The King is dead. There is no reprise for Stephen Sondheim. The theater community is singing in a minor key, and all of the Broadway curtains are at half mast. And though I knew this day was coming, I dreaded it. It seems the perfect time to share my own story to keep the memory alive long after he’s gone.
First, a bit of historical context. I’ve been a songwriter since my teen years. I wrote pop songs, and when it became popular, I tried my hand at some disco songs too. But I can’t say I felt fulfilled writing lyrics like “ohh ohh, Baby, spin me round the floor…”
In 1978, my friend Linda and I met at the TKTS booth in Times Square, eager for a matinee at half price. It was always kind of exciting to stand in that line, because you never really knew what you would end up seeing that day. When we got to the front of the line, Linda suggested we see Sweeney Todd which was in previews. I’m embarrassed to say I had not yet heard of it, nor did I really know anything about Stephen Sondheim beyond West Side Story. But I trusted Linda’s judgment, and we bought our tickets and settled into our seats. I had no idea what to expect. Little did I know I was in for the ride of my life that would change me forever!
I sat transfixed. I didn’t know it was possible to write intelligent lyrics that illuminated the story in such a profound way. The song before the curtain came down on the first act was A Little Priest. My jaw dropped. I clearly remember stepping into the lobby during intermission, a little dazed and more than a little overwhelmed. I had never seen or heard anything like it.
In that moment, my songwriting life changed forever. It recharged my love for musical theater, which I had long-ago abandoned even though it had been my first love in my childhood. In fact, by the time I was 6 years old, I could sing the entire scores of Oklahoma, Carousel, The Sound of Music, Guys & Dolls, The Pajama Game, and The King & I, and even had a chance to play the lead in many of them at summer camp as I was growing up. But like stuffed animals, finger-painting and snowball fights, I put away Broadway as I started to listen to The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Cat Stevens and other singer-songwriters who began to shape my writing. Until the fateful day that Sweeney Todd, as gruesome as it was, returned me to my first love.
From there, it was like feeding a hungry Sondheim fire. I spent hours and hours at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library, watching grainy videos and pouring over the lyrics of the musicals I’d missed - Gypsy, Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures and Anyone Can Whistle. I basically went to school on his lyric writing, stoking a new fire within me.
I turned my back on my pop music career that never happened, and went full force into musical theater. I wrote a few songs in a writing workshop based on an old film, Ruggles of Redgap, and used them to audition for the new semester at the prestigious BMI Musical Theater workshop run by renowned Broadway legend, Lehman Engel. I was more excited at being accepted into the workshop than I was when I was accepted to college. I sharpened my pencils and headed into this new exciting world.
And of course, when Merrily We Roll Along prepared for its Broadway opening, I made sure to go to a preview so that I would not be influenced by what the typically harsh critics might have to say. And the truth is, the musical absolutely did not work the way it was written. But the score was brilliant.
As expected, when the show opened, the critics skewered it and Sondheim. But to me, the score sparkled like a gem, and I studied the lyrics marveling at his deftness. I was so moved by his genius that I composed a letter of appreciation. I knew his address because I had found the elegant little brass nameplate outside his townhouse on 49th Street on the East side. I used to walk down his block on my way to my job as a singing waitress on 2nd Avenue and 52nd Street, sometimes pausing to reverently touch his name by the bell, hoping somehow that I would be graced with his talent.
In the letter, I basically told him that I was a budding musical theater writer, going to school on his lyrics and that he has taught me so much about the craft of lyric writing. I gushed with appreciation, and mentioned how much I loved Merrily. (Secretly, I was trying to soothe the sting of the critics opinions.) On my way to the mailbox, letter in hand, I bumped into a neighbor. He asked what I was doing.
“I just wrote a letter to Stephen Sondheim and I’m heading to the mailbox,” I replied, waving the letter as proof.
“Cool! Did you ask him if you can be his apprentice? Sharpen his pencils?”
“No… None of that. I just told him how much I appreciate his writing. I just want to make his day.” And with that, I gave the mailbox flap an extra wiggle to make sure the letter dropped in.
A few days later, I received a response. It’s simply said, “Dear Sandi Kimmel, Thank you for your lovely letter. It made my day. Sincerely, Stephen Sondheim” I was over the moon! And I especially loved the fact that the letter had done exactly what I had intended. I went away for the weekend with a happy glow.
When I got back to my apartment building late on Sunday evening, the Super had left a note on my door to inform me that he had a package for me. I knocked, and he handed me the most beautiful floral arrangement I had ever seen. It was simple and elegant, with exotic blooms in a white ceramic globe vase. I searched the box for a card, but all I found was the address and phone number of the florist shop on East End Avenue and 51st Street.
I called the shop the next morning explaining that I had received this beautiful floral arrangement but that the card must have inadvertently gotten lost before the delivery. The florist was very nice and started rifling through his orders to find mine.
“Oh, yes. Here it is… Oh, I’m terribly sorry, but the invoice is marked Do Not Reveal Sender.”
“What? You’re kidding, right?”
“Can you at least tell me the initials? I can’t think of anyone in my life who would want to send me flowers anonymously. Everyone I know would definitely want the credit…”
“I’m sorry, but doctors offices and florists uphold the same strict confidentiality. I wish I could help you, but I can’t tell you anything.”
I asked everyone I knew who might send me flowers - my brother, my father, friends who might want to surprise me - but no one claimed credit for them. In due time, the flowers died but I kept the little white vase which I still have to this day. Of course.
After I told my next-door neighbor and theater buddy, Allan, about the letter and the mystery, I let it go without knowing the identity of my mystery sender.
Allan was very involved with the theater community and invited me to a party of theater folks. He had a good friend named Steve who was a rehearsal pianist for Sondheim. When we got to the party, his friend was at the piano. “Tell him the story of your mystery flowers,” Allan prompted. “I know he’d find it very interesting.” I did. His response floored me…
“Oh, I can guarantee that was Sondheim. It sounds EXACTLY like something he would do. You know, he’s a great puzzler, and wanted it to be a game for you. Really, all he wanted to do was to make your day…the way you made his.”
And so he did.
He still does.