Towards the end of the second act of Act One at Lincoln Center Theater, I felt myself transported back to the fall of 1979. My father had just dropped me off at the corner of 110th and Amsterdam to start my freshman year at Barnard, armed with a stack of tokens, a protesting Samsonite bag in the ever-popular mustard yellow and a map of the Upper West Side he had drawn, like all our important documents, on a dinner napkin with a black ballpoint pen. He forgot to include Central Park which I discovered by mistake when I wandered east one night, only to arrive, shaken but alive, on Fifth Avenue and 103rd.
A string of jobs followed my graduation in 1983; I was Eddie Fisher's pianist one summer for a Borscht Belt tour, I glued teeny numbers to the bottom pages of textbooks for hours at a time as an "artist's assistant," I accompanied modern dance classes at the 92nd Street Y. I was desperate for a job in musical theater, whatever the hell that meant. I carried Variety under my arm, though I never read it. I knocked on doors, I worked for free, I interned at Playwrights Horizons just on the chance I would meet Stephen Sondheim. Who would ever take a chance on me, I wondered.
I finally found my George S. Kaufman in a man named Buryl Red, a towering figure from Arkansas who had studied with Elliot Carter at Yale. After hearing some of my work, he declared me "a hippie," but "blue-chip." He rolled his eyes at my love of the theater, which he described as a place where -- and here his accent got particularly thick -- "those people run around in leotards and hug each other all the time." Under his guidance, I produced hundreds of sessions in Nashville: gospel, orchestral, front-porch. I studied orchestration, analysis, Stravinsky, but also the Talking Heads and West African music. Music is music, he would say, don't judge it. Most importantly, talking about writing is not writing. He was known for his uncanny ability to work for untold hours at a time, without the need to use the bathroom or the phone.
Right before he died last April, we sat together at his writing desk, as we had for years. He could no longer hold a pencil, and he had stopped listening to music. A surprise, as he always was listening to music. My mentor. We had been together for 28 years. Years of concerts and life, a few triumphs amidst the failures.
Towards the end of Act One, Tony Shalhoub, as George S. Kaufman, stops the applause to tell the audience, both imagined and real, that the play we have just seen "is 80 percent Moss Hart." And with that, my eyes blurred with tears, sitting alone in the darkened Beaumont theater, where I had written the music for Nick Hytner's production of Twelfth Night, where my then ten-month old daughter had splashed on the set, where Buryl and I had discussed measures and measures after everyone had gone. And I thought about two bittersweet memories of two men now gone: my father dropping me off at 110th street, and my musical father who had told me I was blue-chip and I had prayed that might be true.