On Stephen Sondheim and turning theatre on its head

I mean, I hope I look as good when I’m just shy of 50. (AP Photo)

So last year when Broadway put on Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday celebration, Becca and I tuned in because why in God’s name wouldn’t we? Sure, all of the performers were behind computer screens and the magnificence of the event felt watered down by COVID’s effects on the world and the theatre community in general. But we still watched glued to the screen amazed at Sondheim’s accomplishments, marveling at the ways in which his music had changed our lives, and singing every word of his songs which they featured. Rather, Becca sang; I have a problem with memorizing song lyrics so I mumbled along where I could.

And of course, knowing Sondheim’s age and despite his mental clarity and physical well-being, we tilted our faces up towards God and yelled “Protect him!” We couldn’t imagine COVID or some other disease taking Sondheim. Becca wasn’t prepared for the day that he passed. She wasn’t then, and she certainly wasn’t when we heard the news break of his passing earlier this evening.

Of course, the time had to come. And it came on Sondheim’s terms, it seems: He got to spend his last few weeks on this mortal plane walking around his city, seeing Broadway shows, talking with the press, putting up his usual air of class and expertise and not letting on – if he knew – that anything was wrong. And I’m writing this before we know the cause of his passing, but it seems like he went out peacefully, leaving behind a life of great success and having inspired a whole new generation of writers, composers, auteurs, directors, producers, etc. He touched every part of the theatre world, and he leaves it behind in very competent hands, voices, and hearts.

Anyone who’s been a part of theatre – from the highest-esteemed Broadway productions to the most rural high school and community shows – has a Sondheim story. I could talk for hours about the time I starred as the Mysterious Man in my high school production of Into The Woods during my senior year. Becca could tell you everything and anything about Sunday In The Park With George. Some of my friends who have dabbled in the professional theatre world have met Sondheim and for that I will forever air my jealousy. And of course, you can’t talk about Sondheim without talking about the opportunities he created in theatre for folks of all kinds, finding ways to free the culture from the shackles of white heteronormativity.

But why the hell does Sondheim get the name recognition? Why do all of his musicals stick in our heads? Well, think of some of Sondheim’s musicals: Into The Woods, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Gypsy, West Side Story. All of his musicals marry incredible song with relatable story, and they twist in such a way that your brain goes “Huh.” Sondheim didn’t ever rely on what was at the time considered traditional musical theatre trope. He played with then-controversial themes. He used twelve-tone composition, irregular time signatures, and harmonies that at first seemed to clash but then resolved into beautiful chords that would ring in your ears long after the final curtain. He knew how to pull at heartstrings, work in the earworms, play with your emotions.

I mean, if you walk into a theatre and don’t come out somewhat changed, you have been ripped off. Sondheim hardly ever ripped off a patron. (You can make an argument about Assassins, or Follies, or even Merrily if you’re really petty. I think we can agree that Road Show certainly tried its best.)

But Sondheim enjoyed life and powered through disregarding whether his work succeeded or failed. He wrote for the love of writing, and did so up until the day he passed. Just a couple of months ago, he announced on The Late Show that he was penning a new musical with David Ives in which Nathan Lane and longtime Sondheim cast regular Bernadette Peters were involved. What will happen with this musical now? I don’t know. But man, most folks would have put down the paper long before their 90th birthday. Sondheim? He kept needing another page.

Folks often talk about musical theatre in terms of eras. There was the Golden Age, from where some of the world’s most well-known musicals came: Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, and so on. And while Sondheim came up in the later part of that time with shows like West Side Story and Gypsy, he helped invent and continue to perfect some of the tropes that would go on to influence theatre’s contemporary era. The musical theater world is much more complex, critical, and creative due to Sondheim’s work.

There’s a Twitter account that I love that tweets out just a bit of Sondheim’s lyrics a few times every day. Of course, just minutes after the news broke, the account sent out this tweet:

Leave it to an absolute legend to write words that would eventually describe themselves. The man known as Sondheim may be gone, but his spirit lives on in theatres and theatre lovers everywhere. My spell checker keeps saying that I’m spelling theatre wrong, but to that I say that Sondheim wouldn’t have cared how I spelled it as long as I was talking about it.

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