Sondheim, Stephen. (1930–2021)

Archive of Personal Letters

An important archive of 41 letters, notes and cards written by the great composer/lyricist to the writer Robin Swados, spanning a period of 38 years from 1977 to 2015. The correspondence began when the aspiring young writer wrote a long letter in August, 1977 to Sondheim beginning "I don't know why I've waited a number of years to write this letter - perhaps because I've always been in awe of your musicianship. This is to simply let you know the very great, unending pleasure I get from your songs. At the ripe old age of 24, I think I can safely say that your music has had a more profound influence on me than any other I've heard up to this point."  In response, less than one week later, Sondheim replied "Thank you so much for your articulate and complimentary letter - you did my ego no end of good" and invited Swados to meet and talk after Labor Day. They did in fact connect in person for the first time that September and over the following nearly 4 decades, corresponded at interval.  The present archive is extraordinary and most unusual in that it includes not only the letters from Sondheim, but also retained copies of nearly all the letters from Swados, providing invaluable context and texture to even the shorter notes from Sondheim. An early letter of November 28, 1977 opens by noting that "as per my phone call to you last week, I'm enclosing your book of songs...thank you a lot for inscribing it to me." The spiral-bound book "The Hansen Treasury of Stephen Sondheim Songs" (Charles Hansen, 1962) with detached front cover, is included in the archive, inscribed as promised on the Table of Contents "To Robin Swados and his white piano, on which these songs sound appreciably better - Steve Sondheim  12/1/77."

Robin Swados has had a long and varied career as a playwright, prose writer, editor, copy editor, and copywriter. Trained as a classical pianist, following studies in Amherst and in London at the acting academy Studio '68 of Theater Arts, Swados began his acting career in Manhattan in 1975 and first wrote to Sondheim shortly before moving to Los Angeles in 1978, where he spent six years acting in theater and television, before returning to New York in 1984, soon abandoning his acting career and turning to writing. His first play, A Quiet End, was first performed at the London 1985 Gay Sweatshop theater festival, has subsequently been produced at many theaters across the United States, and has been published by Samuel French, Inc. and anthologized in Gay & Lesbian Plays Today. From 1988 to 1999, Swados was an editor at Knopf and Doubleday, later working as an independent travel writer, copy editor and copywriter. 

The correspondence generally typed and signed letters on personal letterhead, most one page in length, signed "Steve." In fine condition. After the two previously quoted above, the letters follow in chronological order, some text edited for concision, or in the case of very minor content, only dates provided.

