Black Friday is usually one of the best days following Thanksgiving (or is it Cyber Monday?). But if you're in the arts, a day that's filled with countless deals, Christmas wish lists being fulfilled, and the thrill of being up since 7 A.M. getting nothing but the best items can quickly turn into a sad one real quick. In this case, it was the loss of someone who may have inspired all of you reading this to go into the arts, specifically musical theatre. He was, in many ways, a giant who laid the foundations of what the American musical theatre can become with just a bit of nerve and a good ounce of blatant realism and emotion. And now, he's a giant in the sky. At 5:46 P.M., I found out quite possibly the saddest news I never expected to see. Stephen Sondheim, the man behind some of the most unforgettable songs and stories to ever hit the stage, was dead at 91 years old.
And the day before, he enjoyed what would be his last Thanksgiving meal with his loved ones. And he was still planning on bringing more stories to life. And he was probably looking forward to seeing the upcoming West Side Story remake on 10 December. We all know too well that a life that reaches the 90s to even the 100s is a life well-lived, but it's still sad when someone who's made such an impact on our lives, even from a distance, is taken from us. We all want the legends, or giants as it were, to be among us forever. The ones who leave us too soon through unexpected circumstances leave us with much heartbreak and sorrow. But it's the ones who made the most impact and reaching a ripe old age of just about a century of living who will leave us the greatest sadness. Especially if it's an individual who transformed our lives for the better. Stephen Sondheim was that individual. Though I never met Sondheim in person, he made quite an impact on my career and the songs I will keep on singing for many years to come. This might be one of the few times in my career where I will share a tribute to a titan who transformed and inspired us artists, and even change the face of the American musical theatre world forever. You are allowed to have some Kleenex with you if you wish. Or even blasting off your favorite tunes while you read this week's post. But either way, we're honoring the man, the giant, the legend, and the individual that is STEPHEN SONDHEIM.
On 22 March 1930, Stephen Joshua Sondheim came roaring into the world (figuratively speaking, that is!). He lived with his Jewish parents in New York City, and detested his psychologically abusive mother, who took her anger from her failed marriage out on him. Sondheim didn't attend her funeral in 1992 due to being estranged from his for over 20 years. He was mentored by legendary lyricist and playwright, Oscar Hammerstein II, for over 20 years, and would become a surrogate father to Sondheim. But rather than stick to the same patterns Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hart, Lerner & Loewe, and other musical theatre giants established for over a quarter of a century, Sondheim decided to do something... different. He told stories with themes that were deemed too radical and unconventional with the "classic" musical theatre stories. And to think, it was Hammerstein who convinced Sondheim to write the lyrics to a Broadway show that's being released to cinemas over 50 years since its original release. You do know what I'm talking about, right? West Side Story. A take on one of the greatest love stories of all time involving two households, defined by race and classism, and immigration and hatred. A show that has stood the test of time but was deemed too radical by the Tony Awards (with the exception of its choreography and scenic design) to take home Best Musical. But it would forever cement Sondheim's place in the American musical theatre world as one of the greatest composers, creators, and storytellers of all time. The lyrics to some of the most timeless songs from that show, and many others that would follow, contained something that the classic musical theatre shows seemed to lack. And that's REALISM. Stephen Sondheim was a product of what was known as counter culturalism - a culture whose norms and values of behavior differ substantially from those of mainstream society. In the theatre, much of the stories carried a lighthearted, airy feeling with many of the themes and endings being repetitive, without much substance. Sondheim changed that, starting with West Side Story. You see, after WWII, much of the media and society emphasized the importance of family, togetherness, NORMALCY in a clean and structured way. But what many of us didn't know is that there was much struggling underneath the pristine, joyous moments of family get togethers, going out to the theatre, and wholesomeness, there was still much struggle and turmoil. And it was often swept under the rug or avoided all the way around. Even to the point of those individuals being ostracized from society. Things like soldiers struggling with PTSD after seeing conflict and death for so long. Racism. Singleness. Abuse. Infidelity. Homosexuality. Classism. And so much more. These topics and happenings were deemed too forward or unethical to talk about in a society that is trying to move on from WWII and into a new era of spending money, having families, being successful in careers, and more. In a way, it was this image of the perfect, wholesome American family that led to a cultural revolution with the youth. Many of them protested what was being viewed on TV and films as not a proper reflection of what was really going on in the world. It seemed as if escapism into the perfect family home (one that is predominantly white, mind you) was a big, fat lie. And the youth didn't stand for it. In a way, Sondheim didn't stand for it either. A big example of this counter culturalism comes from a Tony-winning show called Company. It explored relationships, but it also delved down into the questions of being in a relationship. Questions like whether or not you're meant to be married. Questions like if it's okay to be single. Questions like if I will be a good parent to my children. Questions like if I can maintain the same relationships as a married individual as I had when I was single. Questions like what it truly means to be in love, being challenged, or "being alive" (see what I did there?) with another human being. As Sondheim put it when creating Company: "Broadway theater has been for many years supported by upper-middle-class people with upper-middle-class problems. These people really want to escape that world when they go to the theatre, and then here we are with Company talking about how we're going to bring it right back in