This is the second of my two blogs in response to the death of Stephen Sondheim. If you haven’t yet read that blog, or if you are unfamiliar with who he is and his work, I recommend reading A Tribute to Stephen Sondheim first.
Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) lived a long life, one worthy of celebrating. My one regret in regards to his death, apart from the fact that death is horrible and always will be and I wish no one had to die, is that I never got to meet him one-on-one. I always wanted to have the chance to talk to him about the impact his works have made on my life. I have to confess, I have a kernel of envy towards my colleagues who received one of Sondheim’s famous personal, type-written notes. I never realized how personable he was towards young musical theater writers until after his death, when my Facebook feed was flooded with photos of his succinct notes of encouragement to many of my colleagues. I realized then that he was more than a giant of our industry who was admired merely for his artistic abilities. He was a bit of a patriarch as well.
I realized then that he was more than a giant of our industry who was admired merely for his artistic abilities. He was a bit of a patriarch as well.
The theater community is interesting in this way. There’s this strong, magnetic sense of camaraderie, almost like family, among its members. The Sondheim-obsessed have a sense of kinship, like everyone in this club “gets it”. Gets what? Gets that “all it has to be is good, and George you’re good, you’re really good;” and gets the need for “someone to hold you too close, someone to hurt you too deep, someone to sit in your chair, and ruin your sleep, and make you aware of being alive;” and the poignancy of 40-year old alcoholic Mary singing to her old friend Frank, “I don’t know who we are anymore and I’m starting not to care;” and the psychological accuracy of Cinderella deliberating about her feelings towards the prince with “how can you know who you are till you know what you want, which you don’t?” Those of us who were attracted to lyrics of this nature were just that type - those searching for who we were. In Sondheim’s words, set perfectly to his music, we found that we were not alone.
For us theater geeks who grew up in the 1980’s, the age when cliques ruled the social stratosphere in a particularly pronounced way, everyone at school seemed to have a label assigned to them such as jock, nerd, popular, loser, freak, etc. I was one who didn’t seem to fit into any such category, and so I wondered what was wrong with me - until I heard the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. And then I discovered there was a deeper level of humanity that transcended the categories. And that was the level where I wanted to exist. That is why I drank in every word, savored every line, like it was a new discovery of another dimension of life.
I wondered what was wrong with me - until I heard the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. And then I discovered there was a deeper level of humanity that transcended the categories. And that was the level where I wanted to exist.
When those of us who shared this obsession with Sondheim found each other, it felt like we belonged to our own little club. And then it became its own clique. We were deep, smug, superior. We “got it”.
For the smaller subset of the Sondheim “club” who went on to become musical theater writers, his perfect rhymes loom in the back of our head, but as so much more than just perfect rhymes - the perfect word landed at the perfect time, and the fact that it rhymed seemed like a happy accident and an inevitability all at once - it had to be that word. I mean, “first you’re another sloe-eyed vamp, then someone’s mother, then you’re camp” is both a perfect rhyme, and the absolute shockingly and perfectly poignant way for an over-aged show-girl to express that she feels out-dated and virtually useless to the world at this time in her life (can you imagine if the lyric went something like, “I feel outdated, and virtually useless” - the difference in impact is almost offensive). This is the mold we sought to be shaped by. It was hard. No, it was, and is, impossible.
So what now? We move on.
I have an exhortation that will hopefully be received also as an encouragement: It’s time for the season of worshiping giants to come to an end. Constantly gazing at someone else’s work means I am not looking at the raw materials inside of me that are awaiting formation. I am too busy wondering how I can shape them to look like someone else’s finished product. I am unfinished, I am diminished, because I can never fill the mold of perfect craftsmanship coupled with the perfect poignant word choice that Stephen Sondheim created. It’s not my mold. And besides, that’s not what the world needs now.
It's time for the season of worshiping giants to come to an end.
Don’t get me wrong - we’ll always need to study the craftsmanship of Stephen Sondheim, and we will always learn from it. His work will always be there for us to take in and absorb. And it will probably always feel relevant.
But no more giants, please.
Anything we weigh against ourselves that leads to feelings of inadequacy has too much power over us. If it’s not Stephen Sondheim for you, then it might be someone else. We need to see what happens when we are not hidden in their shadow. It’s an opportunity to see ourselves in a new light - how God created us, uniquely and individually. Without trying to fit into someone else’s mold, we suddenly see the shape of our own, and if we take the time, we can see that there’s more in us than we ever realized. In doing so, we can see that each one of us has something more beautiful and impactful to offer the world than we ever thought possible.
Besides, anything written by a mere mortal is not the final word.
Sondheim was once a god to me, but that idol came crashing down decades ago when I realized his lyrics gave me something to relate to, but could never lift me out of the melancholy, or even despair that I shared with some of his characters. His words had empathy, but no power to bring me into a life of everlasting joy and peace, knowing I was loved unconditionally. I came to learn that only Jesus Christ could do that.
It’s time to get back to our God, our churches, our families, and ourselves, and peel off the pseudo-identities that latch onto us through human worship. This is not a slight against Mr. Sondheim in any way. He had his time and his purpose, and he left a great legacy that will be celebrated for ages to come. But yesterday is done. And the theater community, as wonderful as the people in it are, is not a church, and it’s not even a family. You might have close friends and family in it, but there is no covenant bond made through working together, only the illusion of it through shared experiences. That’s probably why the sting of rejection hurts so bad when we feel left out of it. We feel like we should belong, but then we’re not always invited in - kind of like those aforementioned cliques in junior high school. And furthermore, by seeking to find those who we thought were like us, we’ve excluded those who are not. I have had to confess and repent of this attitude of superiority a number of times before God, and it got real. He’s not for it at all. That deeper level of humanity that we found in Sondheim’s lyrics exists in everyone - not just those who “get it”.
So where does that leave us, once the giants are gone?
It leaves some empty space. Who fills it? Who do we gaze upon? Who do we emulate? Who do we admire? Who do we aspire to be like?
The answer seems obvious, but if I say it out loud, I fear it will be received as a pat, religious answer. But it’s not. Because if we really and truly allowed Jesus to fill that empty space, we would not have the voices in the back of our heads telling us what’s wrong with our work, and with who we are - the voices that constantly paralyze us from moving forward. The space would be filled with affirmations that we are loved and revelations of His beauty and how that can be manifested in us as people and as artists. It would be filled with hope that things can change, and faith that He is using us this very moment to change them, if we are in one accord with Him. It would be filled with exciting visions given to us from Heaven about what our future could be if we believe and make room for Him to move through us. It would be filled with an ever-present invitation to enter into His presence and tune our ear to His voice, and to see what He sees. It would be filled with Truth that arms us to face the lies and accusations coming against us head on, and defeat them ever after.
What if we did nothing to fill the empty space ourselves, except to ask Him to fill it?
A blank page, or canvas…
If there were even a handful of artists today who cleared the space the giants and idols in our lives have occupied, and instead made room for the voice of our Creator, the voice of Infinite Love, the voice of Grace, Redemption and Hope, the Voice of Truth - that Voice alone to fill that space, I promise you, it would spawn a new generation of art that could be a vessel of world-transformation. Sondheim took Oscar Hammerstein's mantle, and changed the landscape of musical theater. The next mantle to receive now is your own.
Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new.
PS - there are 13 references to Sondheim lyrics in this blog. Some are in quotes, and some are italicized. Can you find them all, and name what show they come from?