that advice:  Emily Dickinson.

My brother’s back and forth with Sondheim was, thankfully, advice-free.  But it was also inspiration-free or, at best, inspiration-lite.  I never understood why Sondheim kept writing back because most of those letters were merely answers to Kevin’s letters and never elaborated on the public life or remotely approach the private life.  The juicer news (two standouts: a snide remark he made during Madonna’s Dick Tracy recording session about her artistic worth, and a story about Barbara Streisand taping phone calls with him in the name of “posterity”) came out when Sondheim would call my brother occasionally at the lighting store where Kevin worked in Elmsford, New York.  I don’t know what to do with the shoebox of Sondheim letters, but like Kevin’s empty wicker suitcase, I know not to throw them away.  They both sit in the darkness of their past – not saying very much about Sondheim, not saying very much about my brother.

Whenever Sondheim would call Kevin at work, someone else would answer the phone and make Stephen Sondheim calling for Kevin sound like the joke they all believed it was.  There couldn’t actually be a real Stephen Sondheim calling a clerk in a lighting store.  And my brother left the collective response alone because it was easier than saying that there was a real Stephen Sondheim.


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