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a fragment of the day
a small and insufficient tribute to stephen sondheim
When I was less than a year old, my parents left with me with a wildly unprepared family friend so that they could go see Sunday in the Park with George. My mom was— and still is— a working artist. She was 37 years old, and had maybe no longer expected to have children by the time she had one. She was a painter and illustrator who was intensely and obsessively devoted to her work and was, I would assume, in the midst of a crisis about what new motherhood meant for both her art and her identity. So, she left her very small child with a friend and put on nice clothes and went to see a musical by Stephen Sondheim about George Seurat. It was some kind of a group outing for the school where my dad worked. She tells the story of how she sat in the audience, surrounded by her husband’s coworkers, listening to “Children and Art”—a song about art and legacy and family, what we make and what we leave behind— and weeping uncontrollably. It was as though the song were a targeted missile written exactly for her, so precisely relevant to her particular situation as to feel like a cruel prank.
About thirty-four years later, I went to see Marianne Elliot’s gender-swapped production of Company in London. A thing I had never noticed about Company until I was two months shy of my thirty-fifth birthday, watching a production where a tall redheaded woman played Bobby, is that it is an entire play about the anxiety around turning thirty-five. In a gender-flipped production of Company, Bobby becomes a lot like who I was when I was single, a slutty, flaky charmer surrounded by established couples, trying to find a foothold in a world split off into pairs. She is, as I had been for many years and sometimes continued to be even after marriage, both full of longing for partnership, and not sure that it has any place for her. She is also extremely stressed out about turning thirty-five, which I hadn’t realized I also was, until I sat in the audience and watched a production in which tall, redheaded Bobby is literally trapped beneath surreally gigantic silver birthday balloons spelling out the number 35. It felt like a trained attack, like the whole production turned and pointed right at me.
I suspect just about everyone who loves Sondheim has their own story, or stories, like this. My sense of an overly personal connection to Sondheim started at a young age. I grew up, like many of you who are also sad today did, on Stephen Sondheim’s work. I was very lucky that my parents both loved his music, and passed that love down to me. Some of my earliest memories involve sitting in the back of a car on road trips, listening to the cast recordings of Sweeney Todd or A Little Night Music. I had no moment of awakening to his work, and sometimes I envy people who did. Instead, for a long time, I believed Sondheim was something only my family knew or cared about, and I felt both ecstatic and offended when anyone else had heard of him. “How did they know about our secret,” I thought, when somebody to whom I was not related mentioned one of the most famous composers in the world.
Genius is a rotten, filthy-handed word, culpable and useless, and also Sondheim is one of about three people to whom I would sincerely apply it. Starting in the 1950s, he revolutionized musical theater, recreating the art form whole-cloth in his image. His influence on multiple generations cannot be quantified; there are few corners it does not reach, a ripple from a stone that spreads all the way to edges of the lake. Sondheim as much as anyone is the story of art in the twentieth century, and how it gets from there into the present day. I know all of this; I know the form and size of his legacy, where it lives and what it did and how wide it reaches. But, like everyone else who loves Sondheim, on some level I still believe that I’m the only person who knows about Sondheim.
Every single thing I’ve ever done or made is to some degree stolen from him. He taught me how the difference one syllable and two can be the difference between grief the day after a loss and grief a year after it. His work showed me that puzzle-box virtuosity and formal experimentation are not at odds with raw, sweeping emotion, but are rather often the only containers that can hold it. I learned from his songs the power of a list when it builds and builds and builds, and how the shock of memory can be reproduced in the juxtaposition of a series of long lines with a sudden short one. Like the best poets, Sondheim understood that jokes and tragedy are built the same way, and that writing the ground floors of human emotion requires the same skills as writing a punchline or a zingy one-liner. I don’t think a single day goes by when I don’t unconsciously borrow phrasing from him. I have been doing this so long that I don’t even know I’m doing it anymore.
But when I say everything I do is stolen from him, I’m not just talking about writing. It is no exaggeration to say that Sondheim’s work created me. His music taught me what it was to be a person in the world. His songs were my earliest lessons in loss and deception, hope and longing, love and sex and desire and loneliness and ambition. They were my first glimpses of the mercenary and incoherent ways we all attempt to survive in the world, the games we play, the shelters we construct, and what we do when we lose them. I am nowhere near the only person saying this exact same thing today. His work raised so many of us, and taught us our own humanity as though it were a piece of music, something you could memorize and hum (his songs were, by the way, immensely hummable).
