Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021)


When I was a weird kid besotted with dreams of a life in the theatre, a life in New York City, far from the rural home I felt completely alien in, I thought I was the only person in the world who really loved Stephen Sondheim. I knew other people respected him, were interested in him — the shows for which he wrote music and lyrics were commonly enough produced that I got to see quite a few before I left home; I knew a couple professors of music and theatre at the local college who would talk with me about what they appreciated in Sondheim's work. But nobody I knew loved him. Nobody I knew listened to cast recordings obsessively, memorizing not just every glorious lyric but every single strange yet perfect note. 

I was not (am not) a musical theatre geek — aside from a handful of shows, I've never been especially enthusiastic about the form. Something about Sondheim was different. The intricacy of the music and lyrics appealed to my more analytical/intellectual side; the unsentimental, even bitter, worldview appealed to my own sense of how the universe works ... and yet in Sondheim bitterness and cynicism are tempered with humor, self-deprecation, gentleness, generosity. There is plenty of opportunity for sharp, mean, even destructive emotion in Sondheim's work, but the emotion is never allowed to stop there. In all his best shows, there is for me an overall impression of a sensibility working to find meaning in life, in the world. It's there in the titles of some of the most famous songs: "Being Alive," "No-one Is Alone", "I'm Still Here". Through many a teenage-angst-ridden dark night of the soul, that sensibility kept me going.

When I was in high school, I wrote a play and sent it off to a festival for young writers sponsored by the Dramatists Guild. I was a finalist, but did not win. Though I didn't get to see my play performed, the Guild did what they could to be encouraging, and they shared information about other opportunities, including a flyer from the Dramatic Writing Program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, which immediately became my top college choice, despite the daunting challenge of NYU's tuition and NYC's unfamiliarity. From the Guild's information, I learned that the festival had been at least partly the idea of Stephen Sondheim, who remained active with it. I decided I should thank him for all he'd meant to me, and so I sent what I'm sure was an effussive letter to him care of the Guild. 

And he wrote back.

"You're obviously a writer," Sondheim wrote to me, "so keep at it." And then: "Back to work..." A statement for both himself and for me. (Sweeney Todd sings, in a rather different mood: "But the work waits! I'm alive at last! And full of joy!")

I own hardly anything I cherish as much as that letter.

The summer after I graduated from high school, my father and I went to Europe, mostly to do things he was excited about, but we would have a couple days in London, and he promised me I could go to some shows, and we did. One of them was a glorious production at the National Theatre of Sweeney Todd, then and now my favorite of all Sondheim's works, starring Julia McKenzie as Mrs. Lovett, which was exciting because she had starred in Side by Side by Sondheim, the cast recording of which was the one I had owned longest and listened to most. (However, the revelation for me was Adrian Lester as Anthony, a thanklessly one-dimensional role, but Lester invested it with as much depth as anyone could, and he sang the role beautifully. A BBC Radio recording of the production is preserved at The Internet Archive. 29 minutes in, Adrian Lester sings "Johanna", a song that can be a bit like nails on a blackboard to me in the high notes, but Lester's gentleness with those notes is astonishing. Lester would go on to create a moving, beautiful performance of Hamlet in Peter Brook's adaptation.)

Then I went off to NYU to be a student at Tisch's Dramatic Writing Program. I learned soon enough that I didn't actually want to be a playwright or to work in the professional theatre, and I left NYU after three years, but I wouldn't trade those years for anything, because they opened the world to me. One might even say those years took me to the world...

In New York, I learned all sorts of valuable things that I hadn't known before. I learned, for instance, that lots of other people loved Sondheim. I met people who would talk about his work as passionately as I would — and even more wonderfully, I met people who knew more about it all than I did, which meant I got to learn from them. It was a thrilling discovery. Some enthusiasms are ones you want to keep as your own, private joys to cherish, but music blossoms for me through sharing.

In the mid-2000s, when I was teaching high school, I directed a production of Merrily We Roll Along at the school where I worked. I had only ever directed one other musical before (Oliver!), but for various reasons of scheduling, I was the person who had to direct the spring musical. I somehow convinced actors, musicians, and crew to join me in this difficult show, one which when it premiered on Broadway had been a legendary failure. (See the excellent film Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened for the inside scoop on that.) We had a particularly strong group of seniors at the school that year, many with good skills with music, though not many with a lot of theatre experience. I was young and innocent, so while I knew the task would be hard, I wasn't experienced enough yet to know that it was nearly impossible, even foolhardy. Yet everyone fell in love with the story and the characters and, more than anything, the music and lyrics. I don't think any of us slept for weeks. (Actually, I know we slept occasionally, because I remember waking up every morning with the songs running through my head. It was actually a nice way to wake!) The result was a beautiful show, one the students made very much their own. It taught me how adaptable Sondheim's work was, how deeply it could speak to people of all sorts of backgrounds and interests and experiences.

