Stephen Sondheim (1930–2021)
On November 26, 2021, Stephen Sondheim passed away. He was the greatest musical theatre composer and lyricist of all time. No other artist has had a more meaningful impact on my life.
Sondheim was 91 when he passed. He lived a very long, very fulfilling life. There’s that old adage about true geniuses not being appreciated in their time — that didn’t apply to Sondheim. He certainly wasn’t always appreciated as a genius, but between a Kennedy Center Honors in 1993, a Broadway theater named in his honor in 2010, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 (not to mention countless birthday concerts), I can’t imagine he died not knowing how we all felt about him. I mean, he won seven competitive Tony Awards (the most of any composer) and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008!
His death was inevitable. It was sudden, but it wasn’t some horrible accident. He was 91. Logically, I understand all of those things. What I’m still working through is why I’m still so sad about it.
I’ve read some gorgeous tributes to Sondheim over the last few days, and for some ungodly reason, I felt compelled to share my own. “I’ve nothing to say. Well, nothing that’s not been said.” I can’t promise it’ll be very interesting, but I know I’ll regret it if I don’t take this opportunity to try and squeeze my grief into words. So here goes.
My high school experience was primarily defined by three things: marching band, becoming obsessed with the Oscars, and becoming obsessed with Sondheim. Other than seeing West Side Story as a preteen, my first exposure to Sondheim’s work was Tim Burton’s 2007 film adaptation of Sweeney Todd. I was a fledgling musical theatre nut, a pimply and awkward 13-year-old who couldn’t get enough of Wicked and Rent and Phantom. My friend Gabby had the Sweeney Todd DVD and let me borrow it, assuring me I would love it. I don’t love horror movies, and I don’t love violence, and I was way, way worse about that stuff as a teenager, so you can understand why my first viewing of Sweeney Todd was mostly seen through my fingers. Still, I was struck by it. The music was unlike anything I’d ever heard. That Christmas, I spent an iTunes gift card (remember those?) on the Original Broadway Cast Album, and suddenly I had a new favorite musical.
The dominoes fell quickly after that. Thanks to a ravenous hunger for all things Broadway, a very active presence on the Musicals.net forums, and a pretty open social schedule, I spent my freshman year of high school working my way through the rest of Sondheim’s shows. I don’t remember if I did it in any real order, but I know Company came after Sweeney. I know, surprisingly, I came to Into the Woods late. I gave Passion several tries before it finally clicked with me somewhere around my junior year. I got a boxset of proshot DVDs for my 17th birthday. His monumental books Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat were published my senior year. Senior year was also when I played the Baker in Into the Woods (a role I would get the opportunity to play again three years later in college). I had even successfully turned a few friends (and my father) onto Sondheim’s work. It was all Sondheim, all the time, baby.
My Sondheim obsession never really let up. It’s been an ongoing fact of life for the better part of the last thirteen years. In that time, I went to college, met the person who would become my fiancée, got a theatre degree, worked professionally as an actor and dramaturg, and started working towards an MFA. Musical theatre is one of my most cherished things, an art form defined by joy and empathy and its limitless possibility. It’s not the only kind of theatre I love, though: since graduating college, I’ve fallen deeply in love with both new play development and Shakespeare, to name a few. Theatre is my calling. Sondheim is the reason why.
Almost as soon as I heard that he had passed, I found myself suddenly able to articulate for the first time the ways his work changed the way I think about musical theatre. There were musicals I fell in love with before his, but I was engaging with them exclusively from the perspective of enjoying the music and enjoying the way the music made me feel. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but Sondheim flipped the switch in my mind that turned me into a dramaturg: shows like Sweeney Todd and Pacific Overtures and Follies made me lean forward and work to understand the inner workings of the story. It became less a matter of “this is how the music is making me feel” and more “this is why the music is making me feel this way.”
What are the inner workings of my story? Why is his death making me feel this way?
I never met him. I never even wrote to him, even though I told myself I would someday. This loss still hurts. A lot.
By some miracle, I had a scheduled therapy session the day after Sondheim passed. Without giving you too much insight into my personal life, my biggest goal with this therapist is to figure out why I have trouble crying. I just can’t seem to do it. It’s the simplest thing in the world. “Anyone can whistle.” As someone predisposed to anxiety, I want to cry almost all of the time, but the tears won’t flow. There’s a bottling company working overtime deep inside me, and I want them out of business. My dad and my sister frequently cry at Publix commercials. That’s how I’m trying to be.
