Culture

Stephen Sondheim Taught Me How to Be a Person


Sondheim infused the musical with complicated, sometimes curdled emotions that Broadway hadn’t dared to sing about before.

Photograph from Shutterstock

My family was watching old home movies, in a post-Thanksgiving time warp, when I found out that Stephen Sondheim had died, at ninety-one. In the jump from one VHS tape to another, I had just seen myself go from seven to fourteen: the years in which Sondheim taught me how to be a person. First, it was “Into the Woods,” the gateway Sondheim musical for most people born after 1980—a gateway to adulthood, really, just as its characters Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack (of the beanstalk) go into the woods as wishful storybook characters and come out understanding disappointment, regret, compromise, loss. “Isn’t it nice to know a lot?” Little Red Riding Hood sings, having survived ingestion by a wolf. “And a little bit not.” It was the apple from the tree of knowledge, that show. You couldn’t unbite it.

Then “Merrily We Roll Along,” which charts the same journey in reverse: three friends go from jaded, wounded adults to hopeful college kids, gazing up at Sputnik. A lesson in broken promises, in holding on to yourself, in callow phonies. (“It’s called letting go your illusions,” one character advises.) Then “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”: a gleaming razor, a rolling pin, revenge, lust, murder. (“How delectable!”) “Company”: a woman with a vodka stinger, sizing up all the women she loathes, including herself. (“Another chance to disapprove, another brilliant zinger.”) “A Little Night Music”: love and sex, ill-timed. (“Isn’t it rich?”) Feeding my brain, I borrowed those cast albums from my school library so many times that the librarians finally let me keep them.

In his great, long life, Sondheim did for the Broadway musical what he did for me: brought the art form from adolescence into maturity, infusing it with complicated, sometimes curdled emotions that Broadway hadn’t dared to sing about before. This was, in large part, his way of honoring and overthrowing his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, whom Sondheim met as a child, around when his parents divorced. “If he’d been a geologist,” Sondheim liked to say, “I would have been a geologist.” Hammerstein was, in fact, the lyricist of such genre-defining musicals as “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel,” and “South Pacific,” in which he rhymed “dope” and “hope.” Decades later, in “Company,” Sondheim rhymed “personable” and “coercin’ a bull.” That time jump, not coincidentally, spans America’s loss of innocence, from the postwar era to Vietnam: Hammerstein’s bright golden haze on the meadow had become a miasma.

By then, Sondheim had already written the lyrics for two classics, “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” both before he was thirty, and the music and lyrics for the crowd-pleaser “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” But “Company,” which opened in 1970, was his break from linear plot, tidy resolutions, and romantic platitudes: it’s about a man who wants to be single and in love at the same time. One of Sondheim’s defining gifts was that he could set ambivalence to song. Hammerstein’s Cinderella, in 1957, wants to “ring out the bells” when she meets her prince. Sondheim’s, in 1987, wonders “How can you know / Who you are till you know / What you want?” He was a geologist who dug deeper into the psychic soil.

Words were the way he got there, and his mastery of them put “show tunes” on the level of any literary genre. His characters were imbued with panoramic intelligence, a self-awareness that played out in dazzling internal rhymes that landed like triple axels—no wonder he had a sideline devising cryptic crossword puzzles. As he rewrote the Broadway landscape, in shows as different as “Follies” and “Pacific Overtures,” Sondheim was sometimes criticized as cold and cerebral, a better lyricist than he was a musician. But it’s hard to contemplate a song more passionate or more melodic than “Johanna,” “Losing My Mind,” or “Unworthy of Your Love,” all of which are sung by characters making some lovestruck, wrongheaded move. (The same could be said of “Soliloquy,” from Hammerstein’s “Carousel”; one of Sondheim’s most vivid adolescent memories was seeing it on opening night, in New Haven, and weeping into Dorothy Hammerstein’s fur.) Uncertainty, self-delusion, disillusionment: Sondheim knew that they could be as deeply felt as the primary-color emotions. His characters sang to think and to feel at the same time.

There are too many lyrics with which to eulogize him: on art, on show biz, on mothers, on grief. Sometimes I think that the most elegant song he ever wrote was “The Miller’s Son,” from “A Little Night Music.” Petra, a frisky maidservant coming off of a weekend dalliance, turns to the audience and imagines her possible futures, first married to a miller’s son, then to a businessman, then to the Prince of Wales. Each verse leads her to some form of middle-aged discontent—a “thigh pressing under the table”—and a resolution to snatch whatever thrills she can along the way:

There are mouths to be kissed
Before mouths to be fed,
And there’s many a tryst
And there’s many a bed
To be sampled and seen
In the meanwhile.
And a girl has to celebrate what passes by.

Her reverie leads her, finally, in a circle. “And I shall marry the miller’s son,” she repeats, in the musical equivalent of a knowing, longing, resigned yet accepting sigh. What emotion is that? In three verses, we’ve travelled inside and out of a mind and through three hypothetical lives, ending on a feeling you can’t quite name. Petra, I should mention, is a minor character.

No wonder performers loved him. Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, Zero Mostel, Mandy Patinkin, Patti LuPone, Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Ethel Merman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Adam Driver, and Madonna are just a few who’ve famously sung Sondheim, and his songs seemed to give them trickier, more rewarding assignments than they’d had elsewhere. As for the generations of theatre writers who’ve come up in his wake, who knows when they’ll ever get over him? You need only watch “Tick, Tick . . . Boom!,” the new film directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on a musical by Jonathan Larson, to find Sondheim’s influence rippling through the decades, pointing the way to “Rent” and “Hamilton” and whatever comes next. (Sondheim is a character in the movie, a benevolent deity.) Although his challenging masterpieces weren’t always hits when they first appeared—some, like “Merrily We Roll Along,” were outright flops—Sondheim has become a pop-culture omnipresence, from “Desperate Housewives” to “Joker.” His ninetieth-birthday concert, last year, was a Zoom feast for the ears. Right now in New York, you can see a gender-swapped “Company” on Broadway and a reimagined ”Assassins” Off Broadway. A “West Side Story” remake comes out next month. His œuvre is already doing its work without him.

In “Sunday in the Park with George,” the Sondheim musical that perhaps most directly explained Sondheim, he wrote about how art isn’t easy, about how pretty isn’t beautiful, about how artists are always “standing by, mapping out the sky,” often at their personal expense. The sky that he created hovers over the theatrical universe, and he’s up there, too, a giant. Broadway was never the same after Stephen Sondheim. Neither was I.


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