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Jim McDermottNovember 29, 2021
Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim gestures during a gathering at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., on April 12, 2004. Sondheim, the songwriter who reshaped the American musical theater in the second half of the 20th century, has died at age 91. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim gestures during a gathering at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., on April 12, 2004. Sondheim, the songwriter who reshaped the American musical theater in the second half of the 20th century, has died at age 91. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

A few years ago my sister, her family and I spent a night at the Hollywood Bowl watching a production of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s fairy tale musical “Into the Woods.” While my sister’s teenage children certainly knew characters like Cinderella or Red Riding Hood, who are featured in the show, they had no knowledge of the show itself, in which the cast spends the first act struggling to get their wishes, only to then be forced to confront the consequences of those pursuits in the second. Being chased by a prince is far nicer than contending with a husband with a restless eye and no real job. And killing a giant is fine until you have to deal with his grieving, rampaging widow.

By the end of the show, at which point nearly half the characters have been killed by the Giant’s Wife and the story’s survivors are trying to learn from their mistakes and start over, my nephew and nieces had gone silent. As we walked out I could see them trying to process what they had just seen. It is a reaction that many audiences have had to Sondheim’s work. Whether he was writing about fairy tales or Ziegfeld Follies girls, his stories and lyrics always seemed to be addressing you personally. You couldn’t simply watch his musicals. Eventually you had to contend with them.

Sondheim’s stories and lyrics always seemed to be addressing you personally. You couldn’t simply watch his musicals. Eventually you had to contend with them.

I heard much the same silence on Friday night as I sat at a piano bar with a hundred others mourning Sondheim’s death. “Mother cannot guide you,” we sang from “Into the Woods.” “Now you’re on your own.” Even in his death, Sondheim had the right words, and they both stung and reassured us.

Someone in a Tree

Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, in New York City, the son of a dressmaker who liked to play the piano and a clothing designer who wanted to be a celebrity. His childhood was a difficult one, as his parents divorced and his mother took her pain out on him. “The only regret I have in life is giving you birth,” she once told him.

His salvation was the family of musical theater lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who more or less raised him. Sondheim grew to admire Hammerstein so much, he later admitted if Hammerstein had been a geologist, Sondheim probably would have become one, too. And so he became a composer and lyricist. By age 27 he had already written the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.” His future as an heir to Hammerstein seemed assured.

And yet instead Sondheim spent his career resisting many of the tropes of traditional American musical theater in favor of exploring just how far and wide a musical could go. “Merrily We Roll Along” tells the story of a group of college friends backward, from the end of their friendship to the beginning, and with a cast made up entirely of teenagers and young adults. “Sweeney Todd” has many of the qualities of an opera, and makes a hero of a serial killer whose pie-shop partner feeds his victims to her customers. “Assassins” offers a meditation on the American dream by way of a carnival starring nine of the men and women who have tried to kill a U.S. president. Sondheim’s only real love story is “Passion,” in which a lonely woman’s obsession with a visiting soldier completely overwhelms him.

Sondheim spent his career resisting many of the tropes of traditional American musical theater in favor of exploring just how far and wide a musical could go.

Then there is “Sunday in the Park with George,” about the French pointillist Georges Seurat’s famous “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” a musical that involves both a 100-year time jump in the second act and a show-stopping interlude in which the characters from the painting stand perfectly still in position while they complain about being trapped forever in this painting and with these people.

Sometimes it wasn’t quite clear how the pieces of Sondheim’s work fit together—or whether they did. The New York theater critics could be brutal to him. “Anyone can whistle,” said the New York Herald Tribune critic Walter Kerr of Arthur Laurents’ and Sondheim’s 1964 musical of the same name. “But no one can sing.” John Simon called “Pacific Overtures,” Sondheim and John Weidman’s tale of Europeans coming to Japan, “tripe and pretentiousness combined.” Then-New York Times critic Frank Rich labeled “Merrily” “a shambles.”

Audiences could be hard to come by, too. “Whistle” had just nine performances after 12 previews, “Merrily” just 16 after 52 in 1981. The ultra-edgy material of “Assassins” found New York productions cut short or postponed, as a result of the Gulf War in 1991 and the 9/11 attacks a decade later. Sondheim’s final show, about the real-life Mizner brothers and their early-20th-century antics as gold prospectors, real estate investors and con artists, went through four different iterations between 1999 and 2008—“Wise Guys,” “Gold!”, “Bounce” and “Road Show”—without ever finding a version that found an audience.

And yet one of the things that would come to distinguish Sondheim’s work is the way in which his shows would continue to flower long after those initial productions. Where there is really just only one version of “Phantom of the Opera” or “Wicked,” revivals of Sondheim’s work often become the talk of the theatrical community for the new spin that a director is able to put on a show or the surprising relevance the material now seems to have. In many cases it was not that his shows were ahead of their time so much as they needed time to grow into what they were meant to be.

Moments in the Woods

Every Sondheim fan has a story of how they came to his work. Despite the fact he was a very private person until relatively late in life, his fans felt as though they knew him, as though he was a part of their family—a favorite uncle, the father or teacher they never had.

My own introduction to Sondheim was “Sweeney Todd,” which I saw on PBS’ “Great Performances” years after its 1979 Tony Award–winning run on Broadway with Len Cariou (and later George Hearn) and Angela Lansbury as the eponymous barber and his partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett. Even as I write this 30 years later, I can still see the circles that hung under Hearn’s eyes as he cut his way through the throats of London seeking revenge on the judge who had sent him to Australia on trumped-up charges in order to take his now-dead wife and then his daughter for himself. With its combination of violence, humor and revenge it was the perfect Sondheim show for a teenager.

