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Kevin Heffernan, dead at 43, was recognized by his idol Stephen Sondheim as a 'Dr. of Sondheimology'

Kevin Heffernan with his "Dr. of Sondheimology" honorary degree.

Kevin Heffernan might have been the only person in the world to be awarded a “doctor of Sondheimology” degree by Stephen Sondheim, the composer-lyricist who has reigned over American musical theater for half a century.

Mr. Heffernan’s encyclopedic knowledge of Sondheim’s work ranged from which Madonna movie used his tunes [“Dick Tracy”], to the fact that Elaine Stritch, a belter who put the “broad” in Broadway, didn’t know that “a piece of Mahler’s” referred to a classical composer — and not a snack — in the lyrics of “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company.”

His Edgewater condo was decorated with posters of Sondheim shows including “Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Assassins,” “Sunday in the Park with George,“ “A Little Night Music” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

“This is how gay I knew he was — he has bootleg recordings of Broadway shows,” said David Biele, Mr. Heffernan’s husband of five years. “He could pick probably every Broadway composer out of a lineup. He knew their out-of-town tryouts, every revival; who starred in each revival, the London premiere.”

Kevin Heffernan and his husband, David Biele.

In January 2014, Mr. Heffernan was diagnosed with Stage IV esophageal cancer. Still, the couple managed to get out to see the film version of “Into the Woods” after its premiere last Christmas.

As they watched it, Biele had a hard time when he heard the lyrics to “You Are Not Alone,” which go,

“Sometimes people leave you

Halfway through the wood.

Do not let it grieve you,

No one leaves for good.”

“I burst out crying,” Biele said. “I had to turn away from him.”

After the cancer diagnosis, Mr. Heffernan received support from many friends, especially in the group in which he and Biele met, the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus. But he had to retire from his job as director of educational services for the American Medical Association and dropped out of DePaul University, where he’d been working on a doctorate in education.

Leaving DePaul was a blow to Mr. Heffernan. So his husband decided to reach out to the great composer for a different kind of advanced degree. Biele got another member of the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus to design an honorary degree from “The University of Sondheim” and sent it to Sondheim in New York with a note. Within a week, Sondheim signed and returned the degree and wrote: “I’m enormously touched by your letter, and so sorry for Kevin. I blush with the flattery of your gift to him, but what a lovely idea. He is lucky to have such a partner.

Biele bestowed the gift on his husband at a Jan. 31. birthday singalong for Mr. Heffernan, who wept when he received it.

“It’s absolutely indeed a true story,” said Sondheim’s attorney F. Richard Pappas. “Mr. Biele sent [the composer] a video of the awarding of the certificate, and he found it extremely touching. . . . He was gratified to know that his work had made someone in such dire circumstances so happy.”

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Mr. Heffernan, 43, died April 25. Members of the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus performed Sondheim favorites at his wake.

Kevin Heffernan always loved the theater. “For our block parties growing up, he used to write plays for the kids to perform,” said his sister, Mariellen Maloney. “I remember, even as a young child in grade school, him being interested in watching the new Sondheim play coming out.”

In those days, being gay wasn’t openly discussed in many families, especially big Irish-Catholic ones. But the Heffernans supported him, his sister said. His father James bonded with his five other sons about sports but also loved literature and music. “During dinner, Kevin would put on music, and we would talk about plays,” his sister said.

“One of my dad’s things, always, was, ‘We always have to support him,’ ’’ she said.

Kevin Heffernan. Mr. Heffernan entered the seminary at the University of Notre Dame but decided religious life wasn’t for him. He got a bachelor’s degree in English and theology at Notre Dame and a master’s in educational leadership and policy studies at Loyola University Chicago. Recently, Mr. Heffernan was honored for his work on behalf of gay students and graduates by the Gay & Lesbian Alumni/ae of Notre Dame & St. Mary’s.

Services have been held.

The Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus plans to dedicate an upcoming show of Sondheim songs to Mr. Heffernan, according to his friend Michael Curran.

Mr. Heffernan’s survivors also include sisters Laura St. John and Beth Broome; brothers Brian, Jim, John, Brendan and Patrick; and his dog Penny, named for “Penny Lane” because he also loved the Beatles. His parents, James and Mary Barbra, died before him.

“He did say,” Maloney said, “it would be nice to see Mom and Dad again.”

Kevin Heffernan outside the Stephen Sondheim theater in New York City.