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From Our Community

Conversations with Sondheim

side by side photos of Phillip Gainsley and Stephen Sondheim
Phillip Gainsley and Stephen Sondheim

Phillip Gainsley—a longtime Minnesota Orchestra patron and frequent host of pre-concert discussions at Orchestra Hall—shares reflections on his correspondence and conversations with the composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who passed away last month at the age of 91.

Sometime in the spring of 1970, after seeing the Broadway musical Company, I wrote its composer/lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, simply to tell him how highly I thought of his show. 

That began 51 years of correspondence between us. 

I might write a letter of a few paragraphs and he would respond with a sentence. But what a sentence. Each word had meaning. And there nearly always was a response.

In 1971, I mentioned to him how unfortunate it was that the original cast recording of Follies didn’t contain all of the show’s songs. In response, he sent me, on two cassette tapes, the entire show, made with a recorder he personally planted on the stage, out of sight.

In 2002, the Lyric Opera of Chicago invited me to interview him when Sweeney Todd opened there. On that cold November night there was a line out the door of the Cultural Center. One of the city’s newspapers, reviewing our conversation, called me “the right man for the job.” In fact, it was Stephen who made it work. He was gracious, humorous, forthcoming and quite revealing about his art. It was the first I knew of his admiration of the works of Bernard Herrmann including the score for the 1945 movie Hangover Square, which influenced Sweeney Todd. Indeed, he said there and then that Sweeney Todd was his homage to Herrmann. It’s the first time I heard that.

A few months later, for the New York City Opera I hosted a panel with him at the Guggenheim Museum to discuss his A Little Night Music. He didn’t want to be there. A water pipe had just burst in his apartment, and the damage was consequential, especially to his antique puzzle collection. In the green room, knowing I was an attorney, he asked me about insurance coverage, deductibles and subrogation, a far cry from Night Music.

I remember two Sondheimisms from that night: First, when we were introduced and took our places, he whispered, in a good-natured attempt to fluster me, “Remember, Phil, this isn’t Sweeney Todd.” And when the discussion was ending, and I was thanking the panel-members and saying “good night,” he so adroitly bent my ear, “Thank the pianist.” He sensed that I would have overlooked him, and he was right. He saved me from an embarrassment.

There are very few people in one’s lifetime who leave their mark. And to get to know them personally is a high honor. Stephen Sondheim left his mark, and for that I will be forever grateful. His last words to me were on a video he sent me a year ago: “Happy Birthday, Phil, and keep doing it ’til you get it right.”

He always got it right.

Phillip Gainsley has been speaking about music for over 40 years. For 30 years he was a regular panelist on the “Opera Quiz” heard during the intermissions of the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. He currently writes performance reviews for Opera News magazine, and he is a speaker for the Metropolitan Opera Guild. Gainsley has a podcast devoted to classical music and music theater.

Gainsley has hosted orchestra and opera panel discussions with composers, soloists and conductors. His program notes have been published in Minnesota Orchestra’s Showcase magazine and in programs for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera and the Aspen Music Festival. He has hosted Minnesota Orchestra pre-concert discussions since 2004, and he currently records interviews for the oral history project of the Orchestra's archives.