At age six, I saw the local high school production of West Side Story. While I didn’t file away many memories of the show, I remember how it felt, the sensation of magic, of witnessing something that transcended every experience I’d ever had. During the tragic ending, I cried, and I remember my mother leaning over, her breath too hot in my ear: “It’s all pretend. Everybody’s okay.” And though I didn’t dare say it to her, I thought, You’re wrong. It’s pretend-but-not-pretend. Leave me alone. I’m trying to crawl inside it!
Sondheim wrote lyrics for West Side Story, his first highly successful, highly visible musical. He was irked to share a music-and-lyrics credit with Leonard Bernstein because he knew even then: “I don’t just do lyrics.” He longed to live into the fulness of his gifts. He’d have the opportunity, eventually.
In high school, a friend introduced me to Into the Woods, and that show can take a lifetime to understand. Much of it went right over my head despite being a narrative of children’s fairy tales. I could not figure out, as a teen, why we needed the second act when the first act ended as fairy tales are meant to: granting of wishes, marriages, children. I had neither the perspective nor the experience to understand why Sondheim let things fall apart afterward, not knowing that things do fall apart, that many times what we wish for is not what we need and that marriage and children–even coming of age–are neither endings nor fulfillment but a piece of a growing story, and if we’re lucky, we grow until we die.
But even not understanding all this, I fell in love with “I Know Things Now,” Little Red’s commentary post-wolf-consumption. My life was still at the beginning of the song–“Mother said, ‘Straight ahead,’ not to delay or be misled,’ but I sensed a kinship with what happened next…”I had been so careful, I never had cared…down a dark slimy path where lie secrets that I never wished to know…everything familiar seemed to disappear forever…I know things now, many valuable things that I hadn’t known before…though scary is exciting, nice is different than good…now I know: don’t be scared, Granny is right, just be prepared; isn’t it nice to know a lot! And a little bit not.” How many times I’ve lived this since first I heard it!
Around the time I left home for college, I came upon the soundtrack of Merrily We Roll Along, which many people know as Sondheim’s famous flop. Deeply flawed in every way, from casting to narrative structure to costume design to set, it lasted just a few performances on Broadway. Even Stephen Sondheim could fail. But what is failure, anyway? If the end-all goal is making money, then on Merrily, Stephen Sondheim failed. But if it’s about inspiration and art, then Sondheim succeeded triumphantly. Between ages seventeen and twenty-seven, I must have listened to “Opening Doors” three or four times every week. That song is the story of three young people struggling to make it in New York City, and it fed my courage to try it myself. And this, of course, is the theme of Merrily. When your work becomes about money, power, or fame–when you lose your passion for what you love–then that’s the point when you’ve lost the thread. Every other failure will pass.
“Hey,” said a friend of mine, halfway through my sophomore year of college, “want to come with me and a couple of friends to see a production of Sweeney Todd? They do it at midnight on Halloween night outside on the grounds of the state mental hospital.” And it was a full moon, no less. I wore about six layers of clothing and shivered, mouth agape, through two and a half hours of a comedic epic tragedy about cannibalism. This is a musical? It pushed the limits of acceptable art, and going to see it in the nighttime with a mixed-gender group pushed the boundaries of allowable behavior at Brigham Young University. I felt daring and rebellious, two things I rarely experienced, and I gathered groups to go with me Halloween night both junior and senior years.
I moved to New York City in 2007, and Broadway was right there, as I’d always known it would be. I saw Gypsy with Patti LuPone, and she came up right behind me in the house to bark that famous first line: “Sing out, Louise!” And A Little Night Music, for which Catherine Zeta-Jones received top billing, but what I remember is Angela Lansbury. She sang “Liaisons,” never moving from her wheelchair, eighty-four years old, and the woman can’t even sing, really–but she kept a house of a thousand people motionless, silent, perfectly still, and I thought, “I want to be her when I grow up.”
“Take Me to the World,” Sondheim’s 90th birthday celebration, streamed on YouTube April 26, 2020. We’d been in lockdown for more than a month, but it still felt new and deeply traumatic. I distinctly remember still running on high, adrenaline streaming unceasingly, not sleeping much, working ten or twelve hours every day and then pacing in circles for 20,000 steps because I simply could not stop moving. Every great Broadway performer filmed a tribute. Neil Patrick Harris brought his kids. Laura Benanti sang from her bathroom–“the acoustics are better”–and Chip Zien wore the original baker’s hat. Donna Murphy was, as always, quiet perfection. And there was this, which I still go back and watch when my spirits are dragging.
But the moment I’m revisiting this morning? Mandy Patinkin did a tribute a cappella in the middle of a grassy field, and he introduced it with the words we all long for today: “Sondheim says everything I wish I could say.”
There’s a production of Company on Broadway right now, and in it is Claybourne Elder, who I worked with a few times and who is still a Facebook friend. I want to share what he had to say Friday evening:
After the matinee our producers gathered us on stage, which is never good news. We were all still in our costumes, getting ready to have our dinner break before the evening show. We gathered in a circle, many of us holding hands or with our arms around each other. Our director Marianne Elliot told us that Steve had passed, that it had been easy and that his loved ones were with him. Today was our 10th performance of the show, before the pandemic we had 9 performances then the theatres closed because of covid. We were celebrating that we had crossed that barrier and then this news came.
Steve spent his whole life championing young artists. At 25 he gave me my first job starring in his last new musical Road Show at the Public Theatre. I had gone to the open chorus call and the director John Doyle and Steve Sondheim took a big chance on me, an unknown actor without an agent.
He loved authenticity and new ideas. His shows have been reinvented and revived with his blessing; he loved having his words reimagined. So many writers are precious with their material, but Steve was always open to new ideas.
On our first preview of Company, the director had the cast come out on stage right before the show. The audience went wild, we were very emotional. It had been such a long wait to return to Broadway. After our director introduced us, Patti Lupone stepped forward and dedicated our performance to Steve Sondheim. They threw a spotlight on him and he stood up, the light was so bright – I hesitate to say that he looked like an angel, he would have hated that. But he did.
In his youth, Stephen Sondheim was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II. He himself went on to mentor Lin Manuel Miranda, Jonathan Larson, and countless more, as Clay references in his reflections. Sondheim once said, “I just hope that I’ve paid back some of the debt I owe to Oscar.” I affirm that he has. Sondheim not only mentored and inspired; he served as a model of how one mentors and inspires. He’s been with me through every stage of my life, and he’ll be with me through many more, without ever needing to meet me.
This is what it looks like: gifts well used, a life well lived. As Stephanie J. Block tweeted last night, “There’s a giant in the sky.”