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David Levy on Being Sondheim’s Penpal, Hanging Out in James Lapine’s Office, and Other Stuff (Plus, Win Tickets…)

So, our friend and excellent Craptacular columnist, David Levy, is putting on a 54 Below show on Saturday night in honor of the venerable Stephen Sondheim. Exciting, yeah? First thing’s first: If you want to win some tickets to this show — AND A $50 FOOD CREDIT, YO — we have some to give away. To enter do the following things…

  1. Cancel all your Saturday night plans. If you win, you’ll be with us at 54 Below. Doors are at 10pm. Drinking probably goes on forever after.
  2. Make sure you follow @thecraptacular and tweet the following ditty:

Yo, @thecraptacular, I want to celebrate Sondheim at Sondheimas at @54Below. Gimme those tix! (PS. RT and follow to win!)

  1. Keep your eyes peeled. We’ll pick a winner tomorrow afternoon. (Chookas, y’all!)

Meanwhile, we chatted with David — a bona fide Sondheim superfan who has more delightful stories than can fit in one blog post, which is why we gave him a column — about the show, his communications with Steve (that started when he was in the 5th grade, natch), and his attempt to get a Sondheim song played at a bat mitzvah…

Lucky: What are you most excited about re: Soneheimas?

David Levy: We have one surprise that we’ve kept under wraps that I think is going to get a huge reaction, so I’m pretty excited to see how that goes. Which is a terrible answer.

L: Give me a one-word hint about the secret thing.

DL: Felt.

L: Besides the secret thing, though, what are you excited about?

DL: I’m excited that we’re doing a few songs that never get done. One of the songs we’re doing hasn’t ever been officially recorded, so that speaks directly to my geeky heart. It’s the title number from Wise Guys. I don’t know if it’s been performed since the New York Theater Workshop production that starred Nathan Lane and Victor Garber more than a dozen years ago.

L: Why did you write a note to Mr. Sondheim about the show, and were you expecting a response?

DL: Rachel Shukert and I went back and forth about whether or not to invite Sondheim to the show. I think we were nervous that we’d freeze up if he came. But when Leah Horowitz (who was in the most recent revival of Follies on Broadway) joined the cast, she was like “Is someone inviting Steve?” and I figured why the hell not? I knew once I sent the letter, I would get a response. He’s always been very good about writing back to fan letters, as I learned many years ago. I wrote him the first time when I was in the fifth grade.

L: And he answered you then?

DL: He did! So of course I wrote back again. I thought of him as my pen pal. I would send him not only letters, but drawings and home-made puzzles (since I knew that was his hobby). Every single letter I sent received an answer.

L: What’s your favorite and least favorite Sondheim moment, ever?

DL: I’m not sure if this is favorite or least favorite or both. When I was 12, I went to a friend’s bat mitzvah party right around the time Madonna’s I’m Breathless album came out, before Dick Tracy hit theaters. I was so anxious to hear the Sondheim songs that I asked the DJ to play “More” (because it was the B-side of the “Vogue” single, I think?) and he was like, “Uh, that’s not really party music, but I’ll play ‘Vogue’ instead.”) At that point in my life, I wasn’t yet into Madonna for her own sake, and I was so disappointed.

Then, when I was in college, I was the assistant to the person in charge of bringing visiting artists to campus. We really wanted Sondheim to come, but he was just not interested in doing a run-of-the mill master class, so he challenged us to make it interesting for him. Simultaneously, we were working with a television producer to create a pilot based on our “Learning from Performers” program, so somehow Sondheim’s challenge became the basis of this pilot, which was going to focus on me and a group of my friends scheming to bring Sondheim to campus.

We shot some footage of me and my friends plotting together over a fancy sushi meal at the Harvard faculty club, and we enlisted the help of James Lapine (who had already been a visiting artist when he was in Boston for the pre-Broadway tryout of his production of Diary of Anne Frank).

Somehow, James convinced Steve to allow us to film the two of them in conversation. So I got to fly to New York with my boss and a camera crew to spend the day in James Lapine’s office — in the Shubert Building, overlooking the Majestic Theater — while James and Steve watched the DVD of Sunday in the Park With George and mused about “Children and Art.”

It was so exciting! And of course I was trying so hard to be cool that I barely said anything to Steve because I didn’t want to sound stupid. Anyway, long story short, we never figured out how to get Steve to campus, the pilot was never completed, and here I am 14 years later putting on a ridiculous concert in his honor.

L: Any controversy or gossip about the show that we absolutely need to know about?

DL: Yeah. We originally had this very elaborate Nativity scene with Sondheim as the baby Jesus (and Milky White as one of the barnyard animals). That’s actually the image I sent to Steve when I wrote to him about the show. A couple days after I sent it to him, I got a note from the 54 Below marketing department saying, “The image is a bit offensive to anyone Christian and possibly to Sondheim fans. We need something more pc.”

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