Years and years ago, I got very drunk with a couple with whom I was friends. It was late at night and we were at their apartment, where there was a piano. The two of them started playing Sondheim songs, singing along with selections from Company and Assassins. I can’t sing and I didn’t join in, but I sat there in that room feeling warm and safe as though I had suddenly come in from out of the cold. Trying to speak this feeling out loud felt not just impossible but inappropriate. What was I going to say? “Oh, I love Sondheim too?” Any statement I could have managed would have been so insufficient as to be no more than a joke. Not everyone I know loved Sondheim—nothing is for everyone, nor should it be—but just about everyone I know who loved him loved him in this way, where just saying that you liked the songs was laughably insufficient, missing the point by several orders of magnitude.
It’s impossible to pick a favorite out of his work, or to say that any one of his musicals is the best one, but also it’s obviously Sunday in the Park with George. Sunday, like everything else I love, shouldn’t work. It’s the ultimate piece of art-about-art, a genre that is by definition obnoxious and heavy-handed. Somebody once said that Bruce Springsteen was the only artist who could get away with writing a song about redemption that has the word “redemption” in it. Sunday is like this, but about making art. It should be painfully self-indulgent. Instead, it’s a delicate high-wire act, a fable about art and family and love and time, what lasts and what doesn’t.
Sunday works despite all the ways it shouldn’t because it exists on that formal and structural level at which genius is more than the sum of its parts. The impossibly round and perfect harmonies at the end of the first act do actually, somehow, manage to render the effect of light, not the idea of it, but light as in golden hour, as in the light at the end of the afternoon in the nineteenth century in Paris, in a small suburban pack, on an island in the river, on a Sunday, in music. (Start that video at 1:16 if you want to skip the dialogue and get right to the music and the Mandy Patinkin of it all) And that’s just the first act.
The week Thomas and I moved in together, he informed me that his entire knowledge of Sondheim began and ended with a bad production of the first act of Into the Woods. I immediately set out to fix this. I pulled up the old PBS recordings of the original casts of Into The Woods and Sunday, both of which were then, and may still be now, available in their entirety on youtube, the same recordings I had watched over and over on VHS tapes in early childhood. We had been unpacking all day; it was late when we started. By the time I put on Sunday, it was after midnight, and I fell asleep near the beginning of the second act. When I woke up, Bernadette and Mandy were singing “Move On,” and Thomas was awake, watching alone while I slept, with tears running silently down his face. I thought about my mom, or maybe I didn’t, maybe I didn’t have to think about it for the resonances to hold. I felt, more than anything else, so relieved.
Understandings of Sondheim’s work changed in my lifetime. When I was young and his music belonged to my parents’s generation, liking Sondheim was considered sort of elitist, the New Yorker cartoon of musical theater. Reviews talked about how cerebral his work was, a crossword puzzle and not a love story, cleverness over feeling. When I listen to the music now, it is hard to believe that this was ever how people thought of it. His songs are certainly full of playful rhymes and super-speed patter and self-satisfied verbal twists and turns. But the meat and the meaning of them is in the collision of that dexterity with overwhelming emotion. Technical prowess becomes a container for feeling. All of those sharp corners and flourishes exist to aim the targeted weapons that make one or many of us in the audience feel like this song is about us and nobody else.
That daredevil aspect of Sondheim’s work is its own big emotion, but it is also a secret door. The feelings in the songs sneak up on us when we’re not looking, so awed by the spectacle that we do not tense up for the punch when it arrives. “Being Alive,” the sweeping eleven-o-clock number near the end of Company, is one of Sondheim’s best known and most beloved songs, and also one of his more nakedly emotional ones. For these reasons, I think people sometimes miss how formally spectacular it is, as clever and as technically accomplished as the slippery rhymes or triple-speed lyrics.
I didn’t connect with this song until my thirties, until I had accumulated regrets, and hurt people, and written myself off as someone not capable of loving responsibly. When I first really heard “Being Alive,” I had just fallen in the kind of love that makes you want to change your life, that makes you afraid of death and of your own poor choices. I wanted, for the first time, to show up for someone. Until then I had always eschewed obligation; now, I wanted to be obligated. I had begun to understand that obligation was not the opposite of romance, but rather the only thing that gives it substance. I wanted someone to know where I was, and to care if I came home at night. All of this was new to me; I felt nauseous all the time, and grateful, desperate to be a better person and profoundly unsure that I was up to the task.
The Six by Sondheim HBO special had just come out the previous year. It included several versions of “Being Alive,” and when I watched it with the person who is now my husband, the song hit me like a tidal wave aimed at a single house in a small town. The song knew what I had done and it was going to force me to sit here and talk about it. What I loved, and what I had lost, what I had pretended not to love and what I had tried not to feel, all of it was coming for me. Being alive, that seemingly clunky and self-evident phrase, is the most difficult task offered to us, actually being in it, real love where the buy-in is everything you have and the only way out is through.
