Tribute to Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) - Part 1
Updated: Mar 4, 2022
This is the first of two blogs in response to the death of Stephen Sondheim.
The year 2021 has been one of some deep losses for Broadway. Just when Broadway was starting to reopen after being shutdown for a year and a half, the theater community mourned the loss of the legendary composer/lyricist, Stephen Sondheim. Theater nerds tend to either love Sondheim to the point of obsession, or feel rather unmoved by his work, while the world outside of theater hardly knows the name. However, Sondheim is considered perhaps the most important musical theater writer of the latter 20th Century. His most well-known works were West Side Story and Gypsy, for both of which he wrote lyrics only. He went on to write music and lyrics for an impressive litany of artistically celebrated musicals, including Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods. He won eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, a Pulitzer Prize, received Kennedy Center Honors, and the list goes on.
For someone whose shows were mostly not commercial hits, Sondheim gets talked about an awful lot. Why is he so important?
Sondheim was mentored by another musical theater giant, book writer/lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, of the famed Rodgers and Hammerstein duo. This ground-breaking team pioneered the format known as the integrated musical, in which story takes precedence over sheer entertainment, and thus the songs were written to move the story forward. Prior to that, musicals existed more or less to feature songs that were already popular, and had flimsy, joke-filled plots. Their big hits include The Sound of Music, South Pacific, and The King and I.
Stephen Sondheim took this model to another level. If Hammerstein’s lyrics brought more of the reality of life to the musical stage, leading us to believe more in hope and beauty, Sondheim’s brought the challenges of the heart, leading us to believe someone else understands what we’re going through. His lyrics exposed the complexity of our feelings, and gave us permission to admit some of our inner struggles, even when things might seem to be going well on the outside. Life doesn’t always end up happily ever after. And even if we get what we want, do we know what we want? Can we be sorry and grateful? There are many, many examples I could share, but I’ll start with one that hit me profoundly this year.
If Hammerstein’s lyrics brought more of the reality of life to the musical stage, leading us to believe more in hope and beauty, Sondheim’s brought the challenges of the heart, leading us to believe someone else understands what we’re going through.
Over the summer I musically directed the junior version of Into the Woods with a group of teenagers. Into the Woods follows the journey of a few fairy tale characters whose paths intertwine, and who don’t necessarily live “happily ever after”, at least, not in Act 2. It’s a show that deconstructs the notion of the easily-wrought happy ending, in life and in fiction. This was the first show these teens (or most of us, for that matter) had done since the shutdown of New York City due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The kids had hardly been out of the house for a year and a half, and had hardly been able to socialize, or even be in the same room with anyone other than their families for the duration of the shutdown. It was a rough time to be a teenager. Just being together again in-person with their friends felt like a miracle had come to pass. The junior version of Woods ends at the end of Act 1, so we wanted to add some songs from Act 2 as an epilogue at the end. The obvious choices were Children Will Listen and No One is Alone, both of which spoke profoundly to the moment we were in. However, I insisted that we also allow our student playing the baker to sing No More. When our 15-year old baker sang the lyrics:
Can’t we just pursue our lives,
with our children and our wives?
Till that happier day arrives,
how can you ignore
All the witches,
All the curses,
All the wolves, all the lies,
The false hopes, the goodbyes, the reverses,
All the wondering what even worse is
Still in store?
The words were like a hand that opened a dark curtain over our hearts to reveal what was there. These were the questions so many people were asking, having survived the pandemic so far, and wondering if we were out yet, or if something worse was still in store. It was as if Sondheim’s lyrics spoke a question that was more like a prayer directly from our hearts. The tears flowed. I don’t know if I would call it healing, but it was certainly locating, which is the first step in true healing.
The words were like a hand that opened a dark curtain over our hearts to reveal what was there.
To give a little more background about and insight into Stephen Sondheim, after writing the lyrics for West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959), he went on to write both music and lyrics for almost all of his subsequent works, with one exception. He stepped into the lyricist-only role one last time on Do I Hear a Waltz (1965) with Richard Rodgers as composer, to fill the gap left by his mentor Hammerstein, who'd died of stomach cancer in 1960. In 1970 Sondheim teamed up with director Hal Prince to create the ground-breaking musical, Company. Company was a little wild because rather than have a linear storyline, the show consisted of a series of vignettes and songs centered around a theme, or a concept - in this case, the concept being, the pros-and-cons of marriage in a time when staying single was also becoming a viable option. This type of musical came to be known, unsurprisingly, as a concept musical. Company was also groundbreaking because it portrayed marriage not necessarily as the pinnacle of a happy life, but rather as a complex lifestyle rife with emotional ambiguity. It felt daring, edgy, and relevant, if not a little off-putting for some.
