During this just-completed, year-long celebration of music theater legend Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday, there have been glorious concerts, numerous revivals and so many versions of “Send in the Clowns” it’s a wonder even he didn’t rise from his seat on the aisle and shout, “They’re here! They’re here, already!” On this his 81st birthday, however, something tells me there won’t be trumpets—and I couldn’t be happier.
It’s not because he shouldn’t be honored; he remains the undisputed modern master of the form who, alongside his collaborators, has created multiple masterpieces that continue to illuminate and inspire. What this “quiet” affords us is the chance to back away from the razzle dazzle of the celebrations and think about the moments that resonate personally. Sondheim, more than anyone else in the music theater, rewards those who take a second look, who go back and listen again with fresh—though perhaps not innocent—ears.
In honor of my idol’s 81st birthday, here are 8 + 1 things I’m grateful for in the life and work of Stephen Sondheim:
1. Stephen Sondheim acknowledges the work of his collaborators. Though most people refer to it as “Sondheim’s Into the Woods,” he takes great care to call it a musical by “Sondheim and Lapine.” He may be a genius but, at the risk of completely bastardizing the actual meaning of the song, no one is alone.
2. The song “Every Day a Little Death” (from a A Little Night Music) astonishes with its needlepoint-fine characterization, sly intelligence and tender simplicity. The melody of the bridge is as romantic a line as you’ll ever hear and (as a counterpoint to the bitterness of the lyric) brilliantly informs us that Charlotte is still passionately in love, whatever she may be saying.
3. “A boy like that / who’d kill your brother / Forget that boy / and find another / one of your own kind / stick to your own kind.” (West Side Story) Admit it, at least once in your life you’ve faux glared at a friend and sung these lyrics in a terrible Puerto Rican accent.
4. It’s so much easier to play your significant other “Finishing the Hat” (Sunday in the Park with George) than to try to explain why you’ve got that pinched look and don’t seem to be listening to them. And if they understand, you’ve found yourself a keeper and perhaps ought to step away from the keyboard, just this once, and listen to them.
5. “Unworthy of Your Love” (Assassins) confirms that there was always something beautifully creepy about Carpenters-era love songs. I’m shocked (but not surprised) that this show’s under-appreciated score turns out to be the one I listen to the most after my all-time favorite, Sweeney Todd.
6. His recent book Finishing the Hat is funny, insightful, opinionated, approachable and the best text book I’ve ever read about writing, in any discipline. It also reminds us that Sondheim isn’t some God born fully formed from Oscar Hammerstein’s forehead; he’s a man who scratches things out and tries again, hoping to make things a little more right.
7. He tries not to criticize his fellow writers unless they’re dead or specifically asking for constructive comments. There is so much bitchiness and competitiveness in theater; his restraint is admirable and worth emulating.
8. What’s as intriguing / or half so fatiguing / as what’s out of reach? (“Agony,” Into the Woods) Men. Enough said.
+1. This version of “Not a Day Goes By” (Merrily We Roll Along) gets me every single time. And once you know how it works in the show, your admiration for the writing grows because he manages to make the later (or is it earlier) “happy version” even more of an emotional punch in the gut.
Now it’s your turn. Send a comment with something about Sondheim you are sorry/grateful for.