The last and greatest gift Stephen Sondheim gave us
The thing about Stephen Sondheim is that there is almost nothing meaningful to write about him, because he captured what was remarkable about himself better than anyone else ever could. In his lyrics and his music, Sondheim, the musical theater genius who died Friday at the age of 91, gave voice to an extraordinary spirit. All you have to do is listen to one of his songs — any one — to see it: The playfulness, the troubled and sublime love for human experience, the profound clarity of observation, the deft, remarkable instinct for beauty.
It’s in his great standards: “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music,” or “Finishing the Hat” from “Sunday in the Park with George.” And it’s in the lesser-known, or lesser-loved, works as well — “Evening Primrose,” “The Frogs,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” one of my own personal favorites. There are artists who obscure themselves with their work, intentionally or otherwise, and whose enigma is part of their achievement. But Sondheim’s work was all about soul, and his own shone through it.
It is apt, in a way, that Sondheim would pass at a moment when his star is more than usually central in popular culture. He appears in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new film adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical “Tick, Tick… Boom!” both as an actual character, played by Bradley Whitford, and an artistic inspiration so overwhelming as to be almost messianic: not just a creator of art, but the living embodiment of all that makes art meaningful.
And one of his earliest projects, “West Side Story,” for which he wrote lyrics to accompany Leonard Bernstein’s soaring music, is about to premiere in a new film. It was “West Side Story” that truly launched Sondheim’s Broadway career. It’s sad but somehow fitting that a new generation will be introduced to the show as its last living creator leaves the stage.
It’s the best possible bookend to Sondheim’s career. He entered the world’s imagination with it, a young talent whose words somehow, miraculously, didn’t just match the brilliance of Bernstein’s music, but instilled it with even more beauty.
And it was in one of its songs that he established what would turn out to be something of an artistic thesis. “There’s a place for us, a time and place for us,” he wrote. “Hold my hand and we’re halfway there/Hold my hand and I’ll take you there.”
It was a bittersweet statement in the context of “West Side Story,” a wishful promise between two lovers who knew, despite their hopes, that they were unlikely to ever find the dreamlike place they sang of. And it turned into something of a guiding light for Sondheim’s work. His musicals created a place where people could experience what it meant to be fully human, for good and for ill. If they would only trust him to guide them, he would take them, for one brief spell — consistently bittersweet, as life is — to a realm where all emotions were uninhibited.
That realm could be a tony country estate, in “A Little Night Music,” the vaudeville stage, in “Gypsy,” a nightmare fairytale world, in “Into the Woods,” or ancient Rome, in “Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” There was almost nowhere on earth, or any imagined version of it, that Sondheim couldn’t transform into a venue for exploring all that was frightening, amusing, bizarre, tender and surprising about existence.
And there was almost no one he couldn’t instill with his patent, remarkable combination of joy, misery and surprise. In “Forum,” a marauding Roman general, Miles Gloriosus, sings a paean to his unseen virgin bride, during which he takes a break to meditate on his existence. “I, slaughterer of thousands,” he sings, “I, oppressor of the meek/Subduer of the weak/Degrader of the Greek/Destroyer of the Turk/Must hurry back to work.” It’s funny, and dark, and also so devastatingly tedious. For a moment, even in this most cartoonish of songs sung by the most cartoonish of characters, you see the exhausting mundanity of Gloriosus’s life, always being sent off to conquer some new enemy, never really going anywhere or growing.
Sondheim’s work is rife with cynicism and pain. Anyone interested in writing a musical about a barber with a penchant for slitting throats and few moral qualms about cannibalism is not, as a rule, likely to have an overly rosy idea about his fellow man. But his honesty about the brutality of existence, and his determination to see the humanity within that brutality, was what made the secret land he created interesting. Going there wasn’t always joyful, but it was always moving.
So, for all it risks tipping into hagiography, “Tick, Tick… Boom!” is right about Sondheim’s impact. If the great goal of art is to make the experience of life more — more beautiful, more painful, more surprising, more intimate and immediate — he realized it about as well as anyone ever has. He created a place for us to see each other. It was his first gift to us. And it will be, beautifully, his last.