In 2014, I produced Tick, Tick…Boom! as part of the Encores Off-Center program at City Center, then a new program designed to celebrate smaller musicals, primarily those that had first played Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway. Lin-Manuel Miranda had pitched the show to me over eggs and coffee at a Times Square diner, and I had immediately agreed. His relationship with the show, his unbridled enthusiasm for what Jonathan Larson had ignited in him—it was a golden idea.
Part of my programming for Off-Center included what became known as the Lobby Projects: short and hopefully revelatory events held in the City Center lobby before each performance. Unlike talkback sessions after a work, these events were designed to provide a context for the work, points of entry.
One night was an event called The Sondheim Remix. Given Jonathan’s close relationship to Steve, I had asked for permission to invite theatre writers to create variations on any song from Sunday in the Park With George. He granted that permission, as well as his blessing for them to change words and harmonies, letting his work serve only as inspiration; five would be chosen to play for Steve in the intimate setting of the upper lobby at City Center before the final performance of Tick, Tick…Boom!. We received hundreds of submissions in all conceivable genres: math rock, emo, spoken word. Steve delighted in this news, and in the notion that his work had inspired these writers—so many young people!
On the night of the concert, I greeted Steve at the stage door. He pulled me aside. “Jeanine,” he said, “Mary Rodgers died today and my heart is broken. I had to show up for these young people, but I just can’t stay to see the show.” I put a glass of wine in his hand and we silently walked up as the gathered crowd upstairs waited for the Arrival of Stephen Sondheim.
They sang directly to him that night, his eyes closed as he listened, smiling with each new idea, every surprising chord or turn of phrase. Finally, George Abud sang his rendition of “Children and Art,” gently accompanying himself on the oud, his version exploring his own relationship to his father. Tears streamed down Steve’s face.
He ended up staying to see the performance of Tick, Tick…Boom! that night after all, his heart clearly broken, but also full. Perhaps it’s possible to be broken by life and restored by each other. Maybe that’s what I witnessed that night in June 2014, a tiny miracle on 55th Street.
Stephen Sondheim wasn’t a father, but he parented a lot of us, and he made a lot of work.
So, yes. Children. And Art.
Jeanine Tesori (she/her) is the composer of Fun Home, Violet, Caroline, or Change, Soft Power, Shrek, the Musical, and the new Kimberly Akimbo. She was also the vocal producer for the new film of West Side Story.
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