Sondheim wrote music and lyrics for eleven Broadway musicals, spanning from the 1960’s-1990’s. Every one of Sondheim’s musicals has a character and a sound of its own, each one challenging audiences in a fresh way. I could write a thesis (and indeed, many people probably have) about each one, but for your interest level here, I’ll share a few moments from just a few of my faves. This is just to give you a taste of the creative genius of Stephen Sondheim, through the lens of my own personal journey with his work (vulnerability warning!).
I’ll start with a few excerpts from Company (book by George Furth). The main character, Bobby, is single, and newly-turned 35 at the start of the show. His best friends are all married couples who give him some insight into the reality of marriage. The through-line of dramatic tension in the show is the question of whether or not Bobby will ever want to commit to wife.
Below is a bite out of the song Sorry-Grateful, sung by the husbands in the show about their ambiguous feelings towards their wives. I first heard this song as a teenager, and I remember thinking, “it’s so darned honest!” Having struggled with depression in my teenage years, hearing these lyrics helped me realize that there were lots more people who had complex feelings under their happy faces (which wasn't a thing people admitted to so much in the 1980's):
Why look for answers
Where none occur?
You’ll always be what you always were,
Which has nothing to do with,
All to do with her.
I can just feel their love for their wives like an anchor underneath all the other emotion. Ugh, the emotions - what to do with them! (Jesus has an answer, but I'll save that for another blog).
Next I’ll share an excerpt from Marry Me a Little, exposing Bobby’s commitment issues - again, the ambiguity! Part of Bobby's struggle is the finality of marriage. Can you marry someone just a little, or do all the walls come down?
Marry me a little,
Love me just enough.
Cry but, not too often,
Play, but not too rough.
Keep a tender distance,
So we’ll both be free.
That’s the way it ought to be.
The irony here is comical - don't tell us you're ready, Bobby, you just wish you were.
The next lyric sample is from the song Being Alive, perhaps where Bobby finally locates his desire for relationship. Some might argue this is Sondheim’s greatest song ever written. It somehow contains both the potential pain and joy of intimacy:
Someone to hold you too close,
Someone to hurt you too deep,
Someone to sit in your chair,
To ruin your sleep,
And make you aware
Of being alive.
Happiness comes and goes, but being alive, which runs so much deeper, is worth the cost of being "held too close" and "hurt too deep". Are you seeing the genius of this man?
Follies (1971 - book by James Goldman, directed by Hal Prince and Michael Bennet) is also a concept musical, centered around two couples at a reunion of show girls from the fictional Weismann Follies (based on the Ziegfeld Follies), after the world wars, when the age of the glamorous show girl was a thing of the past. Both couples find the exciting life they had in their heyday at the Follies was not the reality of their lives ever since. This show makes one wonder what happens to the American dream when your life peaks in your early 20’s? Could making different choices have led to more happiness?
The Road You Didn’t Take is sung by Benjamin Stone, the male half of one of the married couples. Ben married Phyllis even though he was more in love with Sally, who married Buddy. Regrets abound.
The road you didn’t take
Hardly comes to mind,
The door you didn’t try,
Where could it have led?
The choice you didn’t make
Never was defined,
Was it? Dreams you didn’t dare
Were they ever there? Who said? I don’t remember,
I don’t remember
Phyllis has been stuck in a loveless marriage with Ben for years, and yet, when she asks the question, Could I Leave You?, she starts with:
Leave you? Leave you? How could I leave you?
How could I go it alone?
Could I wave the years away? With a quick goodbye?
How do you wipe tears away when your eyes are dry?
And ends with (spoiler alert!):
Oh, leave you? Leave you?
How could I leave you? Sweetheart, I have to confess,
Could I leave you? Yes Will I leave you? Will I leave you?
I guess that if she hasn't left him by now....
