The First Day of My Life in a World Without Stephen Sondheim

Obama confers the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon Stephen Sondheim.

Yesterday morning, for the first day of my entire life, I woke up into a world without Stephen Sondheim. I cannot say that I like it better than the world I have known every day before that. It feels somehow bereft, stolen, less than, without…

Things looked pretty much the same. The Sun was shining 

…”I think about you.” 

There was Sky 

…”I remember sky.” 

The proletariat was going to and from the subway station 

…”and another hundred people just got off of the train.”

So you see, it is woven into the fabric of my being how he helped me see the world. 

…”Take me to the world that’s real. Show me how it’s done.” 

Like so many legendary icons of Show Business, Stephen and I had a few direct contacts but he would not have known me. I do remember when he came to see Richard Maltby’s THE SIXTIES PROJECT. I was seated diagonally in front of him. He was so quiet and polite and unassuming, yet I could not keep my eyes from darting over my right shoulder. 

Just to be in his presence… 

…”All I know is, the minute you turn
And he’s suddenly there,
There won’t be trumpets!”

It got back to me that his only comment on the show was

“I really like the Casting!”

I messengered my resume over to his home the next morning with a note thanking him for his comment and letting him know that I would be available to work with him on anything anywhere. I had already cast two companies of WEST SIDE STORY by that point, but in neither was he directly involved. 

That might be the first time in my career that I heard any writer acknowledge the casting of a show as their first response. Or perhaps at all. 

I remember I ushered for SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE when the First Act was presented in a short run of 40 performances at Playwrights Horizons — the old Playwrights Horizons, an intimate little space. I remember that he sat by the doors at the front row of the second half of the house, right by the door where I was stationed to seat people. 

We were Younger Then

…”I was good at climbing trees. I was younger then…”

I smiled at him so brightly that all he could do was smile back. He seemed to understand starstruck musical theater geek kids. He was one of us. 

His life and work affected all of us, even many people who would not know his name. But he showed up for his life, and he gave of his gifts, in a way that was profoundly beautiful, inspiring, and indefatigable. For some of us, his influence was life changing  — through his music and lyrics, we felt understood for the very first time. We were not alone.

…”Maybe we forgot
They are not alone
No one is alone

Hard to see the light now

Just don’t let it go

Things will come out right now
We can make it so
Someone is on your side
No one is alone
.”

A misfit himself, he gave a startling interview on a PBS special in the days before the internet was in common usage, admitting to the world that he was unloved by his mother. He explained that his mother was in the hospital and thought she was dying — so she wrote him a note that said, “My one regret in life was having you.”

He took that wound of incomprehensible sadness and pain and from that he rose up and made the world a better place.

He literally made the world better with every word… with every note… it strikes me that his mother gave him a “note” that would wound him so deeply with a hurt that could never heal, and from that, he would give so many “notes” to the world that would heal all of us, if not himself.

 
Steve was 91.


Last year, when the pandemic closed down the world, an online birthday celebration for his 90th birthday streamed live over YouTube with many Broadway Stars hungry to offer their talents in celebration. It was the first such event since the pandemic and the quarantines and lockdowns had begun in which everyone came together to get something done that involved the entire Community. 

 

If you do not know the greatness of Stephen Sondheim, this is a wonderful way to understand why we are all so bereft now.


As I have heard pastors point out in sermons and eulogies for elderly relatives, it would be somewhat absurd to feel surprised and shocked at someone dying at such an elderly age.

…“Fading.

I’m changing

You’re changing

It keeps fading… I’ll draw us now before we fade

Mother.”


And it is not like we did not see this coming. It was, of course, as inevitable for him as it is for the rest of us still here.

…Need I say it?

And yet it was a complete and total shock, because we all needed to convince ourselves that he was immortal.

Steve often said that he loved to write about ambivalence — conflicting feelings or conflicting truths — and let them duke it out. His death is a good example of such ambivalence.

How can he be both immortal and gone?

Yesterday at my Newsstand

…”God!
I mean the man’s a god!
Wrote the score to Sweeney Todd

With a nod

To de Sade

Well, he’s odd

Well, he’s God!”

As one colleague hypothesized to me some years ago, “You do realize we are now living in a world in which we will never see a new Stephen Sondheim musical again — but only revivals?” I objected to this, and my colleague responded, “The man is 83. He’s not going to be writing a new musical again.” Of course, we were in the throes of SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM in development, and WISE GUYS which became BOUNCE and GOLD! and ultimately ROAD SHOW… I did get to see the John Doyle production at The Public. And it is only in the past year or so that I read an article that he was working on a new show… Hope springs eternal, at least it did in so many of us around this topic of this one faraway shore.

…”We’re opening doors
Singing, “Here we are!”
We’re filling up days
On a dime
That faraway shore’s
Looking not too far
We’re following every star .
There’s not enough time!”

When Great Trees Fall

Maya Angelou

When great trees fall, 

rocks on distant hills shudder, 

lions hunker down 

in tall grasses, 

and even elephants 

lumber after safety. 

