Last week I attended what was certainly the single most impressive and delightful cultural gathering I've ever been invited to. It was the annual luncheon/award cermony/cocktail party given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The purpose of the gathering is ostensibly to hand out lots of different awards bestowed by various individuals (and by the Academy) on deserving members of the artistic community. I was there because my collaborators on the musical version of my movie "Two Family House" and I were the fortunate recipients of a Richard Rodgers Award. But wonderful as this part of event is, the real purpose is to see how many cultural giants can be squeezed into one building on the island of Manhattan.

Everywhere I looked I saw another mega-star of their respective field; look, there's Meryl Streep, look there's Edward Albee, oh hello it's James Levine, gee isn't that Bill Moyers, my look at Calvin Trillin, hey Gunther Schuller!, but wait isn't that Garrison Keillor?, why Ed Ruscha!, hello Hal Holbrook!, ah of course it's Chuck Close etc. etc. You get the idea.

Most impressive of all (to me at least) was the presence of the most famous 80 year old in the country (world?)--the legendary Stephen Sondheim. I say most famous not just because he actually is awfully famous, but because this birthday year has brought forth an unending number of tributes to him--shows, articles, essays, ceremonies etc. And lets face it, if you love musical theater you'd be hard pressed not to be awestruck by the man's accomplishments.

Sondheim was there to present the Richard Rodgers award to us and to the other team whose musical also won. I looked forward to what would no doubt be a brief encounter with him--a handshake, congrats, here's your check, good luck kind of moment. So imagine my shock when I found my namecard at the luncheon table and noticed that the person sitting next to me was going to be...Sondheim? Well, of course I was delighted--but also a bit concerned. For while I know just about everything there is to know about his work, I'd always gotten the impression that he was stand-offish, a bit aloof and apart, not quite of this earth.

He arrived at the table and we introduced ourselves. I began by wishing him a happy birthday. "Gee, how did you know?" he said sardonically, which I thought was terrific. And then for the next half hour we had a superb talk. Far from being distant, he is the very embodiment of old-school Broadway showfolk. We talked tales of "West Side Story", Jerone Robbins, Hal Prince, strangest ideas ever for musicals (one of which was a show he told me about called "New Girl In Town", a musicalization of O'Neill's "Anna Christie"...hmmm) and most interestingly we discovered a mutual passion for Bang and Olufsen audio gear. Not for how they sound (neither of us are, it turns out, all that picky about audio) but for how groovy they look. I told him I frequently stood in front of the B&O shop on Madison and 75th and stared at the equipment as if staring at sculpture. "You and me both", said SS. Suffice to say the above photo--Sondheim is center, natch--was captured after lunch and the rest of the afternoon (the awards ceremony) was somethng of a happy blur.

So H.b'day, SS, and thanks again for helping choose "Buddy's Tavern"-- our musical--to receive this wonderful award. Without eight years of hard work on the show, I would never have gotten a truly wonderful half hour in the presence of one of the worlds greatest artists and genuinely menschy fellows.

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