It is a truth universally acknowledged among members of the theater community and those who wish to be that if you write Stephen Sondheim a letter (or an email, in this electronic age), he will write you back. His response will likely be brief, but grammatically perfect, elegantly composed, and brimming with wry—if occasionally condescending—humor.
One of the people to whom he frequently wrote was his friend, collaborator, and sometimes implacable enemy Arthur Laurents, the writer and director who wrote the books to many of Sondheim’s best known—or at least, most commercial—works (Gypsy, anyone? West Side Story?) When Laurents died in 2001 at the age of 93, he left his enormous and meticulously hoarded trove of letters, journals, and other papers to the Library of Congress with instructions to grant the public “unrestricted access.”
This may be a typical move for the famously vindictive Laurents, knowing surely as he did that many of the subjects—not to mention authors—of his papers would prefer the contests be lost to the music of time. (Even in death, Arthur!) Chief among these complainants is Sondheim himself, whose lawyer has written a letter threatening legal action if any of his correspondence is published, and who, in a very reasonable sounding email to the New York Post’s theater columnist Michael Riedel, cited a concern for hurting the feelings of friends and colleagues about whom he may have engaged in gossip some 40 years ago.
I’m as disappointed as anyone, but I have to say it speaks tremendously well of a man I already admire more than virtually any other person on the planet. We all talk behind the backs of people we love, and the reason we do this is to spare their feelings. Only sociopaths and Real Housewives seem to find virtue in insulting people right to their faces. The rest of just vent in snide emails we hope no one will ever see, unless they’re dedicated enough to schlep down to Washington to pour over the most important literary discovery since the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Except these are obviously way more important.) In fact, what seems clear is that Stephen Sondheim has articulated a lashon hara rule that’s actually possible for human beings to keep.
Look, it’s impossible not to gossip—it’s how we bond with others. What’s possible is to try to spare the feelings of your subjects. So along with composer, lyricist, dramatist, genius, god, and every other accolade Sondheim has accrued over his lengthy and distinguished career, we offer him one more: rabbi.
And I can’t wait to tune in next week to hear what he really thinks of Barbra.