Stephen Sondheim collection donated to university archives

1971 was a big year for American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. It was the year he introduced “Follies,” a Broadway musical about two former showgirls from long-gone music revues and their husbands, learning to cope with how their past had changed their present. The production ultimately won seven out of 11 of the Tony Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Original Score, and has since been considered one of the greatest musicals of the 20th century.

1971 was also a big year for Paul Salsini, a Marquette alumnus and current journalism instructor. He saw “Follies” that spring and was blown away. Fascinated, Salsini took it all in and “put it away”— straight into his file cabinet. Over time, as he learned more about the composer’s groundbreaking techniques in the world of musical theater, Salsini became a devoted Sondheim expert, enthusiast and collector.

So devoted, in fact, that his collection, recently donated to Marquette’s university archives, includes thousands of pieces of memorabilia collected over 40 years — the largest and most complete documentation of Sondheim materials ever assembled.

A legacy of excellence

Born in New York City in 1930, Sondheim has since become a household name. He majored in music at Williams College and was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II after he graduated.

Sondheim wrote such famous musicals as “Sweeney Todd,” “A Little Night Music,” and lyrics for “West Side Story.” Along with his eight Tony Awards — more than any other composer — and Grammy award, Sondheim also received an Academy Award for best song in 1990 for the film “Dick Tracy.” He is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1984 for “Sunday in the Park with George.”

Critics have sung his praises for years. The New York Times has called him “the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater,” and, 11 years ago, said that he “may have even outlived the genre itself, which was long ago exiled by rock music from center stage to niche status in American culture.” Yet, Sondheim’s shows are still performed. Just last year, Marquette’s theater department produced “Sunday in the Park with George.”

Sondheim’s most recent work was the music and lyrics of “Road Show” in 2008. He is currently 81 years of age. 

Now, Sondheim’s legacy will forever live at Marquette.

A rare collection

After seeing nearly 100 Sondheim productions, Salsini decided to donate his collection to Marquette in 2008. But it wasn’t until this summer that he finally boxed up his treasures and sent them to Raynor Memorial Library, where they’ve been placed on the third floor in the University Libraries’ Department of Special Collections and Archives.

The new Stephen Sondheim Research Collection (SSRC)’s preliminary inventory was established by university archivists in August, and is now available to researchers and Marquette students. It consists of books, magazines, scripts, scores, articles, reviews, programs, LP records, posters, window cards and other memorabilia relating to such musicals as “West Side Story,” “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods” and others.

Also included are hundreds of articles, reviews and features about each of Sondheim’s two dozen musicals, revues and films. There are more than 600 programs and playbills from productions on- and off-Broadway, over 400 audiotapes, 200 videotapes and 100 CDs of Sondheim’s shows.

According to Matt Blessing, head of the Department of Special Collections and Archives, the SSRC is completely unlike any other collection housed in the archives. He said Marquette primarily collects materials relating to Catholic history — a policy that ordinarily wouldn’t place an emphasis on Broadway composers and lyricists.

“Given the nature of archival materials and researchers, you have to specialize in topical areas,” Blessing said. “So when I first saw the collection three years ago my first reaction was ‘Well, this really doesn’t fit within our formal collecting policy.’”

The permanent nature of archives means the content of each collection must be carefully considered before it is acquired by the department.

“That’s one of the reasons to take these acquisitions very seriously — because you’re telling a donor you will preserve and curate a collection like this in perpetuity,” Blessing said.

Nevertheless, the university decided to catalogue and build on the collection because of Salsini’s great care and attention in developing such a multiform collection.

The archives will continue to purchase readily-available Sondheim artifacts like books, dissertations, CDs and DVDs ito enhance the collection further. However, Blessing said, the collection is uniquely based on Salsini’s gathering of extremely rare ephemera, ranging from privately recorded audio from directors of Sondheim productions to notes written by Sondheim himself.

From file cabinets to archives

Salsini’s passion for Sondheim grew quickly after that first production of “Follies.” He started reading about Sondheim and building a collection of clippings — reviews, feature stories, interviews and essays — about this composer who seemed to be revolutionizing musical theater.

From clippings he moved on to playbills and records, and from there “it just kept building,” Salsini said.

“If it was Sondheim, I’d save it,” he said.

In 1994, Salsini took his passion to a new level by co-founding “The Sondheim Review,” a quarterly magazine “dedicated to the work of the musical theatre’s foremost composer and lyricist,” according to the website. Productions of the magazine from 1994 to 2004 are included in the SSRC. Sondheim is currently the only living composer with a quarterly journal published in his name.

Running out of space in his study that was full of Sondheim, Salsini decided to pass the torch. He said he knew Marquette would not only take good care to preserve the collection, but that Marquette would be the proper educational institution to which to donate it.

“I felt that (the collection) should be accessible to students,” Salsini said. “So if they’re interested in (Sondheim) or in theater they can study, listen and see all these things in one place.”

Sondheim and Marquette theater

Stephen Hudson-Mairet, chair of performing arts in the College of Communication, said the SSRC is a great resource, but not only for Marquette theater. Because of Sondheim’s influence, anyone researching musical theater in the 20th century will need to access information about him.

“To have this depth of a resource in our Marquette library system is incredible,” Hudson-Mairet said. “It will serve the students directly, and any researchers who might want to come to Marquette to do research.”

Salsini himself teaches the History of the Musical in America course in the College of Communication, and could very well make use of his own collection for his students.

In Hudson-Mairet’s 10 years at Marquette, he said the theater department’s season selection committee has chosen to produce only two Sondheim shows.

Because part of the  committee’s mission is to expose students and audiences to a wide range of playwrights, styles and genres, it is unusual that any single playwright’s work would be repeated in a four-year cycle. Since the department produced Sondheim’s “Sunday In The Park With George” in 2010, the earliest the committee might consider another Sondheim work would be in two years.

Hudson-Mairet said one struggle of producing a Sondheim musical is the necessity of a talented quality core of students; Sondheim’s plays are musically challenging beyond that of a normal show. “You don’t do Sondheim every year.”

“Every time we do something like that (in the future), this new resource would be a place to start for production teams, designers and all students in the show,” Hudson-Mairet said.

Allie Bonesho, a theater arts major and senior in the College of Communication, said she thinks the SSRC is a step forward for a growing theater department.

“Being able to find the sources all in one place for a specific performance would really create a dynamic and deeply rooted performance for the actors,” Bonesho said.

Four decades of history

Beginning this week, the archives began a library display showing some of the manuscripts and other memorabilia from the SSRC, Blessing said. The display will be located in the Raynor lobby until Nov. 28.

Blessing said the SSRC is a special resource made possible by Salsini’s depth and care in gathering a multi-formatted collection.

“I’m sure Mr. Sondheim himself has an extraordinary archive of manuscript materials and scores,” Blessing said, “but a collection also needs to have different interpretations of his work in terms of sound, stage plans, audiovisuals. You need to have all the production materials that go into a major Broadway show.”

The SSRC, he said, includes all of those variables.

Salsini said his pace of collecting slowed when he stopped editing “The Sondheim Review” in 2004. But after a nearly four-decade-long effort, his passion will not ever stop.

After all, archives are like follies: they stick with us forever.

“I guess I kind of like stories in which the past is blended with the present and it’s sort of indelible between them,” Salsini said. “We look to our former selves and to who we are now—and that’s what ‘Follies’ does.”