When great trees fall 

in forests, 

small things recoil into silence, 

their senses 

eroded beyond fear. 

When great souls die, 

the air around us becomes 

light, rare, sterile. 

We breathe, briefly. 

Our eyes, briefly, 

see with 

a hurtful clarity. 

Our memory, suddenly sharpened, 

examines, 

gnaws on kind words 

unsaid, 

promised walks 

never taken. 

Great souls die and 

our reality, bound to 

them, takes leave of us. 

Our souls, 

dependent upon their 

nurture, 

now shrink, wizened. 

Our minds, formed 

and informed by their 

radiance, 

fall away. 

We are not so much maddened 

as reduced to the unutterable ignorance 

of dark, cold 

caves. 

And when great souls die, 

after a period peace blooms, 

slowly and always 

irregularly. Spaces fill 

with a kind of 

soothing electric vibration. 

Our senses, restored, never 

to be the same, whisper to us. 

They existed. They existed. 

We can be. Be and be 

better. For they existed.

[seemed worth adding this here]


Whatever version of religion to which we might subscribe, most hold as a tenet some belief that whatever Cosmic Goo we all come from that makes this 98% water and 2% dust be able to get up and walk around and see and do things… and I believe this — we all go back to that Cosmic Goo, all together again — one again — made up of so many different beings together again in the non-physical realm — forgiveness and connection and enjoying our oneness and wholeness…

I now think of how Steve and Jan Maxwell and Elizabeth Taylor and Hermione Gingold and George Furth and Mako and Rosalind Russell and Lisa Kirk and Barbara Cook and Merman and Jerry Herman and so many others must now be enjoying their time reunited… with Hirschfeld up there drawing them all!  

…”It’s a city of strangers
Some come to work, some to play
A city of strangers
Some come to stare, some to stay
And every day

Some go away.”

The party on that side has gotten really Good!!!

And let’s not forget this Great Artist for his Willingness to take a stand in the real world.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush selected Stephen Sondheim to receive the National Medal of Arts — one of the highest honors bestowed in our country, some might say the equivalent of an artist being knighted in England.
With the NEA firmly in the abusive grip of the pustulant Jesse Helms, Republican Senator of North Carolina and proponent of censorship of the arts, Sondheim responded with a letter, a few excerpts of which I offer here below:
“When I served on the Endowment in the 1970s (as a member of the music and theater panels helping to choose grants recipients), I was glad, and proud, to be serving a governmental organization devoted to American arts and artists. Although severely underfunded, it seemed noble in intent and clear of purpose…
…In the last few years, however, it has become a victim of its own and others’ political infighting, and is rapidly being transformed into a conduit, and a symbol, of censorship and repression rather than encouragement and support….
…For me to accept an award from the NEA in this particular climate and from an Administration that seems to approve of that transformation would be an act of the utmost hypocrisy, and I must therefore respectfully decline your invitation.”

And he signed it, “Yours regretfully.”


That must have been a difficult decision for him and his choice to decline the medal was precisely the Act of Courage our Country needed in that moment to bring the focus of the public to what was happening.
In 2015, President Barack Obama made good on this, honoring Sondheim with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
And in 2010, at his 80th Birthday Celebration, he reacted with more than a little surprise and enthusiasm to the news that he would receive what might be the highest accolade a theater professional can possibly ever achieve — a theater to be named after him.

…”Little more than a glance is enough to show you just how small you are.”

And the Big Movie coming out this Christmas?
He wrote it!


It is just sort of mind-boggling and humbling, a legacy like that! Once in an interview, he talked about how there could never be another like him. He talked about his privilege of working at a time when musicals cost $200,000 to $400,000 to mount. While that was a good deal of money in those days, it was reasonable enough to make it possible for him to write, make mistakes, and learn from them, even if the show closed quickly. He could see what worked and what didn’t by observing it in performance — all the way to the contributions and response of the final collaborator, the Audience. He was able to learn from mistakes that had now become unaffordable. He lamented how the young musical theater writers today would never again be afforded the opportunity that he had to take risks and to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes. 

Hal Prince would echo that, saying one time to a small group of musical theater writers graduating from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Musical Theater Program where I once worked, “You don’t learn anything from your successes. You really don’t. You learn from your failures.” 

Tragically, these men represent a kind of greatness, the likes of which we shall never see again. There will be other kinds of greatness, just not of their ilk. I am Thankful to have lived every day of my life not just in the shadow of such greatness, but more often than not in the privilege of working side by side 

…”Side by Side by Side by Side by Sondheim”

with such greatness, during the last five decades of the Musical Theater. As the prayer goes, “I am among all men most richly blessed!” I don’t take that for granted. I do not know what I can do to pay all of that forward or to reciprocate for a gift like that to have known the things I have known and to have seen the things I have seen. As Sondheim himself said, “It’s a privilege. It’s a privilege that not everyone after me will get to have.” What can we do? Perhaps, we can do what he did. Pay it forward. Give to others. Recognize our genius, even if our genius is so much lesser than his. We can recognize our own gift, and show up for it every day. We can give it away to others. 