December 1, 1977: "I, too, am fascinated by the man who was hawking the Warner Bros. album ---I've been having trouble trying to find the album myself.  If I'd known, I would have bought a dozen.  Good luck on the play -- I'll certainly come to see it if and when.  Meanwhile, have a lovely Christmas and give the piano a kiss for me."; February 2, 1978: "I don't know of anything at the moment, but I'll certainly keep at least an ear and an eye open." ; June 5, 1978: "What can I say except bon voyage? And, as one who toiled for five months in the land of television (the Topper series, writing scripts for which was my first job), let me advise you not to worry about 'corrupt aesthetics.' Think of it as a job which is better than selling books or waiting table --which it is. And come back soon."; August 28, 1978: "No, I didn't meet your brother --or perhaps he wasn't introduced to me. Curiously enough, they liked the score a lot (I say curiously since it leans over the operatic side of the precipice). But the deal they've offered is pretty poor, so I rather doubt it we will be connected with them.  I will pass your information about the harpist (there will certainly be a harp part in the score) to our conductor, Paul Gemignani.  Hope you're finding something to keep your mind busy in the Land of the Dead. You know what Fred Allen said about your temporary home: 'When it's nine o'clock in New york, it's 1937 in Los Angeles."; March 7, 1979: "Thanks for the letter and the good wishes. They seem to have worked -- so far, at least. Most of the reviews are terrific and, more important, most of the audiences seems to like the show. So will you."; May 4, 1979: "Thanks for the letter, but be assured that I'm recuperating on schedule and expect to be pronounced officially "healed" in a couple of weeks. After which, it's a matter of taking the right precautions -- which unfortunately include exercise."; October 27, 1980: "How modest of you -- you certainly needn't have reminded of either your sex or yourself. My memory is indeed failing, but not to that extent. In any event, I'm so happy to be responsible for the first step in your inevitable degradation. Congratulations!"; May 2, 1984: "Sorry to not have replied earlier but, as you can guess, I've been frantically busy trying to complete a score that should have been complete in February. Glad to see you've discovered the horror of writing lyrics: it always depresses me when I read interviews with lyricists in which they say how easy it is. Welcome back to the Apple. And come see the show as my guest whenever you want to."; June 22, 1984: "First of all, learn to sign your name legibly -- until halfway through your letter I didn't know who you were, and if you're not going to put your name on the envelope, give those of us who don't know your signature a break. And the reason I was in such a swivet was that the letter was so articulate and person and exactly the kind of response Jim and I hoped to get. As for "smarting", you better get used to it. I'm still not (used to it, that is), and I keep waiting in vain for it to abate but in fact, the more personal your work, the less chance you have for anything but increased hostility. Let the show heal you -- that's its purpose. You refer to a piece in The New Criterion -- if you have a copy, I'd love to read it. And I got a nice note from your mother, too. So thank you both."; June 28, 1984: "Thanks for the article. Whatever her opinions, her reportage leaves much to be desired. She attributes lines (misquoted) to characters who don't speak them or sing them. Nevertheless...P.S. I didn't find your letter self-pitying at all, incidentally --- I was merely telling you that you're not the only one."; July 25, 1984: "Sounds good to me -- good luck!"; September 5, 1984: "Thanks for the posy. I feel perfectly fine and (according to the doctors) am. It was just a scare -- although it was plenty scary, let me tell you."; October 17, 1984: "Don't believe what you read in the papers: I have no 'pains in the chest'. And I live in a house with four flights of stairs, so there's no excuse for me not to see you in November. If you want me to come, just say so. I hope you got to see Sweeney Todd with Joyce Castle, who's the best Mrs. Lovett we ever had, but I suspect you saw Rosalyn Elias, who, to put it mildly, isn't. Double casting is just one more thing I don't like about opera. Good luck to us both next week."; October 31, 1984: "I've lost your flyer -- send me another one so that I can make plans to see your play. I'm sorry you saw Rosalind Elias -- you should have seen Joyce Castle, who's even better than Angela in many ways. I must say that I did not notice the lack of musical synchron[o]city that you did, but perhaps you saw one of the performances I didn't. Generally, (with the exception of the above) I liked the production and performance. Curiously enough, the one other performance I didn't like was William Dansby. Perhaps we'll never agree."; January 4, 1985: "You and the pictures look great. But I'm still glad to hear that you're back writing. P.S. As Tony Perkins said to me a couple of days ago, 'Have a great 1985. I give it six months."; March 3, 1987: "Much as I'd like to see it, I'll be in Connecticut, where I'm hermetically sealed until I finish the new score and four new songs for the London Follies. It does sound terrific, though -- congratulations!"; November 16, 1988: "Congratulations! I'd love to come to the reading, but I'll be up in Connecticut for the Thanksgiving day weekend and thereafter, having just returned (I hope) from opening the Into the Woods road company in sunny (ugh) Florida. Have you got a copy I could read?"; December 12, 1989: "It's a year late, but I finally got around to reading your script (having finished the score of Assassins). I like it a lot. Thanks for letting me read it and for your (I presume) patience. Merry Christmas."; December 14, 1990: "I don't agree with you, and don't think you've looked into it enough, but this is not a good time for me to try and persuade you otherwise, as life is very hectic. At any rate, thanks for sending me a copy of your complaint, and let me know if you get no response within the next few weeks."; April 17, 1992: "Thanks for the long letter, but the pitch wasn't necessary: I have in fact been making notes for a book of collected lyrics for a couple of years, partly because I've always wanted to write some essays on the craft and partly as the request of Nick Hern, an English publisher. What I want to do is write both commentaries on the lyrics themselves and ruminations and explications of the craft. It's a slow craft, as I don't enjoy writing prose, but I'm trying to dictate a lot of it. Other American publishers have