Monday, January 25, 2016

Sondheim's Poker Pals

In his New York Magazine puzzle of 6/2/69, Stephen Sondheim imagines a poker game between eight men. Their names begin with the first eight letters of the alphabet. As one aspect of the fiendishly difficult puzzle, you need to figure out the equivalent numeric values of each name (A=1, B=2...Z=26). Three of the names have numeric values of 21 (Alec, Ben, and Hal), so that even if you arrive at the "21" value first, you still wouldn't automatically know which of those three names it applied to. Tricky, huh?

Even given all those parameters, it's interesting to speculate about the names Sondheim chose, and hard to imagine he would resist giving a "shout out" to his pals if convenient. Let's speculate, shall we?

Alec: This is one of the "21" names, so it's possible that might be the only reason the name is used. But one wonders if Sondheim knew New York composer Alec Wilder (1907-1980). Wikipedia tells us "Wilder loved puzzles: he created his own cryptic crosswords"!

Ben: Ben Stone is one of the lead characters in Follies. While Sondheim was writing Company when this puzzle was published, Follies was in development at the same time.

Chuck: This might be Sondheim's college friend, theatrical producer Chuck Hollerith.

Dave: Meryle Secrest's biography tells us that in 1953, while assisting John Huston's direction of Beat the Devil in Italy, Sondheim played poker regularly with David O. Selznick!

Eddie: Possibly Sondheim's college friend Edward Gushée? "Eddie" is also a character in Do I Hear a Waltz?, so that's another possibility.

Frank: A tough one. Loesser, perhaps? The character "Franklin Shepard" in Sondheim's 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along has a different name in the 1934 Kaufman and Hart original, so we can rule that out.

George: Not Seurat, even though his name does figure into another of Sondheim's New York puzzles, many years before he wrote Sunday in the Park with George. It's most likely Furth, the librettist of Company. But let's not forget By George, the show a 16-year-old Sondheim wrote while attending George School.

Hal: Who else but Hal Prince, director of Company and Follies? (Okay, possibly Hal Hastings, music director of Company. Or both gents. But I'm sticking with Prince.)

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