October 1999: It was a crisp fall afternoon when I first met Stephen Sondheim. Working on a production of his 1965 musical Do I Hear a Waltz? at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse, I was asked to greet the great man at the train station and accompany him back to the theatre.
"Mr. Sondheim!" I called as I extended my hand to the familiar figure heading my way. "I'm Joe from the theatre!" His look suddenly turned to one of concern, and his response took me aback: "Are you okay?" I paused, visibly confused. "You're pale as a ghost." I'm sure I was. After all, I was meeting arguably the greatest composer-lyricist in musical theatre history and someone for whom the word "genius" was apt.
Of course, I was embarrassed, not to mention tongue-tied. I offered something to the effect of "I'm only nervous because I'm meeting you!" which, despite being true, only embarrassed him. Stephen Sondheim was down to earth, a gentle and unassuming titan in a cozy sweater and rumpled trousers. He quickly put me at ease with a warm smile as we walked the short path to the theatre. I spent each of those one-on-one moments searching for the right thing to say and making small talk with this artist who had affected me so profoundly. I might have mentioned to him how being cast in a high school production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum changed my life. Or how the cast albums of Gypsy and Company sealed the deal, convincing me that music and theatre had to be part of my life's journey. He may have asked me about rehearsals with his old friend Arthur Laurents (the writer of the musical's book). And "where's the nearest bar?" But all I really wanted to say was, "Thank you, Stephen Sondheim."
With the passing of Sondheim on Friday at the age of 91, the golden era of Broadway draws ever closer to a conclusion. To call him "influential" is an understatement; from his first produced work (a little show called West Side Story for which he wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's melodies) to his last (the long-gestating Road Show), Sondheim never stopped pushing the envelope with music that pierced the soul and lyrics that probed the depth of human emotion. He wrote almost exclusively for characters (created with such librettists as Laurents, James Lapine, George Furth, John Weidman, and Hugh Wheeler), and yet the specificity of his words led the songs to be embraced universally. While his technical proficiency was dazzling ("In the depths of her interior/Were fears she was inferior/And something even eerier/But no one dared to query her superior exterior," goes one lyric from Follies), his abundance of heart sometimes went too unrecognized.
In the musical A Little Night Music, "Send in the Clowns" is sung by Desiree Armfeldt (originated by Glynis Johns) as she faces rejection from her one true love. The song employs theatrical imagery which didn't exactly make it top 40 fodder; Sondheim later explained, "As I think of it now, the song could have been called 'Send in the Fools.' I knew I was writing a song in which Desiree is saying, 'Aren't we foolish?' or 'Aren't we fools? Well, a synonym for fools is clowns, but 'Send in the Fools' doesn't have the same ring to it." But Frank Sinatra sensed the potential for the haunting marriage of words and music to reach an audience far beyond the Broadway stage. His evocative recording was followed by Judy Collins, who took the song to the upper reaches of the Hot 100 twice. Thanks to Collins' rendition, Sondheim even earned a Song of the Year recognition at the Grammy Awards.
His incisive, witty, sophisticated, and probing songs were enticing not just for actors but also for singers of every genre, including Sinatra, Collins, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Madonna, Petula Clark, Peggy Lee, Carly Simon, Van Morrison, Barry Manilow, Harry Nilsson, Todd Rundgren, Alice Cooper, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chet Baker, Cher, Liza Minnelli, Pet Shop Boys, Grace Jones, Jennifer Nettles, Twisted Sister's Dee Snider, and Yes, to name a few. Onstage, his songs were performed by such theatrical greats as Angela Lansbury, Ethel Merman, Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, Patti LuPone, Judi Dench, Tyne Daly, Elaine Paige, Diana Rigg, Zero Mostel, Len Cariou, Mandy Patinkin, Nathan Lane, Victor Garber, John McMartin, and Michael Cerveris.
