Teri Orr: A death in the family…
The first time I heard Judy Collins sing — “Send in the Clowns” — I didn’t know it was part of some Broadway play. I just knew it was the most soulful, spot-on, heart song I had ever heard.
“… me here at last on the ground — you in midair … Send in the Clowns … Don’t bother they’re here.”
It touched my heart in a way I had not considered possible. I felt naked. Seen but safe…
I had dropped out of college to major in motherhood and then motherhood had to be shared with the hard work of starting my own business at 22. Art didn’t have a place in my home for most of my parenting years. I didn’t understand it and yet I did hunger for it.
I think of that song as my divorce song — yes, the first one. I remarried about a year after moving to Park City in 1979. And a few years later for the 40th birthday of my husband, a man who loved the theater but had never been to New York City, I planned a trip there. I sold a piece of jewelry to make it happen. (I was always doing that in those days — the pieces meant nothing to me but the experiences were of immeasurable value.)
It was 1985 and I had a friend who lived in New York City and I called him to buy us tickets to a new Broadway show — “Sunday in the Park with George” — starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. I had read about it in the New York Times. It was the first Broadway show for either of us. It was the antithesis of a happy, fast-paced, predictable musical. The sets were art, the music was both discordant and haunting. It had earned Stephen Sondheim a Pulitzer for that simple jewel of a run-on sentence song — “Sunday.”
After the show and pass through in the gift store we were meandering down the street and turned a corner that was an alleyway. Out of a side stage door stepped Bernadette. She was the tiniest little thing with a coat that had a giant turned-up, circular collar. We nodded. Shyly. We did not even consider asking for an autograph or speaking — we just were gobsmacked to have been in the street lamp shadow of Bernadette Peters.
We went straight away to Sardi’s and toasted our good fortune.
I was 35 years old and finding New York City at that stage in life was not too late at all. I had only had one big city growing up and we called it simply The City. People would ask where I was from and I would say — just outside — The City. Such arrogance. But San Franciscans have that city pride/inbred arrogance. … And until recently, I didn’t understand I really AM from inside The City, not just the outskirts. Those Irish relatives — 23andMe helped me find — arrived off the boat outside at the Ferry building. They came not with riches but with wishes. And they lived on McAllister Street.
I came back from that New York City trip and changed the name of this column. It had been Strike a Vein … which I thought was so clever when I first used it in 1979 and then seemed too cloying cute for an old mining town turned ski town … I wanted the sophistication of Sondheim with the hidden rhymes in his words and his sardonic humor. His tragic heroes and art hidden inside his music. Sunday in the Park fit better for me and our emerging, more nuanced city.
Not long after, I also moved on from that marriage, but I kept all the discordant high notes.
When Sondheim died this week — unexpectedly at 91 — as a friend of mine liked to say — it was as if I had lost my favorite … emotional uncle. Both my parents were only children. I never had any uncles or aunts or cousins, but I dreamed of them being kind and wise and cerebral and with a kind of humor that only worked in a nuanced sort of way.
The first time I was aware Sondheim was in Park City on a New Year’s Eve was when a top client of my dear friend who designed — with her husband — the inside and outside of stunning homes, called me and asked if Bernadette Peters could come and rehearse in the Eccles theater with our baby grand. It was somewhere around the early 2000s. The performers insisted upon a closed set, and I only heard the faintest sound of Bernadette that filtered into the lobby. Just knowing she had been on our stage singing Sondheim, knowing she would be singing songs for him that very night at the Deer Valley party at the home of a man who financed Broadway musicals was almost enough. Still, I imagined her one day performing for our audiences. But she was A STAR and we were never going to be able to afford her.
In the spring of 2006 I started looking at shows for the following year, and an agent I had worked with for ages suggested Bernadette. And I laughed and said my budget hadn’t increased to Broadway rock star status. He said it wouldn’t be that much. Her young husband had died in a tragic airplane accident in South America about six months before. The agent said — she just wants to perform — please find room for her. And then he threw out a price that would have been just right for a small unknown dance company. I was shocked and thrilled and booked her right away.
She was such a boss on stage and such a trooper backstage. High school dressing rooms are not exactly Broadway equipped. Not the mirrors or the couch or really anything. She never once said a peep. And she stood up on our stage and leveled us with passion and compassion in every single song. And when she climbed up on that baby grand piano to sing — “Fever” — it brought the house to its feet. And then she sang Sondheim … yes, she did. And I was I on a cloud.
A few years later she returned to perform on the Eccles stage for our New Year’s Eve. At the afterparty at the new St. Regis hotel she posed for photos with every gay man in Utah and all who were visiting. And yes, Sondheim had been part of her song list then too.
This Monday 400 people showed up in Duffy Square in New York City — from Lin-Manuel Miranda (fellow Pulitzer Prize winner for his lyrics in “Hamilton”) — to ushers and box office people and folks currently appearing on Broadway stages. It was more than a tribute to a legend — it was a requiem. They sang the song from “Sunday in the Park with George.” They sang … “Sunday.” A love song to a time and place. A love song to a genius.
So, with deep respect for your complex lyrics and rhythms and Ladies who Lunch and Sending in the Clowns and Mama Rose and Sharks and Jets and all the music that told all the stories, Side by Side … Rest in Rhythm, Stephen … it brings such joy to remember you spent a Sunday in our Park — maybe with a George, but you were here, still, here…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. She has been a member of the TED community since 2007 and founded TEDxParkCity in 2009.
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