The lyrics to “Being Alive” are simple, a series of repeated phrases starting with the word “someone,” as Bobby reaches for an understanding of what partnership is, and what it is supposed to be, what they actually want, and whether they can stand to have it. Someone you have to let in, someone whose feelings you spare. It builds and builds again, circling back to the same words, ramping up emotion as it goes. When a performer is really going for it on each successive “somebody” in the final verse after the bridge, it sounds as though the song is being ripped out of them. These things are almost unbearable to say, these realizations are barely inhabitable. Somebody sit in my chair, and ruin my sleep, and make me aware, of being alive.
After seeing a bunch of different actors perform it, I realized that the song is just built like that. It reaches this exact same high boil, that same feeling of almost not being able to stand something, each time. The discomfort of each line — somebody need me too much, somebody know me too well—becomes physically palpable in how it has to be sung. “Being Alive” is a machine, put together intricately and with great skill to deliver pure emotion. The virtuosity of the music, and the effort it requires from the singer, are intentionally set up to create the exact emotional state that the song depicts. If Sondheim’s music was all technical, if it was overly intelligent, this emotional gut-punch was so often how that intelligence and technical skill worked. He matched feeling to music in a way that, for the audience member, was not like watching a well-executed magic trick but rather like witnessing actual magic.
I’ve had this experience, of seeing not a magic trick but actual magic, with Sondheim’s music numerous times, in everything from clumsy high school productions to gloriously professional West End and Broadway stagings, from Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris playing Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd, to last year’s sweet and awkward 90th birthday tribute filled with famous people failing to use Zoom correctly, to two friends-of-friends whom I had met maybe an hour before randomly performing the entirety of “A Weekend in The Country” flawlessly in a private karaoke room on an otherwise unremarkable Saturday evening. I have never seen a production, good or bad or mediocre, of Sondheim’s work that didn’t move me, that didn’t teach me something new about the world, that didn’t send me out under the sky afterwards with an enlarged sense of my own and everyone else’s humanity. The idea that Sondheim was ever considered distant and cerebral seems ridiculous now. But it’s also proof of how the meaning and understanding of a great artist’s work deepens as multiple generations experience it, piling their reactions on top of one another into some kind of collective language.
If we are lucky to live long enough, we start to lose the world from which we learned what the world was. If we are even luckier than that, and live to be old, we come to exist in a world that holds no traces of the one in which we first learned to live. Eventually nothing remains of the things that formed our ideas of how things would always be. Sondheim is part of a generation that is aging and dying, a generation whose luminaries largely created the world as I have understood it my whole life. It is their vision of work and art, friendship and achievement, value and striving, from which I assembled for myself what a life might look like. Sondheim seems eternal, and he is, but he is also a moment in time. This is how lives recede into history—Sondheim becomes part of the story of an era, understood in context. He becomes part of how things once were, which is not how they are anymore.
Several years ago, the deaths of celebrities about whom my peers and I cared deeply started coming thick and fast. People made jokes about curses, the worst year, the bad timeline. But there wasn’t any curse, or bad timeline. It wasn’t the fault of some particularly awful year. We had simply begun to reach the age of losing things, the point when the world on which we had built our expectations began to splinter and break down, giving way to whatever comes next. Sondheim grew up in the shadow of Oscar Hammerstein and the other greats of Hammerstein’s generation, and he lived to see each of them gone, to see the world through which he had made his way into his own life break down and leech away, until he was living somewhere else entirely. In his case, though, the different world into which he aged was one he had himself created.
I fear the coming losses; I keep a list. I rarely say any of them out loud. I know they’re coming, though. The loss of someone like Sondheim— or like the other names I won’t say out loud here—means both everything and nothing. Those of us who loved him are hugely lucky that Sondheim achieved the level of success and renown that he did, and that his work therefore lives on after him. But the reality in which Sondheim exists in the past tense will inevitably be a different one than the one in which Sondheim was a living figure. He was a world and we are moving beyond it.
People will soon talk about Sondheim as a way to explain a certain sort of New York theater in the 1970s and 1980s. They’ll be right; they already are. This reading, where Sondheim is understood both in and as context, is widely available and largely correct. But I also hate it. I wanted Sondheim to be bigger than that, which I guess is a way of saying I didn’t believe it was possible for him to die. But all this urgency passes too— for a while, maybe, we live in the center of it, where the people whose work is important to me are the people agreed on by many others around me. Time rushes on, and as we age what we love becomes more personal as it grows less widely shared. I will begin to know fewer and fewer people who grew up with Sondheim, who think of him as still alive, who knew him as one of the world’s greatest living artists. Things get smaller as they fade, as they drift back from the shore out into the unknowable wideness beyond it.