Much like the work of Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, Sondheim’s stories involve characters who are forced to confront some aspect of their own naïveté.

Thirty years later it’s still a favorite of mine, I think because underneath it all “Sweeney” is a very human story of grief and bewilderment. Much like the work of Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, Sondheim’s stories involve characters who are forced to confront some aspect of their own naïveté—the sweet fictions they were taught, the false truths they told themselves. Sometimes, as in “Into the Woods,” that confrontation takes place within the story; in others, the characters have long ago had to face that their lives did not turn out as they wanted or deserved, but have yet to fully accept it.

Where so many musicals offered the promise of happy endings and a life without regret, again and again Sondheim insisted that to do so was impossible and also dangerous. It is impossible to sing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from “Gypsy” and not feel the excitement that stage mother Mama Rose imagines, to see the future as full of possibilities. But onstage her daughter Louise and her partner Herbie clutch one another as Rose sings, terrified at what her dreams will destroy along the way.

Even as he wrote an entire musical about fairy tale characters, Sondheim was the anti-Disney, insisting that the only viable path in life lay in facing one’s lifetime of mistakes, failures and half-truths. And he offered no guarantee that what lay on the other side was a fresh start or final idyll: The Baker’s Wife gets crushed to death just moments after she finally realizes that cheating on her husband with a handsome prince is not the life she wants.

What Sondheim did promise was that what lay beyond “all the witches, all the curses, all the wolves, all the lies, the false hopes and goodbyes,” as the Baker sings, was the possibility of real relationships, a life that was vulnerable and true.

A Little (for) Priests

In my experience, Sondheim is a favorite of many Jesuits. Some will talk about the complexity of his music or the puzzle-obsessed delight of his lyrics and rhymes. I think many of us rejoice in his refusal to accept that things are either black or white, wholly good or bad. As a composer Sondheim would create one of the most famous insults ever written about hats—“Does anyone still wear a hat?” Joanne sings near the start of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” in “Company”—only to later turn the idea of a hat into one of the most moving evocations ever written of what it is to be an artist. “Look, I made a hat,” Georges Seurat sings, with all the wonder of a child despite all that his work has cost him.

Perhaps it is also that sense of the cost of one’s art, the sacrifice that comes with dedication to a vocation, that appeals to us Jesuits. Sondheim’s stories are populated with characters isolated as a result of their commitments. For much of his life Sondheim himself seemed similar. His life was his art; by his own admission he didn’t fall in love until his 60s. But I wonder if we also saw in him some of our own sometime loneliness and uncertainty as celibate men. Like Bobby from “Company,” we, too, can look out on the married couples around us both with love and bemusement, and perhaps a little bit of fear. It’s certainly not an experience unique to us; from its debut in 1970 the queer community, too, has identified with Bobby’s story and wondered whether he shouldn’t in the end be gay.

Perhaps it is also that sense of the cost of one’s art, the sacrifice that comes with dedication to a vocation, that appeals to us Jesuits.

No matter the challenges Sondheim posed, an element of wonder always seemed to push through his work. He was the poet who could find reason for delighting in the grayness of New York City, who saw cloudy skies as “bursting with surprise” and was perennially fascinated by golden hair.

And even as he made us face our ugliness, ugliness he had witnessed and suffered under his mother from the time he was a boy, he never seemed able to stop appreciating our humanity. One walks away from “Send in the Clowns” not only wistful but more accepting, and from “Being Alive,” in which the eternal bachelor Bobby finally confronts his own fears, realizing life is extraordinary not only despite its challenges but somehow within them. No homily has better captured what it means to be human.

Even “The Ladies Who Lunch,” Sondheim’s blistering critique about our capacity for self-delusion, ends on a note of acknowledgement. Here it is performed by the Catholic Broadway star Elaine Stritch, for whom the song became a life-long signature. After verses that build from witty taunts about other women to a self-appraisal so despairing she begins shrieking, the late-middle-aged singer calls on the audience again and again to rise in recognition. To live a life of quiet desperation is impossibly difficult. Yet day by day we try to carry that heavy load, and that is worthy of praise. The fact that the character in some ways echoes the viciousness and desperation of Sondheim’s own mother makes that final turn all the more profound.

On this past Sunday two different New York groups staged impromptu events dedicated to Sondheim, in Central Park and Times Square. I was struck by the fact that both chose to sing “Sunday” from “Sunday in the Park.” In the song, as Seurat slowly pulls together the painting he has been crafting the entire first act of the show, the cast sings a sort of artist’s hymn to the universe, every element of what they see described in the flecks of color for which Seurat was known. It’s a choral song that builds from silent reverie to passionate adoration, all while describing what is just a typical Sunday in a park.

We sang it repeatedly on Friday night at the piano bar as well. It felt less like an ode to our dear departed friend and mentor, and more like an act of summoning. He lives on in his words, and in singing them we do too. “We die, but we don’t,” the Baker’s father sings to him.

As I finish this, another lyric from “Sunday” also floats through. “Look at all the things you’ve done for me,” Seurat’s model and once-upon-a-time lover Dot sings to him near the end of “Sunday in the Park.” “Opened up my eyes. Taught me how to see. Notice every tree. Understand the light. Concentrate on now.”

It’s impossible to imagine a world without Mr. Sondheim in it somewhere lying on his couch, sharpened pencil in his hand and tumbler of something strong nearby, imagining a new lyric, writing another show that will teach us how to see. And yet the shows he wrote already promise to do the same. We who loved him will try to understand their light, concentrate with gratitude on the now and, hopefully, never stop sharing what we have heard and seen.

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