Even figuring out how to begin is a challenge. Was it for him? I don’t know.
News of Stephen Sondheim’s death hit me unexpectedly hard. Unexpectedly, because who am I? I enjoy musical theater. I appreciate good writing and good music no matter the genre. Those are my qualifications, I guess. I was in a couple shows more than a decade ago and although I sometimes dream of performing in more, I also dream of owning a pinball table, so. And the shows I was in weren’t even Sondheim shows — JOSEPH and The Fantasticks.
As far as I can remember, the only actual experience I have of performing Sondheim in front of other people is bombing “In Praise of Women” for a vocal test or audition or something in music school at Indiana University shortly before failing most of my music courses, transferring schools and entirely changing my career path. I still feel badly for my accompanist, who did his absolute best helping someone who had no business being there. Sorry again, Eric.
I don’t know when the first time I heard a Sondheim score was, or the first time I saw a performance of one of his shows. I have a vague memory of watching the filmed version of the original Broadway cast of ‘Into the Woods’ in a music class in school maybe, because that seems like the sort of thing we did in the 90s, but that’s not definite.
I think I’ve only seen two productions live: a production of Sweeney Todd by Opera Theatre St. Louis in 2012 and a community theatre production of A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum by KTK here in 2013. I remember discovering the 2006 Broadway revival of Company on Netflix. I saw the 2011 filmed version with Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert, Patti LuPone, Anika Noni Rose, et al. at, I think, the Tivoli.
I picked up “Finishing the Hat” from the library one day — I recognized the lyric, and of course the author but otherwise I didn’t know what it was — and was engrossed. I was pleased to find a copy at the St. Louis Book Fair earlier this year. It is inscribed “To Bobo, from Isabel” and while I don’t know who they are or why Bobo would donate such a wonderful book, I am grateful to them for it, and thankful Isabel gave such a thoughtful gift.
The book (and its counterpart “Look, I Made a Hat”) encapsulates something I almost always discover about people who do great work: The amount of thought and care and labor they put into making something, and something that when it makes its way into your brain seems like it could never have been anything else. But of course it could have. I discover it every time, and I am surprised by it every time, and it is the most obvious thing in the world. Every note, every rhyme, every syllable was cared for. It was not inevitable, it was hard work. And not only did he do the work, he told us how he did the work.
It’s a special kind of magic, really. A magician can perform for you and you can experience it and be amazed by what you’ve just experienced. But there’s another level to it when the magician can explain what they’re about to do — really explain the trick, how it works, the moves and misdirections — and then perform it and not only are you still fooled and amazed, but then you can begin to consider the thinking, the repetitions, the perfection it must have taken to pull off. And the man wrote 19 shows.
Last weekend, I also checked out James Lapine’s new book “Putting it Together” about creating Sunday in the Park with George with Sondheim. I was speeding pleasantly along through it this week. I enjoyed the interview style, like sitting off to the side while Lapine and Sondheim were having a conversation. It will be odd to pick it back up and finish it now, I think.
Coincidentally, perhaps because I was reading that book, as my wife and I were looking for something to watch on TV to wind down on Thanksgiving evening, I turned on the 2014 Disney version of Into the Woods, which neither of us had seen. Generally enjoyable, though I was disappointed “No More” was cut.
And in another coincidence, this time just after I heard the news, we turned on the most recent episode of the UK game show “Only Connect” — it was from a few days ago. In one of the rounds, the players are given a board with 16 short clues, and they’re challenged to make four groups that each have some connection between the clues in that group. Some of the clues on this one happened to be Into the Woods, Company, Follies, Passion and Saturday Night, which I pretty quickly realized must form a group of Sondheim musicals. (The “Company” clue was a red herring that fit into another group, and the team correctly identified the group and the connection).
I’m not sure why I’m writing all this out. As I said at the top — I appreciate musical theater, but I’m not a theater geek or even a performer in that way, really. I never met the man, but I was briefly in the same room as him. He came to my radio station for an interview in 2018. He made a bit of news by saying he thought protests calling for color-conscious casting were “ridiculous”. A disappointing moment.
I remember last year, when everyone was all shut in their houses, watching Sondheim’s 90th birthday celebration live-streamed on YouTube. It was a little more than a month after Broadway shut down. I remember thinking how incredible it was, seeing all these big names reduced to a rectangle on a screen, as we all had been. They experienced technical difficulties, as we all had. And they were getting by as best as they could, as we all were. And then Mandy Patinkin sang from Sunday in the Park with George IN a park, and for just a brief moment that was all we needed. Following along the livestream and the hashtag on Twitter was a communal experience folks were aching for even after — looking back now — such a relatively short time into dealing with all of this.
I never even wanted to be a performer, as such. I was going to school to teach music. Specifically, choir. I know now, and not just from that failed attempt at the A Little Night Music song, that I would not have made a very good choir teacher for a number of reasons. So instead, I became a journalist. Specifically, a data journalist. I try to use data, and often graphics, to explain to an audience what’s happening in the world and why they should care. I’m not sure when Sondheim’s lyrics and music found their way so deeply into my brain. But I guess maybe that’s why. I’ve banked my career on the concept that it’s worthwhile to help people understand the world around them. I appreciate it when something helps my brain makes sense of something it doesn’t initially understand.
That’s what I get from Sondheim’s work, more than any other composer or lyricist so far. Among other things, he writes about art, the act of creation, growing up, parenting, wish fulfillment, death, truth, being alone, relationships, evil, grace. He makes them make sense.
The world is a confusing place. I’m lucky if I can help a reporter explain how the population of the city has changed over the past ten years, or how students in local school districts did on achievement tests, or where all the money went. To explain the passion to create? That’s a whole different level. And it rhymed.
I appreciate that Sondheim was around for 91 years and so diligently, passionately dedicated his life — to the end — to exploring and explaining what initially doesn’t make sense about humanity. I am glad that his work will go on inspiring a long time from now. I am thankful that he generously taught and encouraged and worked with so many of the next generation of storytellers, who continue to explore and explain why we are how we are.
Trouble is, son, the farther you runStephen Sondheim, “No More”, from Into the Woods
The more you’ll feel undefined
For what you have left undone, and more
What you’ve left behind
We disappoint, we leave a mess, we die, but we don’t
We disappoint in turn, I guess. Forget, though, we won’t
Stephen Joshua Sondheim, 1930 — 2021