And now for my personal fave Sondheim masterwork, Sunday in the Park with George (1984). Co-conceived with book-writer and director James Lapine, Sunday is another concept musical based on a fictional relationship between real-life 19th Century French pointillist painter, Georges Seurat, and his fictional muse Dot. Dot's character is based on the most prominent female figure in (the real) Seurat's famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
This musical explores the inner struggle of the artistic genius, his focus torn between his obsession with his work, and the woman he loves - at least in Act 1. Act 2 deals more with the artist’s struggle to stay true to his own vision while still figuring out how to win over investors. In my younger years I would play on repeat three songs in a row from Act 1: Everybody Loves Louis, Finishing the Hat, and We Do Not Belong Together. I found them so satisfyingly heart-breaking. I’ll try to illustrate why:
Dot and George have been together for a while, and she understands him, his passion, his art, his genius. She is his muse, his inspiration, the woman he wants to be with above all others - but she is also second to his work. And she’s tired of it. So she starts going around with Louis the Baker to make George jealous. Here’s a snippet from her fast-paced song, Everybody Loves Louis (parenthetical comments are mine):
Louis's always so pleasant,
Louis's always so fair.
Louis makes you feel present,
That's the thing about Louis:
Louis always is there.
Louis's thoughts are not hard to follow,
Louis's art is not hard to swallow.
Not that Louis's perfection-
That's what makes him ideal.
Hardly anything worth objection:
Louis drinks a bit,
Louis blinks a bit.
Louis makes a connection,
That's the thing that you feel…
We lose things.
And then we choose things.
And there are Louis’s.
And there are Georges—
But George has George,
And I need someone—
Ah! There are many Louis’s, but just one George. How more poignantly could a lyricist express a woman’s singular love for a man?
Soon after this song moment, George returns to his work sketching drawings in the park, but he is clearly distracted with thoughts of Dot. As he sings Finishing the Hat, his thoughts are fixated on the details of the hat in his painting, but his heart keeps interjecting with thoughts of Dot (you know it’s his heart because the melody jumps to the height of his range). This is probably the closest we see George come to expressing feelings of love for Dot:
And when the woman that you wanted goes,
You can say to yourself, "Well, I give what I give."
But the woman who won't wait for you knows
That however you live,
There's a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat,
Starting on a hat,
Finishing a hat...
Look, I made a hat
Where there never was a hat.
He has to emphasize how grand it is that he made a flipping hat because he exchanged true love for that darn hat! I’m already in tears by this point (I’m a sap, OK?) but the most heart-wrenching song is the next one, We Do Not Belong Together. Dot, now pregnant (whether the baby is George’s or Louis’ is unclear, but it’s made clear in Act 2), has been offered the chance to go to America with Louis. She tells George to his face to give him one last chance to fight to win her back (I can’t choose one excerpt - here’s the whole thing):
What you care for is yourself.
I care about this painting. You will be in this painting.
I am something you can use.
I had thought you understood.
It's because I understand that I left,
That I am leaving.
Then there's nothing I can say,
Yes. George, there is!
You could tell me not to go.
Say it to me,
Tell me not to go.
Tall me that you're hurt,
Tell me you're relieved.
Tell me that you're bored—
Anything, but don't assume I know.
Tell me what you feel!
What I feel?
You know exactly how I feel.
Why do you insist
You must hear the words,
When you know I cannot give you words?
Not the ones you need.
There's nothing to say.
I cannot be what you want.
What do you want, George?
I needed you and you left.
There was no room for me—
You will not accept who I am.
I am what I do—
Which you knew,
Which you always knew,
Which I thought you were a part of!
You are complete, George,
You are your own.
We do not belong together.
You are complete, George,
You all alone.
I am unfinished,
I am diminished
With or without you.
We do not belong together,
And we should have belonged together.
What made it so right together
Is what made it all wrong.
No one is you, George.
There you agree,
But others will do, George.
No one is you and
No one can be,
But no one is me, George,
No one is me.
We do not belong together.
And we'll never belong—!
You have a mission,
A mission to see.
Now I have one too, George.
And we should have belonged together.
I have to move on.
They should have belonged together! If only George hadn’t used his art as an excuse for his own narcissism (oops, did I just say that?). But how stunning, that Dot realizes her own self worth is not giving up even for the man who to her would be the pinnacle of all men, if he could only reciprocate her love. I can’t tell you how refreshing and satisfying it feels to me, as a woman, that she chooses not to put up with it. This is not always the case for our leading ladies of the musical stage.
You can watch the whole show on Youtube with the original cast. I highly recommend it.
If you’ve read up to this point, perhaps you are now a Sondheim nerd as well. Welcome to the club! If you like the lyrics, you should hear them with the music. I recommend listening to the original cast recordings which are probably all available on Youtube and Spotify. Whether this was your introduction to Sondheim’s genius or you are a seasoned Sondheim aficionado, I hope you’ve enjoyed my little jaunt down Sondheim lane. I hope you’ll agree that he’s an artist who deserves a 2700-word homage!