I’ve cried a lot over the last two days. That feels like a big deal. I got to start my session yesterday with: “Good news! I’ve been crying!” She congratulated me and asked me why, so I told her, choking up all over again: “An old man I never met died yesterday.”
Luckily for me, she knew nothing about Sondheim. I got to tell her everything. It was a real-life “tell him what you know” moment. At some point, she got teary-eyed herself. Near the end of the session, she said she hoped I would keep crying. “He did so much for you in life. Maybe his death can be just as meaningful.”
As I’ve revisited his songs, I’ve been hit with two distinct waves of emotions: the actual emotional circumstances, the dramatic contexts, of the songs tend to hit me first (“Too Many Mornings,” “We Do Not Belong Together,” “Being Alive”). Then I get hit with my many, many memories of living with these notes and words all these years.
“It’s the fragment, not the day. It’s the pebble, not the stream. It’s the ripple, not the sea.”
It’s the little things.
I think about watching the Sunday in the Park with George proshot on my iPod Nano after a final exam in 10th grade. I think about the time I managed to get my school choir to sing “Our Time” at our graduation. That year in college when my roommates and I would put a daily Sondheim lyric on our communal whiteboard. The many, many times in high school that my friend Tad and I would sing Sondheim songs in his car. The time I saw Bernadette Peters in concert and asked her to sign my copy of Look, I Made a Hat. The weekends spent plugging “Someone in a Tree” or “A Weekend in the Country” into a music notation software so I could pick apart Jonathan Tunick’s intricate orchestrations. The time I signed up for Tumblr and claimed the URL “charmingbutnotsincere.” The time I got to sing “It Takes Two” with my then-girlfriend (now fiancée) in college. The time she made me a dry erase board with the words “White: a blank page or canvas” inscribed onto it. The time she made me a piece of wall art that says “Someday just began.” The endless conversations we’ve had about Sondheim. The way that she’s just as devastated as I am by his passing.
“I see it all. It’s like a movie in my head that plays and plays.”
Sondheim called teaching a “sacred profession.” His mentorship to the next generation of theatre artists was boundless in its generosity. One of the most moving things about his death is seeing how many people were touched by his work and guidance, either directly or indirectly. In her own beautiful tribute, Helena Fitzgerald wrote that “like everyone else who loves Sondheim, on some level I believe that I’m the only person who knows about Sondheim.” This is true: so much of my relationship with his work has felt so private, even in spite of the deeply communal experience of making theatre. I thought I knew everything there was to know about him.
What a gift, then, to continue learning new things about him after his death. I had no idea he was still such an avid theatergoer (he saw the experimental documentary plays Dana H. and Is This a Room on Broadway just last week). Jeremy O. Harris shared a story about Sondheim coming to the opening of Slave Play. Lynn Nottage revealed what his support meant to her, as one of the many playwrights impacted by the Young Playwrights Festival, founded by Sondheim. I knew about people like Jonathan Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda, but it never really occurred to me just how far-reaching his impact was. He was so deeply invested in the state of the art that he was still showing up and supporting the new generations of theatre-makers.
I can’t imagine what my favorite art form would be without him. I don’t know who I would be without him. He was foundational to so many of my closest relationships. I’ll miss him very much, but his work and legacy will probably outlive all of us. I’m so grateful to have shared the planet with him for the last 27 years.
One last thing: when I sat down to write this, I had the grand idea of listing 91 of my favorite Sondheim songs, complete with a little blurb about what they all mean to me. Taking the time to write all of that is ridiculous, and narrowing the list down to 91 is impossible (although I did take a stab at the list; you can listen to it on Spotify here). I’ll leave you with three (just three!) performances of Sondheim’s work that have moved me deeply over the years.
First: Judi Dench’s peerless “Send in the Clowns” from the 1995 Royal National Theatre production of A Little Night Music.
Second: George Abud’s shimmering reinterpretation of “Children and Art” from SONDHEIMAS 2015.
Finally: Mako, James Dybas, Gedde Watanabe, and Mark Hsu Syers’ performance of “Someone in a Tree” from the original 1976 Broadway production of Pacific Overtures. Of all of his songs, this was Sondheim’s favorite. Most of the time, it’s mine, too.
Thanks for everything, Steve.