Sondheim lived a long and enormous life, died old and accomplished and loved at ninety-entire-one years of age. His death should feel neither cruel nor unexpected. But it does. I am still living in the world that he built, and cannot imagine it without him. What a hideous thing it is to live in a world without Stephen Sondheim. What an enormous piece of luck it was to have been alive at the same time as him.
If you’ve never listened to Sondheim, I can’t tell you where to start. Almost anywhere would be a good way in, and also an insufficient one. You could start with the PBS recording of Sunday, which I suspect is still on youtube, and find yourself sitting up awake alone at 2am, crying about children and art. You could start with A Little Night Music, if you’re a classical music nerd or a Bergman fan. You could listen to any one of a number of wonderful compilations and tribute concerts, which accumulated fast in the last two decades or so of Sondheim’s life, and almost all of which present an opportunity to look at Bernadette Peters in an evening gown. You could buy tickets right now, if you’re in New York, for the gender-swapped version of Company, which no longer has a actor playing Bobby who looks like me but I suppose is probably still quite good despite that. You could watch D.A. Pennebaker’s brilliant documentary about the original Company cast recording, and then follow it up with Documentary Now’s pitch-perfect parody of the same (Co-Op). You could simply figure out if anyone you love loved Sondheim, and you could text them and ask where to start; I imagine today would be a great day for many of us to receive that text.
But you could also, knowing almost nothing about the musical of which it is part, listen to exactly one song. It’s the song that Sondheim himself described as his favorite thing he had ever written. It’s called “Someone In a Tree,” and it is, without hyperbole, perfect. “Someone In a Tree” does in six minutes and forty seconds what most self-important television shows try and fail to do in eight seasons. Everything single serious thing I have ever written has been a failed attempt to write “Someone in A Tree.”
Essentially, “Someone In a Tree” is about history. Several characters, including a child who has hidden in a tree, overhear the negotiations of a treaty; they compare notes on what they have heard, and construct a version of the day’s events. The treaty is a piece of history, but these people with their small, ordinary lives, witnessing it only in fragments, are not. The point the song makes, however, as each of their fractional reports add up and the song builds into a lush and sweeping harmony, is that these small, fragmented stories are where history lives.
It’s the fragment not the day
It’s the pebble not the stream
It’s the ripple not the sea
That is happening
Not the building but the beam
Not the garden but the stone
Only cups of tea
And someone in a tree
Sondheim’s life is a part of history, and so is his death. Both will be written about in historical terms, and they deserve to be. Sondheim revolutionized an art form in a way that happens maybe once in a century if you are very lucky about what century you live in. This is what will be recorded and retold and taught to students. It is worth remembering; it is likely to be remembered.
But the story is also something else, something at once smaller, and yet far more vast. Sondheim’s legacy is the work of just about every famous musical artist recording today, but it is also my two old friends when they still lived together and still loved each other, drunk at three in the morning playing “The Little Things You Do Together” on the piano. It’s my parents singing the same song in the front of a car on a road trip twenty years before that. It’s Thomas and I up late at night watching bad quality recordings of Broadway productions from the 1980s on youtube, and Thomas by himself after I fell asleep, weeping along to “Move On.” It’s two former theater kids in a karaoke room doing “A Weekend In The Country” with perfect military precision and giddy flair, for an audience of maybe twelve drunk media nobodies. It’s my parents both going to see the original production of Sweeney Todd before they knew each other, and it’s me going to see the murderously good 2004 Sweeney from the third row, and it’s every day, which is maybe once a week, when I think about how perfect one throwaway line from Sweeney is. It’s that production of Company that was a direct insult to thirty-four-year-old me and it’s the time my middle school did a production of Follies, a musical about aging and mid-life crises, for some reason I will never understand. It’s every single day I have spent humming “Move On” or “Someone In a Tree” or “The Miller’s Son” under my breath without even noticing I was doing it. It’s me hunched over my laptop, weeping along with a recording of “Being Alive,” and it’s every time I ever realized an acquaintance was going to become a close friend because they said something about Sondheim. Sondheim’s legacy is the history of musical theater in the twentieth century and it’s also my mom one night in 1984, an artist and recently a mother, leaving her new baby with a friend and going out to see a musical about children and art.
History is the small pieces, the things that don’t survive into the record, the little human stories, the fragments that form the day. Sondheim carried so many of us through the small moments in our lives, a signpost and a language, a way to know one another and ourselves. These stories do not appear in the official record of his life or achievements, and yet an incalculable number of them form a collage that shows the way he changed the world. I loved Sondheim, but I never knew him; I was just someone in a tree.
this is the public version of griefbacon. it’s free for everybody, but if you enjoyed this, maybe consider subscribing? you can also buy a friend a gift subscription, which is a very nice thing to do. I love you, steve. thank you for everything.