“Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood."
Now that he's gone, no one can say Stephen Joshua Sondheim (1930-2021) met us only halfway. With a career rich in longevity and creativity, his death at age ninety-one the day after Thanksgiving has left us mortals bereft. Not kidding about that, as the question of whether or not the man was a God was no joke. In his 2011 book Look, I Made a Hat, he tells a story regarding Sondheim By Sondheim, a revue that played Broadway in 2010, in which he speculated on the subject himself:
"The show was conceived as a two-act piece, comprised only of songs I had already written. But James [Lapine] felt that the second act needed an opening to bring the audience back from intermission into the concept of the evening, and nothing in my work was quite right for the job, so he asked me to write something new. Embarrassed (although flattered) at having an evening not just of my work, but with me as a photographed host, I immediately fell into a familiar self-deprecating mode and wrote the following number, which was suggesting by a New York Magazine headline that had asked the unanswerable question: 'Is Sondheim God?'"
Lyric highlights of that song (self-deprecating, to be sure), include:
The lyrics are so smart!
And the music has such heart—
It has heart?”
Well, in part.
Let's not start—
Call it art.
No, call it—
As a lyric writer, his work was so good that it got him the job of co-writing the score to West Side Story (with Leonard Bernstein, no less), which by the time it opened on Broadway, Sondheim was a green twenty-seven. His rise was considerable. Gypsy, in which he also supplied lyrics only, came two years later. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a huge success, opened in 1962 (he was all of thirty-two by then). A tough period followed, though not for lack of trying. Anyone Can Whistle, Sondheim's first effort at being brazenly bold and thinking outside the box, closed the week it opened in 1964, despite what is now considered a top-drawer Sondheim score. Less than a year later came a minor musical, Do I Hear a Waltz?, a collaboration with Richard Rodgers, whose late partner, Oscar Hammerstein, had been a father figure and spiritual mentor to Sondheim. It was a deathbed wish from Hammerstein, who asked "Stevie" to please work with his longtime partner, to which Sondheim agreed. Sadly, it produced a strained relationship at best, as the two men did NOT get along (though not without composing a couple of very good songs for Waltz). And his one-hour television musical, Evening Primrose, featured some beautiful songs for those who heard them by knowing enough to tune into the 1966 broadcast. Still, for these and other reasons, the eight years between Forum and Company probably felt longer to Sondheim than they were. However, after 1970 came the meteoric period that blasted him into the stratosphere. Over nine years, he would write Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd—unparalleled achievements, especially in such close succession.
As for the state of musical theatre, at least the last fifty years were Sondheim's world—and we were just living in it. Yes, there were those who complained about that, since his intellectual bent wasn't for everyone. Many didn’t like having to buy the original cast album after seeing one of his shows in order to get all they missed at first hearing. Although from my $2 seat in the last row at Company the week it opened, I still remember being blown away by the intricacies of the lyrics right at the get-go, seemingly cramming more into its opening number than any I had ever seen or heard before. In lockstep with his good friend, producer-director, Harold Prince, and alongside such mutually distinguished partners as Michael Bennett, George Furth, James Goldman, Hugh Wheeler, John Weidman, Boris Aronson, Tharon Musser, Florence Klotz, Jonathan Tunick, Paul Gemignani et. al, the 70s belonged to Sondheim and Company, a collective that changed the American musical for all time.
The 1980s kicked off with the heartbreak of Merrily We Roll Along, a show that contained one of Sondheim's best scores, only to suffer a book that gave everyone stomach trouble from Day One. Then came a jolt of new creative energy emanating from James Lapine, an off-Broadway playwright who, after seeing his work, Sondheim thought might be right for a musical, a form the younger Lapine was barely familiar with. What came out of that was not only a fond relationship, but Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987) and Passion (1994). These were gifts beyond imagining; producing as they did work that gave us a deepening of Sondheim's soul, which he poured into his lyric writing. At times, the words and rhyming he created for these shows are capable of shattering the heart.
Aside from Passion, I saw the original productions of all Sondheim musicals between 1970 and 1987, all early in their runs, many in previews (Follies the afternoon before it opened). In an appreciation he's already posted, my son, Jeremy Fassler, wrote that he felt privileged to have grown up in the age of Sondheim—and this from a thirty-two-year-old born in 1989. Even with Sondheim writing only three new musicals in Jeremy's lifetime (Assassins, Passion and Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show—three titles for three different versions), he felt the living, breathing presence of a master. As he has done for so many people in the arts besides Jeremy and myself, Sondheim provided a benchmark for creativity, if not total success; perseverance in the face of critical setbacks; joy in mentorship and outsourcing of his teaching; giving back to a theatrical community to which he owed his life's blood; answering every letter a fan wrote him.
My own personal contact over the years with Stephen Sondheim was minimal, though I did have the pleasure of interviewing him for Up in the Cheap Seats in 2013. My first conversation with him occurred at the after-party at Tavern-on-the-Green following the 10th anniversary reunion of the original cast of Into the Woods at the Broadway Theatre. What we talked about was Jeremy's then-budding interest in musicals, and his thinking about becoming a composer (he was only nine). Later that evening, I wrote in my journal about our conversation, happily so, in that I can now directly quote from it:
"I told Sondheim that my nine-year-old comes home every day from school and spins vinyl, addicted to Broadway shows, the more obscure the better. I said, 'He loves opening up the albums and taking the records out and reading the liner notes, especially if it's in a gateway fold.' Sondheim shook his head vigorously, getting it. 'Oh sure. It's tactile. He loves that.' Sondheim then asked me how Jeremy came to listen to this sort of music and I told him about the time I was playing Richard Rodgers' 'Carousel Waltz' in the car and I heard from the backseat: 'Beautiful, daddy. What is it?' Sondheim again shook his head. 'How old was he?' I replied, 'two.' Sondheim smiled. 'And now he's nine, you say? It'll be interesting to hear what sort of music he's listening to in three years.' We conversed a bit more, and before parting, I said, 'It would mean the world to him if I could send him your regards.' Sondheim smiled broadly and send, 'Send him my regards.' And with that, he departed."
Now he has departed for good. With the possible exception that we may eventually hear some of the songs he's composed for his latest musical Square One (yes, he was still writing at ninety-one), we have most probably heard the last from Stephen Sondheim. However, he leaves behind a body of work that will endure for all time, and always open to reinterpretation. Company, now in previews and officially opening December 9th, offers us Bobbi instead of Bobby, gender-bending the show from its original take on an unmarried person and his/her relationship to their married friends. Done with Sondheim's whole-hearted approval, breaking forms and stirring things up was always part of his agenda right till the end.
Funny that with all the songs of his bouncing in my head for the last twenty hours or so, one he wrote for his closing song to Do I Hear a Waltz? (and to which this column gets its title) is the one I can't stop singing:
“Did it go by so quickly?
Really, it seems a crime.
But thank you so much
For something between
Ridiculous and sublime.
Thank you for such
A little but lovely time."
Stephen Sondheim is going to be missed in so many ways by so many people. The humanity in his work made him the great artist he was. His wit and wisdom will forever shine through. We lived in the time of a Shakespeare in our midst. If he is to be buried, I believe his admirers will seek out his grave and stand by it in tribute, as millions have done at Stratford-on-Avon.
"Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.