Chicago theater vets salute a legend in ‘Yours, Stephen Sondheim’

Like any theater pro, Rob Lindley remembers exactly where he was when he heard that Stephen Sondheim had died. It was the day after Thanksgiving 2021, and Lindley was out for a meal with good friend Bethany Thomas, another Chicago performing artist. 

“We were sitting at the bar of a restaurant in Lincoln Square, and one of us looked at our phone, and then we saw the news,” Lindley recalled. “We said, ‘All right, let’s Elaine Stritch about it and order another round of drinks.’ We raised a glass to Steve.” 

The story doesn’t end there. No, it comes with a tag that probably would’ve given the legend himself a good chuckle. While it might sound like heresy to card-carrying musical theater fans, plenty of people in the English-speaking world have no idea who Sondheim is, despite his slew of honors such as multiple Tonys, Grammys, an Oscar and a Pulitzer Prize. (And that’s just the start of the list.)

As fate would have it, Lindley and Thomas found themselves sitting near two folks who were curious about the person they were toasting. “They were like, ‘Who died?’ ” Lindley said. “We found ourselves having to do an impromptu Wikipedia [entry on] Stephen Sondheim. [At one point, we] just kept saying song titles until one of them hit. I thought: I’m going to wait until the last possible moment to say ‘Send in the Clowns.’ ’’

Flash forward to the present day: Now the two friends are working together on “Yours, Stephen Sondheim,” a tribute concert conceived and directed by Lindley and produced by Ravinia. Of course, back on that somber night in late November, “we had no idea that we would end up doing this concert together,” Lindley said. “But I remember being really grateful that I was with someone who understood, because his work had had such a profound impact on both our careers.”

“He’s not just at the top of the game. He’s defined what the game is! And he’s incredibly human. This guy showed up for everybody. That became my ‘in’ to the concert.” — Rob Lindley on Stephen Sondheim

In addition to Thomas, the vocalists for the Aug. 7 program with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Kevin Stites include Tony winners Brian Stokes Mitchell and Heather Headley, plus Alexandra Billings, Susan Moniz, Devin DeSantis and Chicago Artists Chorale. (Performed in the Pavilion, “Yours” is the biggest program of Ravinia's monthlong salute to Sondheim. Two matinees featuring the composer’s songs are scheduled for Aug. 20 and Aug. 27 in Bennett Gordon Hall.)

But this won’t be just another revue collecting the Broadway titan’s songs, which has been done endlessly ever since Side by Side by Sondheim in the mid-’70s. Audience members will experience a new element, tying all the songs together: excerpts from the legions of letters Sondheim wrote. Over the decades, he corresponded with everyone from established performers to up-and-coming composers to school kids. This glimpse into his role as “encourager-in-chief” (as the New York Times dubbed him after his death) provides a new lens for looking at his accomplished life.

Lindley himself is the first to admit that when he first began planning a tribute, it started out simply as a retrospective concert. Although Sondheim left a massive oeuvre, Lindley found himself looking for something more. “Like with anything, I tried to follow the advice Dot gives George,” he says, referencing the star-crossed couple at the heart of Sunday in the Park with George. “I thought, ‘Well, what hasn’t been said about Sondheim already? He’s had so many tribute concerts.’ And then I remembered: ‘Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new. Give us more to see.’

“Around that same time, I found letters on Twitter and on an Instagram account called Sondheim’s Letters. Just everyone — including stars like Lin-Manuel [Miranda] and Trey Parker from South Park and the Jonathan Larson estate — all of them are posting these letters Sondheim had written to them, encouraging them or vouching for them when they needed a grant.”

Like countless after the composer’s death, Lindley found himself deeply moved all over again, this time because of Sondheim’s generosity: “He’s not just at the top of the game. He’s defined what the game is! And he’s incredibly human. This guy showed up for everybody. That became my ‘in’ to the concert. 

“What I love about these letters is: There’s a whole spectrum of them,” Lindley said. From short thank-you notes to long letters looking for charitable donations, Sondheim covered it all, typically with his trusty typewriter and personalized stationery. Often he was self-effacing; sometimes, Lindley noted with a smile, “He wasn’t all sunshine and roses. There’s some really funny, snarky ones. I love that, too.” 

The impetus behind “Yours, Stephen Sondheim” is to celebrate the man — and find inspiration in how he treated others, often people who were complete strangers. Take, for example, one letter that stood out to Lindley: “He wrote to an elementary school teacher, saying, ‘Hey, thank you so much for the drawings from your students, and thank you for exposing them to musical theater. It’s the encouragement I needed today.’ 

“There’s something so beautiful and delightfully human about it all.”

Excerpted with permission from Ravinia Magazine.

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