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April 2005
By A Spider's Thread

A Fan's Notes

"Before the lights went down, Perri was a little superior, telling Josie and Kat that Godspell was second-rate, with a treacly, unmemorable score, not at all in the class of Stephen Sondheim, someone of whom she now spoke incessantly, almost as if they were dating."
From "Ninth Grade: Falling in Love with Jesus" in
To the Power of Three

Although I created her, Perri Kahn is more advanced than I ever was. I didn't discover Sondheim until I was 17, when Steve Gore sang "Anyone Can Whistle" in the talent show at Harand Camp. Within a year, I had tracked down the Anyone Can Whistle soundtrack album on a trip to New York and read Sondheim & Co. by Craig Zadan.

Close readers of my work may have noticed that Tess Monaghan has referred to Baltimore's homicide rate as "every day a little death." Or that a key piece of information in By a Spider's Thread was provided by Whitney Talbot's memory of Barbara Cook performing in concert at the Kennedy Center. That concert really happened and there really was someone signing downstage from Cook, along with surtitles that rendered a key line in "Losing My Mind" as: "I want to sew."

Yes, I was a theater nerd in high school, with all that implies. It's not a bad place in the high school hierarchy. A fun group, if a little loud, tolerant of idiosyncrasy and eccentricity. Better yet, I had the good luck to have extremely talented peers, so I understood that I was average at best. (That's not bad knowledge to have at a young age, as long as it's true.) I did, however, cling to one romantic notion that was clearly shaped by Zadan's book: I thought it would be fun to record a cast album. I have no ideas why those photos -- Carol Lawrence with her cup of tea, Angela Lansbury with her cup of tea, the cast of Merrily We Roll Along, tea-less yet exuberant despite the show's cancellation -- resonated so strongly with me. And I never quite shook this fantasy despite repeated viewings of D.A. Pennebaker's Company, a documentary that makes it clear that whatever it takes to make a cast album, "fun" is not always part of the mix.

Steven Sondheim

So when I saw Stephen Sondheim a few months ago in a midtown restaurant, what did I do? Absolutely nothing. Oh, I looked. I agree with Nora Ephron's definition of celebrity -- someone you would stand up in a restaurant to see -- but I was already standing. I looked and I beamed and I thought: Hey, I just saw Pacific Overtures! But it never occurred to me to try and approach him. Not because I was embarrassed to be a fan, but because I was content to be one, if that makes sense.

Fandom is a complicated, often reviled state. I've heard people speak derisively about someone going "fan boy" or "fan girl," but I've never been able to share the derision. Sometimes, I even go out of my way to do something nerdily fannish - sending an (unanswered) e-mail to Zilpha Keatley Snyder, shaking Clint Eastwood's hand, going to a State House press conference to see Cal Ripken Jr. in the flesh. One advantage to never having been cool -- see high school theater nerd, above -- is that it frees up a lot of energy that otherwise would be invested in pride. Plus, I have to think it's good karma, sending one's gratitude out into the world. And, sure enough, sometimes it comes back, in the most rewarding and surprising ways.

But I also know that I can't, in a restaurant encounter, say anything uniquely meaningful to someone whose work has meant so much to me. I cannot make Stephen Sondheim my new best friend, no matter what clever, obscure references I make. ("I became a mystery writer because of The Last of Sheila." Not true, but it would probably get his attention.) So I settled for being just a fan, although I always tell people who use that phrase in front of me to leave out the "just." It's not a state that requires modifiers or self-deprecation. Isn't everyone a fan of someone or something? I hope so.

I am the Cheese

Speaking of fandom, Nick Hornby is another person I'd stand up to see in a restaurant, assuming I could recognize him. So I was very pleased when he called me an American cheeseburger. (Although I remain perturbed that my sister, who found the reference, remembered it as big American cheeseburger.) The link is two paragraphs above -- see "ways" -- because a lovely fan in Northern Virginia made this happen. As for the "thoughtful and engaging website" bit - well, Beth and I have to share in that 50-50.

The Quiz

I didn't expect a single respondent to score 100 percent on the quiz posted here last month, but I have two winners with A-plus papers -- Bryon Quertermous and Bill Hirschman. Congratulations to both men, especially for their essays, which is what cinched it for them. I'll post the correct answers with the quiz -- give me just a little more time, as the old song says.


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