It’s been not quite a month since Stephen Sondheim’s passing. Of course, he was 91 and led a long, productive creative life. Many of us somehow imagined — or at least hoped — he could go on forever. We certainly did not expect that news on Nov. 26, the day after Thanksgiving. Just days before for he sat for yet another insightful interview with The New York Times. He attended several performances earlier in the week. Although many of us thought of him as godlike (of course, he poked fun at the notion in a recent tongue-in-cheek number), he was human, and his end, no matter how unwelcome, was inevitable. Sondheim’s wondrous music and lyrics will live on — for many years, I’m sure. He will be missed, but he left us so much … he gave us more to see.
There have been numerous memories and accolades. Barry Schilmeister offered few thoughts on Dec. 16, 2021, to a group of Sondheim admirers that I’m part of. His essay, threaded through with some of our subject’s piercing and provocative lyrics, moved me deeply, and I thought others might appreciate Barry’s tribute. It was he said, “a time of transition.” He continued:
“People great and small have left legacies after they’ve died. Sondheim at 91 was a living legacy. Each day, I felt that he was around, working on something at perhaps a slower pace than even the procrastinator-in-chief was used to, busy with the choices he was making, a kind of mental humming in the background that created continuity, like the rhythmic and sonic patterns that wove together one of his songs or shows. But — and maybe you were, too — I was kind of expecting this could stop at any time. His death to me marked his position on one of his story arcs. That his being — his presence within the musical craft — continued on that endless arc, his death simply a milestone to recognize, take note of, while he himself carried on through the multi-layered appreciation of his work, his gifts. What do you leave to a child when you’re dead? Only whatever you put in its head.
“Thankfully, he had Oscar Hammerstein to convince an anxious young artist to put learning before ambition in the 1950s. Look at what you want, not at where you are. Even then, beyond his gifts of composition, he already seemed to have an understanding that life decisions don’t come with bright lines, other than some ethical ones. “Ambivalence” is a word often associated with Sondheim; I’d tweak that. “Ambivalence” is defined as “the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.”
“Sondheim himself wasn’t ambivalent — he was clear that everything, certainly everything involving human beings, has more than one dimension. Those dimensions might not ever reconcile, but decisions must be made, nonetheless. One’s life consists of either/or. He understood this at an incredibly insightful and emotional level. Could he really have understood that much about marriage from a student-like note-taking session with Mary Rodgers? His view of life choices, of all kinds, was already informing him. Family didn’t equal happiness. Mother didn’t equal love. Desire didn’t equal success. Witches can be right; Giants can be good. He likely heard Mary Rodgers’s stories through that filter. And, he brought that home not just through those piercingly personal lyrics, but through the music, that could belie the words resting on it — happy/sad, exciting/dangerous, sorry/grateful. The humanity of his messaging created a direct line from the actor to the audience — all of us — that so often made us acknowledge, yes, that is true.
“Above it all, to me, is that he followed his own path. To describe him as the most important composer in post-1950 musical theater is almost to mute his legacy. His view of what musical theater should be flew against the standards, and his execution of his vision gave it depth, credibility and meaning. His shows were not financially successful when produced. Yet he kept to his vision, even when pummeled by the mainstream. The respect that came with time became the true legacy. Follow your road, never do anything twice; instead, put new hurdles ahead of you and stay that course: this is the guide he leaves us. What’s the point of demands you can meet? Stop worrying where you’re going — move on. The play isn’t over by a long shot yet. Just more questions — different kind. Why keep concealing/Everything you’re feeling? It’s not so much do what you like/As it is that you like what you do.
“Isn’t it lovely how artists can capture us?”
Thank you, Stephen Sondheim.
One final item …
If you haven’t ordered your copy of The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia, please be reminded that the publisher Rowman & Littlefield has a holiday sale under way through Jan. 8, 2022. Use the link from my website (www.RickPenderWrites.com) and apply the coupon code 21JOYSALE for a 35% reduction in price. After that date you still can get a reduction in price (30%) by using the code you’ll see prominently displayed on my website.
Please accept my very best wishes for 2022!