When the pandemic hit, big plans for Sondheim's 90th birthday celebration suddenly had to be postponed. On April 26, 2020, various luminaries managed to put together a delightful lockdown livestream celebration. There were inevitable technical glitches (most people were still very new to a lot of this technology at such a scale!), but also real discoveries within the circumstances. It's remarkable how good so many of the performances are, given the limitations. There had been enough celebrations of Sondheim over the years that we didn't really need yet another review show, but we very much needed to celebrate and find joy as we survived the horror of all that was happening in the world, and the result was moving, funny, disarming, awkward, beautiful, and ultimately tremendously powerful. Sondheim said at times that "Someone in a Tree" was his favorite among his songs, and the performance of it for the 90th birthday celebration brought me to tears. I'd never before seen all of what is in that remarkable song.

I could write an entire memoir of my encounters with Sondheim's work, but I'd rather just share some of my favorites and watch other people do the same. There is great comfort and joy in discovering the various, often unexpected, ways people value something you also value. It was comforting to see people sharing the songs they most cherished on social media as the news of Sondheim's death broke. May we continue to share such things for a long time to come.

Here, then, is a list of a few favorites of my own, and brief reasons. (Sweeney Todd is omitted because while it is highly excerptable, I hate to break apart the astonishing totality.)

Side by Side by Sondheim: "Could I Leave You?"
This was not the first Sondheim show I saw — that was Company in the local college's production when I was too young to understand any of it but nonetheless really loved it — but it was the first that made me pay attention to Sondheim's name. It was a production at a summerstock theatre in either 1987 or 1988, and I just remember being in awe of the ability of three actors and one pianist to hold my attention rapt for it all. Later, it was one of the first CDs I ever owned (a birthday or Christmas present, I'm sure, as the double CD was beyond my own budget back then) and I memorized every word and every note. It's hard to choose one track from the whole album to single out, but David Kernan singing "Could I Leave You" is one of the most meaningful for me because though the song was written for a heterosexual female character originally, Side by Side didn't change the lyrics, so he sings, "Could I bury my rage with a boy half your age in the grass? / Bet your ass. / But I've done that already. / Or didn't you know, love?" That, to young teenage me, beginning for the first time to admit his own queerness, was dynamite in every possible sense of the word.

Assassins: "The Ballad of Booth" performed by students at Brandeis University
Sometime around 1993 or 1994, the Brandeis University Department of Theatre put on a production of Assassins and I traveled down to see it. This was the first Sondheim show to premiere after I knew who he was and had fallen in love with his work, but I had never been to New York and so did not have a chance to see the original production. I had a tape of the cast recording, and loved (most of) it. It was subversive, weird, catchy. Even on the cast album, it was clear the show kind of fell apart in the end, but overall I thought it was all fun and fascinating. I was in high school. I don't know how I learned of Brandeis's production, but I did and found my way to the theatre on my own — I remember because I had recently gotten my driver's license, and it was one of the first places I ever drove to where I had to find my own way. "The Ballad of Booth" is a wonderful, rich, complex song that suddenly became more complex for me when Brandeis's Narrator stepped forth. He was African-American. I'm sure he was cast for his charisma and singing ability, both quite powerful, but his race added a new dynamic that I'm sure you can imagine if you know the text. I never wanted to see a white Narrator again.

That production ended up competing for a regional theatre conference that the university in my hometown was the site for that year, so Brandeis brought their production up to our little town. My parents went with me, since I probably talked about the show endlessly and they were curious what the fuss was all about. My father, a gun dealer, detested it. I had very conflicted feelings about that, desiring my father to enjoy what I so deeply enjoyed, but also pleased to see the show could really deeply unsettle someone.

"Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along
A song Sondheim admitted (because it's obvious) is somewhat autobiographical. I didn't know Merrily well until the 1994 revival album came out — I had a tape of the original Broadway cast, but mostly disliked it. The revival closed a few weeks before I moved to NY and I was terribly sad to miss it, but I got the CD eventually and it opened the show up for me. But even on the original cast recording, I had liked "Opening Doors", which captured my own dreams and hopes as I went to NYC to be a playwright. Those dreams and hopes soon transformed, but the song always brings me back to some of the sweet innocence of those days. I don't think there's yet been a knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark recording of the whole Merrily score, but the least painful (to my ears) is that of the Leicester Haymarket cast, which I've linked to there, though there are plenty of good versions of the song.