Sondheim had few peers. Producer Phil Ramone (who helmed a number of Sondheim's cast albums) wrote of the connection between Sondheim and one contemporary: "Only Burt Bacharach's rhythmic complexities compare to Sondheim's." As a lyricist, perhaps only Bob Dylan, eleven years his junior, shared his stature. Both men genuinely transformed the art of lyric writing in their respective genres, influencing countless songwriters that followed in their paths. Like Dylan, Sondheim was remarkably clear-eyed and considered the contradictions in life:
You're sorry/grateful, regretful/happy, why look for answers when none occur? ("Sorry/Grateful," Company)
The road you didn't take hardly comes to mind...does it? The door you didn't try, where could it have led? The choice you didn't make never was defined...was it? ("The Road You Didn't Take," Follies)
Somebody hold me too close/Somebody hurt me too deep/Somebody sit in my chair and ruin my sleep/And make me aware of being alive... ("Being Alive," Company)
Yet he could be remarkably tender...
Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood/Do not let it grieve you/No one leaves for good/You are not alone, no one is alone... ("No One Is Alone," Into the Woods)
Anything you do/Let it come from you/Then it will be new/Give us more to see... ("Move On," Sunday in the Park with George)
Careful the things you say, children will listen/Careful the things you do, children will see...and learn...Children may not obey, but children will listen/Children will look to you, for which way to turn/To learn what to be/Careful before you say, 'Listen to me'/Children will listen... ("Children Will Listen," Into the Woods)
It's called flowers wilt/It's called apples rot/It's called thieves get rich and saints get shot/It's called God don't answer prayers a lot, well, now you know! ("Now You Know," Merrily We Roll Along)
Not a day goes by/Not a single day
But you're somewhere a part of my life/And it looks like you'll stay.
As the days go by, I keep thinking, "When does it end?/ Where's the day I'll have started forgetting?"
But I just go on/Thinking and sweating/And cursing and crying/And turning and reaching/And waking and dying... ("Not a Day Goes By," Merrily We Roll Along)
And if I wanted too much, was that such a mistake at the time?
You never wanted enough, okay, tough, I don't make that a crime.
And while it's going along, you take for granted some love will wear away,
We took for granted a lot, and still I say, it could have kept on going
Instead of just kept on. We had a good thing going...going...gone. ("Good Thing Going," Merrily We Roll Along)
In Sunday in the Park with George, he and James Lapine crafted a moving portrait of an artist that speaks to anyone who's ever struggled with the process of creation and the balance between life and work. In one lyric, he captured the joy of an artist seeing his work made real: "Look, I made a hat/Where there never was a hat." Sondheim spent his life making such hats.
Mentored in his youth by no less an eminence than Oscar Hammerstein II, he went on to write powerfully of relationships (Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Passion), politics (Pacific Overtures, Assassins, Road Show), the ups and downs of a friendship (Merrily We Roll Along), art (Sunday in the Park with George), revenge (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), and the very nature of life, love, and loss (Into the Woods) - and often, many of those themes intertwined. At the time of his passing, he was crafting a new musical, Square One, based on two films by Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
Sondheim's work is arguably more visible than ever today. Company is previewing on Broadway once again after its original opening in 2020 was postponed due to COVID-19. Assassins is playing off-Broadway in an acclaimed new production. Director Richard Linklater is filming Merrily We Roll Along with stars Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein in real time over a 20-year span (!), and Steven Spielberg is ready to unveil his highly-anticipated remake of West Side Story on December 10. His timeless songs continue to find new audiences with such innovative releases as Eleri Ward's SUF/SOND which infused his compositions with the spirit of indie rocker Sufjan Stevens, the dance-oriented collection Losing My Mind: A Sondheim Disco Fever Dream, and jazz vocalist Cyrille Aimée's Move On: A Sondheim Adventure.
Inspiring, insightful, challenging, moving, entertaining: his music and contributions to art and theatre remain cherished gifts which will continue to give. Here's to him, who's like him? Damn few. Thank you, Stephen Sondheim.