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Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim took time to mentor young creatives. Here's what it meant to them

Stephen Sondheim died in late 2021, but his influence, through letters and mentorship, continues to shape the world of musical theater.
Sondheim Letters
"He was always in production, always involved with something, and yet he always found the time to mentor, to return every individual letter and email," Tony-winning composer Stephen Flaherty said.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images/ @sondheimletters via Instagram
/ Source: TODAY

When Stephen Sondheim, creator of musicals like "Sweeney Todd" and "Into the Woods," died in November, the theater community lost more than a towering composer, lyricist and writer: Sondheim was a champion of others’ work and a source of kindness for hundreds of performers and creators.

The late composer had a legendary habit of responding to seemingly every letter he received and corresponding with fellow musical theater lovers at all levels. A new Instagram account titled "Letters from Sondheim" sprung up shortly after his death and has become a record of more than 250 letters that Sondheim sent to fans, performers and other creatives. According to account creator Natalie Jasso, more letters are submitted every day.

Jasso said that she started the account after seeing the film "Tick, Tick... Boom!" which chronicles the struggles of "Rent" creator Jonathan Larson. After the film was released, movie director Lin-Manuel Miranda shared a letter that Sondheim had written recommending Larson. (Sondheim himself is a character in the movie, played by Bradley Whitford.)

"I just thought it was the coolest thing ever and so I saved it in my phone and I thought ... if I ever need inspiration or just a smile, I'm going to look at that letter," Jasso said. "And then, with his passing, people began posting letters of their own and I was like 'Oh my gosh, he wrote to everyone.' ... It was a bright spot in a really sad moment."

After realizing that there was no other online location chronicling the letters, Jasso created the Instagram account. She said that she's heard from theatrical stars like Dave Malloy, who composed the Tony Award-winning musical "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," and plenty of other fans and performers.

Stephen Flaherty, the Tony-winning composer behind musicals like "Once on This Island" and "Anastasia," began corresponding with Sondheim while he was still a college student.

"The thing that's startling is when you think of how he, for decades and decades, was the preeminent writer for the American musical theater. He was always in production, always involved with something, and yet he always found the time to mentor, to return every individual letter and email," Flaherty said. Flaherty was unable to provide an image of his letters from Sondheim because he was traveling when interviewed. "It was astounding to me."

In 1982, when Flaherty moved to New York City at 21, he sent Sondheim another letter, seeking "benediction from the god of musical theater," and received an offer from Sondheim to call him when he arrived in the city. After the call, the two made plans to meet, and Flaherty remembered Sondheim being in a "depressed" state when they met, since one of his musicals had recently closed on Broadway and he was feeling "burned" by the experience, and talking about giving up on writing.

"I was expecting him to give me inspirational words and platitudes, and here he was being a real human being to a total stranger," Flaherty recalled. "And I admired that."

After the encounter, Flaherty left some writing samples with Sondheim, and the creator's feedback inspired Flaherty to begin looking for someone to collaborate with, eventually leading to a partnership with Tony-winning lyricist Lynn Ahrens.

Tony Award-winner Lynn Ahrens said that she keeps her 2008 letter from Sondheim framed on her wall and joked that she might be buried with it. The letter compliments her song "Times Like These," which Sondheim gave feedback on in the 1980s. Courtesy Lynn Ahrens

Ahrens said that while she hasn't submitted her own letter from Sondheim to the Instagram account, she does keep a letter that he sent her in 2008 framed on her wall. The letter commented on a song that she had written in the 1980s — a song that Sondheim himself had given important feedback on early in its development.

"It's just sitting there on my wall," Ahrens said. "It's going to get buried with me. ... I'm sure he doesn't remember that he was responsible for us writing that song. That's just one example of a kindness and a letter that was, out of the blue, that was so meaningful to me. He had such a soul."

It wasn't just acclaimed creators and professionals who Sondheim wrote to: Charlie Siedenburg, a professor at Wagner College and the press director of New York's Barrington Stage Company, fondly recalled corresponding with Sondheim in the mid-1980s. After performing in a community theater production of Sondheim's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," Siedenburg sent him a note in 1985 wishing him a happy birthday and saying that he was a fan. Later, the two met in person.

"I wrote him, telling him about myself ... And we set up a time for me to go to his house and meet him and we chatted that day, and he gave me an autographed album," Seidenburg said. "I wrote him again, thanking him and saying 'I hope we can meet again,' and we met again."

Charlie Siedenburg shared two letters that he exchanged with Sondheim earlier in his life, as well as two autographed albums that the late creator gave him. He referred to his brief interactions with Sondheim as his "brush with the master of musical theater." Courtesy Charlie Siedenburg

Everyone we spoke to who corresponded with Sondheim also recalled his impact beyond letters. Seidenburg told a story about the theatrical titan speaking to a close friend of his for a thesis project she was working on to complete her doctorate degree, and Flaherty remembered a time that Sondheim recommended him for theatrical tour of Eastern Europe that "changed" the way he thought about creating theater. Sondheim also founded the Young Playwrights Festival at Playwrights Horizon, which went on to nurture creators like Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage.

Flaherty also recalled seeing him "about town" in New York City, attending and supporting early workshops and readings of new work.

"He was very much in the trenches with us," Flaherty said. "You would think he would be so rarified and so removed from the everyday world, and he was the opposite of that."

Ahrens also remembered a time that Sondheim recommended her and Flaherty for a film project.

"He was just extraordinary," Ahrens said. "One time somebody called us from Hollywood, they were checking us out before 'Anastasia' (which premiered on Broadway in 2016). And somebody said, 'Oh, Steve Sondheim recommended you.' And I will never forget that, because I had no idea. He didn't tell us. He just said, you know, 'Have a look at these kids' ... and that's how Hollywood came to us."

On Instagram, Jasso said that people who send images of their correspondence with Sondheim often give context, like how Sondheim's feedback influenced them and recollections of other times they interacted with him.

"Being the recipient of somebody's treasure ... entrusting me to post a letter and give that background on what that communication was about and what it was for, it's truly an honor," Jasso said.

Ahrens said that Sondheim's tendency to respond to fans and nurture performers and creators helped establish a legacy that goes beyond his work. Flaherty said that Sondheim's influence inspired his own decision to mentor other writers and creators.

"He would write to people and support them and do things behind (their) backs to help their young writing careers," Ahrens said. "It's really something. ... Obviously he changed the world of theater, but I think he changed a lot of careers, too."

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