shown an interest in it, frankly, but give me a nudge in a month or so and I'll tell you where I am. As for the biography, no thanks. Besides which, Martin Gottfried is doing a book on me for Harry Abrams -- it has only one chapter of biography, the rest being a critical discussion of the work. One is enough."; April 23, 1992: "I've passed your letter on to Flora Roberts. It all sounds swell to me. If I ever get around to writing the book."; August 5, 1992: "I'm delighted you're coming to the Poetry Society, but it does make me feel guilty. Wouldn't you rather save the money and I'll send you an audiotape of the occasion? If not, I'll see you there. As for a tuxedo, just come in a suit and tell them that the cleaner ruined yours. I'm sure you won't be the only one."; September 25, 1992: "Thanks for the note, not to mention the compliments. I wasn't quite as pleased as you, but I was certainly flattered. It would indeed be nice to have a drink with you, but I'll be going to London just as you're returning from Paris, as Assassins starts public performances there on the 22nd. Give me a call after November 1st when I'm back in town, and we'll definitely get together."; March 24, 1993: "Thanks for the remembrance, the flowers and the hug. I return the latter."; October 27, 1993: "Thanks for the newsy letter. I'm not going to reply in kind, since I'm up against a deadline again because we had our workshop of Passione d'Amore a couple weeks ago and it went well. Which is good and bad news -- good because it went well and bad because I have to finish it. I've read about the Conroy book and of course was intrigued. I didn't read 'Stop Time', but I've read some short pieces of his and liked them a lot. I promise to plunge in, but not till I finish what I'm doing. As will probably not surprise you, I have no idea whom to recommend to you for the study of piano composition. The gulf between songwriting, no matter how serious, and what you're talking about is greater than you think, I fear. Anyway, I'm glad to hear you're coming out of the funk (I assume that's what you mean by 'cloudiness') and turning your energies to dangerous and frightening stuff."; November 19, 1993: "Thanks a million for the book. Limited as my admiration for the man is, it's a terrific tome to have. And it does indeed look great."; April 28, 1994: "Thanks a million for the letter. It couldn't have come at a better time."; March 20, 1995: "Thanks."; February 29, 2000: "Thanks for the note and the enthusiasm. And for trying to convert the young. I'm glad to hear you're writing again - you actually sound happy."; December 2, 2003: "I'm sorry to hear about your recent tsurises, but glad that you seem to be coming out of them. As for having a drink together, I'd enjoy it very much, but I'm going off to London at the end of the week and won't be coming back till just before Christmas. After the holidays. perhaps? Have a good one yourself."; October 26, 2005: "Thanks so much for the letter. It made my day."; December 6, 2007: "Thanks for the letter and the compliments. Music does have the most remarkable power to heal people, doesn't it? I'm so glad that it brought you joy not only to your mother but to you. As for the movie, just ignore any preconceptions you have of it when you go to see it, and you'll probably have a very good time. Yes indeed, it is bloody, but it's operatic blood - it has no relation to reality. Like the story itself."; August 19, 2008: "Thanks for the letter and the news, at least some of which is good. You need not worry about my health. The reason I didn't go to the Tony Awards is simply that I had made other plans before I found out about it. Good luck with the play. I'm not in the city a lot these days, but send me the schedule when it's up and running."; November 18, 2008: "By all means, call my assistant Steve Clar about house seats. As for your missing Bounce in L.A., you're not the only one - it never played there."; December 23, 2008: "Thanks for the note - I'm glad you liked the show as much as we do. Merry Christmas."; July 21, 2009: "Thanks for the lovely note and the compliments. And don't worry about West Side Story - you haven't missed anything. I would love to see your new apartment, and you, but I'm holed up for the summer, writing a book (Collected Lyrics and attendant essays), the first volume of which has a deadline of October. Stay cool."; January 5, 2010: "Thanks for the letter and the compliments. And a Happy New Year to all of us, please God."; August 17, 2010: "Certainly. Come over sometime with your camera and we'll do the dirty deed. I'm in town mostly on Wednesdays, sometimes Tuesdays. Give me a call next week (212-688-3486) and let's see if we can set up a time."; June 16, 2011: "Glad you liked the production of Follies. As you may have read in the paper, they've decided to bring it to New York, which means I'll get a chance to work on it."' November 23, 2015: "What can I say except goodbye for now (as the song says)? As Mary Ann Madden was wont to say whenever she parted company with somebody, 'Have a wonderful life.' And I hope you do indeed get your Golden Retriever. Our poodles make us more than happy - and I really mean more. Good luck."

One of the most important figures in twentieth-century musical theater, Sondheim was also a prolific letter writer. The present collection is as far as we are aware, only the second extensive single-correspondent archive to have come on the market either before or after his passing in 2021 and, particularly as it traces nearly 40 years of his storied career, offers unique insights into both his professional and personal life.  Credited for having "reinvented the American musical" his shows tackled "unexpected themes that range far beyond the [genre's] traditional subjects" with "music and lyrics of unprecedented complexity and sophistication" and addressed "darker, more harrowing elements of the human experience", with songs often tinged with "ambivalence" about various aspects of life. Sondheim began his career by writing the lyrics for West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959), before eventually devoting himself solely to writing both music and lyrics. His best-known works include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1987). His numerous accolades include eight Tony Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Tony in 2008), an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards, a Laurence Olivier Award, a Pulitzer Prize, a Kennedy Center Honor, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has a theater named for him both on Broadway and in the West End of London. 


Autograph Letter
Signed Photograph
Autographs & Manuscripts
Photographs & Portraiture
Film & Theater