I mentioned earlier that I interviewed some of the winners of City Center Encores! Off-Center’s Sondheim Remix challenge for a piece in the next issue of The Sondheim Review. When I reached out to George Abud, he sent me back such a beautiful email essay that I felt bad I would only be able to use a sentence or two in my TSR piece. So, I asked George if I could publish the piece here, and he not only said yes, he also shared this video of his performance of his version of “Children and Art” from the June 26th event at City Center with Sondheim in the audience. You can hear George’s studio recording of his piece at the Sondheim Remix blog.
Sondheim saved my life. In a great many ways. I truly believe that. And since you are a fellow ‘disciple’ to his work as I am I think you can understand where I’m coming from. At a very crucial time in my life I needed someone to know me, to help me know me, to do nothing but listen and give to me and there was Sondheim and his works. The whole thing is very spiritual to me. The work he has created and given to us is so selfless, so encouraging, so true and so innocent that in it is contained its own universe. A universe that never stops evolving and that is filled with endless secrets. There is something new in his work each time I listen. And there is something new in me each time I listen. He is a gift. And Sunday is perhaps closest to my heart, if one can rise above the others. And not just because my name is George, though it does add to the effect.
I am an actor in NYC and a musician. I am 100% Lebanese and come from a family of musicians. I look through the theatrical listings each day for potential opportunities and one day back in April, I believe, I saw, on Playbill.com, a picture of Sondheim attached to an article about City Center. It explained about this Lobby Project called the Sondheim Remix that would be happening before a performance of tick, tick…BOOM! The project was inspired by Jonathan Larson and developed by a team headed by Jeanine Tesori. I saw that there was a link to this project and a call for submissions, and also the chosen pieces would get to be performed for Sondheim. Well, one such as me needs no further enticement to create something, but throw Sondheim in the mix and look out.
I was in a tough place in my career at the time, and I really wanted to commit myself to a consistent schedule of generating and creating personal work. I like to write plays, and I like to compose. This was a perfect opportunity. I love goals and instructions, so I made a promise to myself to develop a piece and submit it. I was never concerned with the outcome ,but I knew I would be very pleased with myself if I generated a piece and fulfilled the prompt.
I knew I would compose something for an instrument and set a new lyric for it. I’m not very savvy with technology or mixing or electronic music so I looked at the whole thing more as an adaptation/arrangement than a remix. I really don’t remember the exact origin of my thought process, but I was thinking through some of the songs for which one to adapt. I thought about trying to do one that probably wouldn’t be done like “No Life,” and I had a desire, of course, to try and tackle “Finishing the Hat,” but for whatever reason I landed on “Children and Art.”
The song is pure aloneness to me. It is someone sitting alone in memory brought to fruition in the underscoring, the lyric, the staging, and that really attracts me. There is no other song like it, anywhere. I chose the oud because it has a wealth of colors, musically, it’s so expressive and unique, and it is the connecting point between me and many generations of my family. My life seemed to parallel this moment in the show almost exactly. It laid right over it.
I am very close with my grandmother, my ‘Sitto’ as we call her in Lebanese. And her father was a great musician. He played the oud and he was quite renowned in his time and his place. Arabic music has been in my bloodline through generations. My father is an oud player, and me and my two older brothers also play. We each have a different main instrument but, next to the violin, the oud is mine. So I thought, “Perfect. I’m an oud player, and my grandmother really supports and loves my playing. And her father was an oud player, and she wishes that he were alive to hear me play.” Which is all true. Same as Marie wishes her mother, who had such an involvement in the art and the painting, could see what her great-grandson George was creating in his life. “You would have loved him.”
I sat down with my notebook, my computer, the score to Sunday, the recording of Bernadette and Mandy, and my oud and I went at it. I began first with the lyric. I didn’t want to tamper with the structure much, so I began by developing the lyrics side by side with the original text except using my own experiences. I started playing the initial underscoring phrase of the song on the oud while I sang over it. I would use the few stanzas I’d written and just repeatedly sing over and over and improvise and manipulate the form.
When creating on a certain instrument it is easier to start hearing in the voice of that particular instrument. Immediately the song took on a more Arabic flavor. The lifeblood to Arabic music is the rhythm, so gradually the initial underscoring became an Arabic drum beat, all while trying to preserve the integrity of the original. It eventually developed into a couple different rhythms that would resolve into the pure underscoring from the original. Therefore, in final, the piece begins with a traditional Arabic rhythm and develops into the Sondheim underscoring, all the while the melodic line goes from the Sondheim line to a traditional Arabic wailing. My wish with it was to express how the past and present begin at two different ends, and finding balance and harmony working with each other towards each other, they marry in the middle. In that middle is my Sitto and also my piece.
My Giddo’s (great-grandfather) music and sensibility combined with mine and told through the guise of a conversation with my Sitto. I decided to help connect the musical pieces through dialogue between me and my Sitto that would express her connection to both her father and me, and also our history with music. Also, the Arabic wailing at the beginning and the end are to represent Sitto and I listening to old recordings of my great-grandfather, which I do have a handful of.
When the piece was completed I was very pleased with it. I really didn’t care if it won or not. I was interested/concerned if people outside of my experiences would even get it. I did not want to explain it. I wrote it as, to paraphrase a Sondheimian principle, specific to the character and hoped that through that specificity it would ring universal. And I guess it did, in a way. In response to sending the song in, the young gentleman I submitted it to told me it was “very moving” the day he posted it to the site. That made me feel very good and a little more confident that the story I wanted to express was getting through to people who didn’t know me. It was absolutely thrilling to get word that they picked my piece and how well it was received. I was in shock.