"The Miller's Son" sung by Rachel York in Putting It Together
"The Miller's Son"
is from A Little Night Music originally, a show I had actually seen a production of before I got the Putting It Together cast album — an album I quickly fell in love with — but it wasn't until I heard Rachel York sing it that I really noticed the song. The tempo for the rapid sections is a little faster than in most recordings of Night Music and York does a marvelous job moving between the moods in the song. When I first heard her sing it, I dreamed of becoming a drag queen so I could sing it myself. (I don't really have higher praise for a song!) In this version, you really get to savor the lyrics "It's a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension," lines  York sings with ease, making them sound somehow natural and not a tongue twister. And she makes a real cri de coeur of "There's a lot I'll have missed, but I'll not have been dead when I die / And a person should celebrate ev'-ry-thing passing by!"

Dorothy Loudon singing "Losing My Mind" and "You Could Drive a Person Crazy"
In concept, this is something of a stunt — mixing the heartbreaking "Losing My Mind" from Follies with the hilarious "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" from Company. And yet as Dorothy Loudon sings it, the mix feels inevitable and sublime, enriching both songs. I saw Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall when it was first broadcast, and while there were quite a few phenomenal performances, this is the one that I most vividly remember. (Close runner up from the same concert: Madeline Kahn singing "Getting Married Today", which proves how valuable it is to have a great comedian sing the song. Her delivery of "I'm not well, so I'm not getting married," cracks me up every time.)

"Move On" and "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park with George
Like many of the shows, pretty much every song in Sunday in the Park with George is of interest, but the ones I consistently come back to are these. "Move On" shows how powerful simple, straightforward, carefully-chosen words can be: "I chose and my world was shaken. So what? The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not. You have to move on." The performance by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters for Sondheim's 80th birthday concert, decades after they originated the roles, is both beautiful and powerful.

"Sunday" ends Act I of the show, and is just a sublime piece of music. It's one of those songs that tempts me say, "If you don't feel at least a little emotion listening to the climax of this, then I wonder if you're actually alive." The recording for the original Broadway cast album is my favorite, because orchestrator Jonathan Tunick outdid himself with the arrangement and the mix is just right, not the overamplified, undynamic mixes producers nowadays inflict on cast albums. (Yes, I am a curmudgeon who dislikes a lot of amplification and wants cast albums to sound like theatre, not a pop album. I am old.)

Audra McDonald, "The Glamorous Life"
Audra McDonald is one of the greatest performers on the planet, and I would listen to her sing anything. She has recorded and performed a version of "The Glamorous Life" a few times that adapts the song into a solo. It doesn't require a lot of adaptation — mostly just cutting — but it nonetheless makes it a pretty different song, and it's fun to get this more intimate perspective. Sondheim's songs are highly adaptable, as so many revues have shown. (This can be a problem; the virtues of the full scores and scripts sometimes get missed, and there are plenty of pieces that work very well in context but don't thrive when pulled out of context, so remain less appreciated.)

Elaine Stritch, "I'm Still Here" at the birthday concert
It's Elaine Stritch in her mid-80s singing with verve, gusto, and determination one of Sondheim's greatest songs. It's a song plenty of people have performed brilliantly from the very beginning, but for me, knowing Stritch's long history in the theatre (and iconic status within the Sondheim world — her "Ladies Who Lunch" is the performance of that song, and her "Broadway Baby" is a hoot) — this is the performance I go back to for this astonishing song.

"Someone in a Tree" sung by Ann Harada, Thom Sesma, Kelvin Moon Loh and Austin Ku for Sondheim's 90th birthday
The pandemic put a stop to all sorts of plans, including plans for a 90th birthday celebration for Stephen Sondheim. Locked down in New York, people got creative. As I said above, the whole of Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration is astonishing; it was the first event in those early days of horror that gave me some hope and joy. Seeing it as it streamed live was really one of the great theatre experiences of my life, even though not in a theatre. There are a bunch of good and a few great performances, but "Someone in a Tree" captured my heart. I had never quite understood before why Sondheim himself esteemed it so highly, but this guileless performance revealed it to me, and I found myself in tears by the end. Something about the circumstances, the need for simplicity and innovation, turned this song into pure magic.

George: White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.