The Glory and Majesty of Stephen Sondheim

Or, A Brilliant Man with a Stained Sweater

Note: This post was originally written in February 2013 after I’d seen Stephen Sondheim at my alma mater, Susquehanna University.

From the moment he stepped onstage, it was clear Stephen Sondheim was completely comfortable with who he is. I could tell this because of the cowlick in his gray hair, the Lands’ End-style mocs on his feet, and the faint suggestion of a couple of stains on his brown sweater. Even as I noticed this, I didn’t care. Stephen Sondheim was at my alma mater.

Susquehanna University is lucky enough to have a gift from a former theatre professor that provides for the visit of a theatre luminary every other year. Tony Kushner. Hal Prince. Now Stephen Sondheim. For the uninitiated: Stephen Sondheim defined musicals for the latter half of the 20th century. Or, he transformed musicals, he developed his own brand, he fused seriousness and pathos and humor and big life questions into intense, beautiful, complex, brilliant pieces of theatre. And just let Wikipedia educate you because we have to get to the nitty-gritty.

Sondheim will turn 83 this year, but you wouldn’t guess it from his posture or his fluid hand gestures or his beautiful sentences. You might guess it from his slightly arthritic walk and his drooping eyes, but he retains such a spark and wit about him. One of my former theatre professors, Doug Powers-Black, interviewed Sondheim, and he asked him about Leonard Bernstein’s influence on him. Sondheim responded with, “Mostly from Leonard Bernstein I learned not to be afraid of making a fool of yourself. If you’re going to fall off of the ladder, don’t fall off the lowest rung.” He went on to speak of other people he’s worked with–Angela Lansbury, Jule Styne, Ethel Merman–and to discuss the importance not of pleasing critics but of pleasing your fellow artists. That means more to Sondheim.

His quotability was off the charts:

“You gotta be willing to go ‘splat.'”

“Art teaches just by being art.”

“[Do] whatever makes you feel like you’re not wasting your time. Don’t waste your time.”

“There’s no fun onstage if there’s no danger.”

“Math, music, medicine. They’re all related. That’s why hospitals have orchestras.”

He laughed at his own jokes, and the crowd of about 1,300 people laughed with him. Other alumni had driven the three hours from New York and were then leaving right after, meaning they’d get home around 1AM. The father of one of my friends drove up from Florida to see Sondheim. He had me beat; I only drove nine and a half hours. Why did we all flock to see this man? Me, I grew up listening to his musicals–A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ForumInto the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, AssassinsPacific Overtures, CompanySweeney ToddA Little Night Music–and my friend Sarah and I would break into song at a moment’s notice. We even performed a scene from Assassins at the Pennsylvania State Thespian Conference. We also grew up in the same Pennsylvania county that Sondheim did, a fact that Bucks County really needs to push more, in my opinion.

But it’s not just familiarity or hometown ties. His lyrics pluck at you and refuse to let go. Cinderella doesn’t know what she wants, even when confronted with the charming prince: “But how can you know what you want ’til you get what you want and you see if you like it?” And Bobby, a man with a string of one-night-stands and lack of real connection, finally turns: “Somebody, hold me too close. Somebody, hurt me too deep […] Make me aware of being alive.” (Actually, just listen to Raúl Esparza sing “Being Alive” at the Tonys.) And Dot, who has determined to leave artist Georges Seurat for a man with a stable job, still has feelings for her former lover: “We lose things. And then we choose things. And there are Louis’, and there are Georges. Well…Louis’ and George.” Sondheim’s masterful lyric-writing isn’t just about sending you off with a tune and some fun rhymes–though he does that, despite what many critics say–he gives you insight and makes you think.

My former professor, Doug, closed the evening out by thanking Sondheim, of course, and by telling him, “Your art has ennobled us. It has taught us about being human. It has taught us to be human.”

Sondheim’s musicals focus a great deal on human connections and how important they are for survival. The characters in Assassins claim that in a free country everyone has “the right to expect that you’ll have an effect. That you’re gonna connect!” To the assassins, the chance to connect is considered a basic freedom, a foregone conclusion. Making connections is a part of being human, and without them, you can end up hurt, damaged, derailed. Because Sondheim’s musicals allow us to connect with history, with art, with other people, they strengthen our humanity. That’s brilliant writing.