Even more so when the reality sunk in that I had to play this sucker live for the Sond himself. I put off all those feelings till the last minute. The day of the concert I think I was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life. I literally spent most of the day rocking back and forth trying to prevent my nausea from conquering me. The time came, I dressed, tuned up, grabbed my girlfriend and got in a cab down to City Center. I had sound-checked the day before so I had already met the lovely Jeanine Tesori and some of my fellow composers/performers. Everyone was so nice, and I was probably not being helpful telling everyone how terrified I was and that any moment you would turn your head and Stephen Joshua Sondheim would just be, you know, hanging out, having a drink.
Beforehand, I was speaking to one of the ladies who helped develop the project and she offered to hold my oud for me till show time. I knew it was going to be a zoo and that everyone was going to be standing and that Sondheim would be seated at a little table right in front of the stage. So she held on to my oud. And just as I knew it the place was soon jumpin’ with a million people, and there he was, by his little table, just being shy and regular. It was time to start and the woman with my oud was standing with Sondheim, so I went over. I think I was in such a state of shock that my inner dial flew past nerves and terror all the way back to normal.
She passed the oud to me right in front of Sondheim and he took notice. Putting down his drink, “Oh! Is that an oud?”
"Sure is, Mr. Sondheim."
"Will you be playing it tonight?"
"Yes, Mr. Sondheim."
It went on like this, and for some reason I wasn’t the least bit nervous. He introduced me to his friend, and then we chatted casually for several minutes. He asked me what other instruments I played, and also told me that he has never heard solo oud before. I said he was gonna be hearing it tonight! I told him how excited we were that he was joining us that evening and he said he was very glad to be there. Yada yada yada. I said, “All right, I have to go play for you now,” and he seemed to pat me on the back and said, “Have a good time up there.” A more encouraging and giddy individual you will not find. I was in heaven already and you couldn’t knock me down. And, of course, I would be the first person to play the oud for Stephen Sondheim.
I took the stage before the hoards and the little clearing where Sondheim sat and was introduced. The people all exuded this want to be there, this joy, this thrilling anticipation, not a word was allowed out of anyone. I began to play. I tell you I have never felt so at home on a stage in my life. I felt complete love and community and support from all those watching me and I felt a freeness in my playing.
As I got into the meat of the song, I looked over at Stephen Sondheim, and there he was with his head leaning on his hand, just focused on me. His face was rouged with feeling, and a smile was emanating from it. Sondheim watched me with such sensitivity and understanding and love that I felt like my own father was out there. It was truly remarkable. There he was the king of musical theatre and completely humbled and excited to hear a group of young writers play some tunes. His listening felt as if he was at home listening to me on a recording. His connection with me was as if no one else was around. I played on. I made sure to articulate every line, every rhyme so I could show my greatest teacher just how much he had given me and how I valued it. And he glowed more, smiled, heard everything I sang, every note I played. And every time I rhymed the word “oud” the crowd exploded in laughter. It was spectacular. It proved yet another Sondheimian principle where exact rhymes really do prick the ear and advance the intention of the line to the listener.
I neared the end and just before I finished I looked over at Sondheim, and his face was full with tears. He was crying. I finished. He wiped hard his tears away with both hands, pulled his arms back far and ripped up into huge applause and shouts for me. I could not believe it. It was the moment of my life. You could not have imagined such a thing. There he was, the man whose music, each time I needed it, was there and brought me to tears of realization and ecstasy and he was crying for me, applauding for me, showing me the ultimate respect and love. If I go tomorrow I think I’ll go fulfilled because of that moment. It was more than I could have wished for, prayed for, dreamt up, anything. It was the greatest anything ever. Period. I stood in heaven on the stage, blew him a kiss and saluted him. Those people in the crowd that night truly embodied what it is to be a community of artists and supporters. I was at home. I was with my people. I floated off and the evening went on and more magic rang throughout the evening performance of tick, tick…BOOM! I had no way of catching any more of the master after the concert because of timing and security, but I had had my fill.
We received a beautiful e-mail the next day from Jeanine’s assistant thanking us and expressing what an impact we had. Also, how much Sondheim enjoyed himself, what it meant to him, and that he wanted our addresses and recordings of our songs. I mean, c’mon, what kind of superstar is that down to earth? Who? Stephen Sondheim is, and it is apparent in every one of his songs and every time I listen to him speak. He encourages creation and he supports the next generation so much that he writes everything for them, I believe. Just look at Merrily. “Our Time” indeed.
Anyway, I actually received a personal note from Sondheim today in the mail, and after I regained consciousness I read that he loved my piece and that it meant so much to him. Well, those words meant the world to me and it’s taken me all day calling everyone to tell them about it.
I am very close with my very large family and I have sent them all the song at different stages of this whole thing. I am from Detroit, and all of my family is still there, so I have not been able to play it for them in person, only over the internet. Their responses have ranged from great love to being brought to tears at how much it truly said something about our family. They all got something out of it and their support has been inspirational. None of my family knows much about musical theatre and has never heard Sunday in the Park. My older brother, James, a very wonderful musician and composer, probably got it the most. I am closest with him and he knows Sunday very well as well as all of Sondheim’s music, and of course he understands the context of my family. So his words and tears were of special impact to me. I think this is proof that music brings people together because the song has quickly touched dozens of my family members throughout the country. Especially my great aunts, sisters of my Sitto. Just an example but here’s a comment from an older cousin of mine from Florida about the piece:
“Georgie, I am crying. What a beautiful tribute. You captured our family. You are so very talented. We are so very proud of you. I was so very blessed to hear Giddo play and sing. I am in awe of your performance and so impressed that others not in our family recognize the beauty and authenticity. Your Sitto must be so proud. Thank you for bringing to life what lives in our hearts. We have such a beautiful family and heritage. Having a difficult time writing through my tears. Thank you, Congratulations! Much love to you.”
That really sums up the love I’ve been shown.