We can take our deepest wounds, and from those we can release into the world the very healing of which we ourselves are in need. 

We can write. 

We can create. 

We can take a risk. 

We can fail. 

We can learn from that failure. 

We can fail, again.

We can learn even more from that failure.  

…”You’re gonna’ love tomorrow. I’m giving you my personal guarantee!”

Sondheim often denied those who speculated that With So Little To Be Sure Of from ANYONE CAN WHISTLE was his cri de coeur. He fought this. He said that was not true. He often went on record describing the song he had written that was his most autobiographical was Someone In A Tree from PACIFIC OVERTURES — a song of folks observing, listening, recording, writing down, recounting, and offering…

And while there are countless Sondheim lyrics to which we might point to sum up this moment — he certainly wrote about experiences every bit as profound as the loss of his own self from the physical realm is proving to be for so many of us — it is this lyric which most swirls through me at this moment in time. 

I trust that he did not intend it as a cri de coeur and perhaps during his life, it was not. But so many of us had a relationship with him and his work — not the kind where we would meet for dinner and hang out regularly, but the kind in which we felt known and seen and understood and loved by how this man expressed who we are as human beings… Perhaps the most profound expression since Shakespeare… 

For most of us, we might sum up our relationship with this man and his work at this moment in time as some kind of monumental world influence — he’s there, but he is up on Mount Olympus and what does that have to do with our day-to-day lives? For others of us, we know that the answer to that is “Everything!

…”Teach me how to sing.
If I cannot fly,
Let me sing.

For others, and perhaps you are like me… I am proud to be a Sondheim geek. 

The wound that is at my core is a little deeper and wider today. I feel even more removed from the world as I physically walk through it.

People shopping, 

People going about their business, 

People behaving as though this were not one of the most Monumental Losses of our generation, 

of our world… 

and yeah, I have experienced a deeply personal relationship with a man whom I had met only a dozen or so times over several decades, and I never really knew personally, but like so many of us, he knew me. 

He understood my soul. 

From his unquenchable wound, he gave me healing. 

And now is the time to live by his example. 

To write, 

To create, 

To sing,

To give what we have to offer to heal others and to heal the world.

I do not know anyone whose Life was not affected by this one man’s Life in some small way.

And I know a Lot of People whose Lives were affected in profound ways by this man’s Life and Work. I include my own in that.

May we all show up with our Gifts in this Life and offer them as unabashedly as Steve did…

May we all do our part to make a better World.

Sondheim sketched by Al Hirschfeld

May we all enjoy the Legacy of a Life well lived.

But for today, I feel so little to be sure of…

…Thanks for everything we did,

Everything that’s past,

Everything’s that’s over

Too fast.

None of it was wasted.

All of it will last…

It was marvelous to know you

And it’s never really through.

Crazy business this, this life we live in-

Can’t complain about the time we’re given-

With so little to be sure of in this world,

Hold me!

Hold me!”

— With So Little To Be Sure Of, ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, Stephen Sondheim

And Today, members of the Broadway Community gathered in Times Square and sang a resounding Chorus of “Sunday.”

https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/VIDEO-Broadway-Sings-in-Times-Square-to-Honor-Stephen-Sondheim-20211128?fbclid=IwAR3X7vFM-nDquq0nou_rkNjRxsUpzJ-15JO8Oe2zZYMYu5dVROFlhThfOxY

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8 Comments

  1. Lauree

     /  November 28, 2021

    Thank you for this!!!! And tge link to the Times Square event There was a beautiful piece on CBS Sunday Morning too Such an historic loss 💜

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Reply
  2. Catherine L Matthews

     /  November 29, 2021

    Beautifully – and aptly – written. (Did you see the interview Patty LuPone did with him? Loved it.) You are so right – his songs live in us all. From “performing” songs from West Side Story with my best friend in her basement when we were kids to watching Sweeney Todd (multiple times – with my mouth hanging open the whole time), along with many of his other plays, he became part of us all. Thank you for helping us take a moment to celebrate the glory of this gifted and memorable individual. What a gift he gave – and continues to give – us all.

    Reply
    • Even in this event, he brings us all together in our Community’s Heartbreak… And all of the children who performed his songs in basements for so many decades awaken from their dormancy to make us more Creative, more Alive, and that is how we save the World… XXOO

      Reply
  3. Iris H. Tuan

     /  November 29, 2021

    R.I.P. The world lost a musical genius.

    Reply
  4. Milton Granger

     /  January 31, 2022

    This is a masterful eulogy, both wide-ranging and exactly to the point, as befits its subject. I always enjoy your Christmas stories, too — keep ‘em coming — but this is something special.

    Reply
    • Thanx, MILTON! I so appreciate hearing that from you! Hope you are well and enjoying this Great World Shift! We’ll see some Good Stuff come out of it yet, I think! Thank You for the kind words! XXOO

      Reply

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