I have extensively covered Stephen Sondheim’s work on this site (see here, here and here). And during the 1980s and 1990s, no pianist was more associated with Sondheim’s work than Paul Ford.
Growing up in New Jersey, I studied his name on the original recordings of “Sunday in the Park with George”, “Into the Woods”, “Assassins”, and “Passion”. During this time, Ford also served as Mandy Patinkin’s personal accompanist.
“What could be wrong with this guy’s life?” ” I was wondering
It turns out a lot. And in his new book “The Lord at least knows I was there: working with Stephen Sondheim”, Paul Ford tells a thrilling, tragic and ultimately bittersweet story, from the highest of musical theater heights to the lowest of professional and personal misfortunes.
At times, Ford’s book can be shocking (as Mandy Patinkin writes in her foreword), and the memoir is undoubtedly one of the most candid, angry, honest, and straightforward autobiographies you’ll ever read. . It’s also funny to laugh out loud.
Having retired in 2015, Ford spares no one and nothing in this book (including himself).
It ruthlessly attacks trends in musical theater today that have transformed and in some cases degraded the art form (lack of musical training for composers, pop stars as performers, reduced orchestras and casts, and lower standards audiences and producers, are just some of the evils that Ford rightly castigates).
For those of us who will never experience the glory days of Broadway before hip hop and visionless producers took over, Ford’s book is a way to relive those times. And I suspect that for those who lived through it, Ford’s book will be a poignant reminder of what has been lost. (Sondheim’s recent death last November truly marked the end of an era).
Over the course of his career, Ford has worked with almost everyone in the “who’s who” of musical theatre. And in his book, few are spared. Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz are pilloried, based on Ford’s experience working on their musical “Rags” (although he thinks the material had some strength). Andrew Lloyd Webber receives the requisite bashing, as do Kander and Ebb for weak material, and many performers for being difficult, rude, or both.
But when it comes to composers, this book is really about Stephen Sondheim. And although Ford calls him “the master” (and means it), Ford is sometimes brutal towards Sondheim and his work. (Ford hates “Sweeney Todd”, quite incredibly, and let the reader know that repeatedly). While Ford appreciates what Sondheim has done for him and his career, it’s clearly a relationship tinged with sadness and pain.
And while Sondheim’s criticism may sound harsh, it may be true for Sondheim himself. While Sondheim was always careful to praise his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, he was often critical of Hammerstein’s work (in my opinion, too harshly). So maybe Ford is doing the same thing. And, as Ford recounts in his book, there were times when Sondheim gave Ford everything he got.
But perhaps the book’s harshest criticism is directed at Paul Ford himself. Many of the stories Ford tells — about his alcoholism, body image and sexuality issues — can be painful to read. But they are real; they are honest; and they leave you with a feeling not only of Paul Ford the talented pianist, but also of Ford the imperfect – but also triumphant – man.
Finally, the book is also hysterical. The laughs are truly non-stop. I still can’t get a story out of my head about Ford’s first meeting with Katharine Hepburn. I was laughing out loud constantly. And every time I had to put the book down, I literally couldn’t wait to pick it up.
This book is a must read if you like theater, Broadway musicals or Stephen Sondheim. I guarantee that I will come back many times in the future.
Growing up in New Jersey, I dreamed of spending hours with someone like Paul Ford. I still do.
After reading this book, I still wish I could meet Ford in person. But, as that probably won’t happen, this book will have to do the trick – and it does the trick. (I’d still love to hear some of the stories Ford left out of this book, as well as his private recordings, like the one he made in preparation for “Sondheim on Sondheim.”)
Paul Ford had a career many dreamed of; he grew up loving musical theater more than most (this reviewer being an exception), and he reached the highest of musical theater heights. But at the same time, Ford reminds us that there is much more to personal happiness than professional success.
And on this point, as on all the others, Ford’s memoir is truly a resounding success.
The author is a cultural writer at The Algemeiner, as well as a nationally published playwright, screenwriter and actor. You can see some of his creations at www.Bloomywood.com