their faces." Rather than focusing solely on the upper middle class white people and their problems, why not center a story around the middle middle class or even lower middle class people and their problems? Don't those stories matter just as much to the vast majority of the population instead of the small percentage of the selective upper middle class people? This particular show was the first to deal with adult themes, a move that both shocked and even delighted audiences. For a long time, classic Broadway theatre kept much of the sexual innuendos and outward themes & complexities of marriage, infidelity, racism, relationships, and more to a bare minimum. Almost to the point of it being nonexistent. That changed when Sondheim came to the scene, and the contemporary musical theatre was born. He went away from the usual themes of classical musical theatre stories and carved out his own path through music and lyrics to tell the stories that had to be told for the next generation of theatergoers, even up to his death. Sondheim used music and lyrics to create shows that tackled "unexpected themes that range far beyond the [genre's] traditional subjects" with songs & words "of unprecedented complexity and sophistication". He tended to address the "darker, more harrowing elements of the human experience," rather than keeping it airy and light all the time. I guess you could say that Sondheim emphasized what it meant to be truly human, even with the complexities and bad parts of ourselves we tend to hate. Sometimes, seeing yourself in the form of a character onstage in regards to your height, weight, skin color, and your personality is a big win. But what about seeing yourself onstage with all of the flaws and complexities you have without any shame or indignation? Theatre is sort of like a mirror - you see yourself as an individual who you're capable of becoming in a positive light, but you also see yourself as an individual who you could become if you don't change your ways, open your eyes and heart, or even see the beauty of how diverse this world can be. Sondheim used that mirror of the theatre and showed us every piece of the human experience, whether we wanted to see it or not. It often made us uncomfortable, but it also forced us to see what was truly going on in the world that was frequently avoided many years earlier or forbidden to talk about in public or even in private. What good is theatre being political, radical, game-changing, or even transformative if it doesn't tackle every single piece of humanity, even if it's the ugly parts and the ones we struggle to understand the most? Sondheim accomplished this and more for the past 70+ years of his career, and that's just one of the many things that set him apart from others. (This week's post is different from my usual reflections on acting, but I thought it would be timely to pay my respects to someone who meant a great deal to all of us in the theatre and performing arts as a whole. It would be a shame if I didn't do this. However, like so many of my posts, these are just my observations and reflections. You are welcome to add your ideas, opinions, and suggestions. And you don't have to agree with everything I say in this or any of my blog posts. What I won't tolerate is any offensive language, derogatory comments, or hate speech against me or anyone else. The Christmas season has just begun, and it's the time of year where we can actually take the time to be kinder and more understanding to one another. If you can't even do that, especially during the holidays, then I will block you.) What is my personal connection to Sondheim? Well, to be honest with you, I don't have one. I'm technically still learning about his vast pieces of work he created since I started my career at a later age. Though I did hear his songs repeatedly and fell in love with them. But I never fully made the connection the composer and lyricist who created the songs I've grown to love and appreciate until years later. "Send in the Clowns". "Being Alive". "Children Will Listen". "Not While I'm Around". "Green Finch & Linnet Bird". "Somewhere". "Something's Coming". "Putting It Together". "America". "Pretty Women". "Ladies Who Lunch". "Not Getting Married". "Sooner or Later" (I know that's from a movie, Dick Tracy, but that still counts, right?) And that's only a small percentage of the MILLIONS of things Sondheim has done! I still have to listen to the complete Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George Broadway albums in order to fully immerse myself into the genius of this man. Let alone perform in one of his shows. I did audition for Into the Woods in my area, but I didn't get cast. So, I'm still waiting for my chance to fully immerse myself in the magic that is Sondheim as a performer and not just an audience member. That would be quite a goal for me. But given how popular his shows are, or even how much they will skyrocket to new heights now, and how tight the competition is going to be, it's going to be a challenge for me to be part of any of Sondheim's shows. I'm up for it, though. But even if I listened to a small snippet of his works from that corner of the world, I can already tell that his lyrics and orchestrations are unlike anything I've ever heard before. Or even seen performed onstage by incredible actors telling his stories to audiences young and old. Think about it: The way he weaves in the magnificent orchestrations with the simplistic yet powerful language of his lyrics is quite amazing. The words are down to earth, and can hit you right in the gut when you least expect it. My all-time favorite lyrics from Sondheim's works would be this one: What do you leave to your child when you're dead? Only whatever you put in its head. Things that your mother and father have said What was left to them, too. Wow. If that's not powerful and hits you deeply, I don't know what is. The witch in Into the Woods gives parents and singles alike a message that should be passed down for ages to come, and it's not an upbeat, magical spell that most witches or fairy godmothers would use in their songs. "Children Will Listen" talks about the reality of being a parent, and how much their words and ideas and thoughts can impact kids for years to come. Even when they become parents themselves. If only my parents could've listened to this song in a way that I now appreciate it so deeply. It made that much of an impact on my life. Name a song from contemporary musical theatre that does that so well, without stooping to using f-bombs or explicit sexual innuendo so much. Especially if it's on the same level as Sondheim. There's something about Sondheim's words that strike a chord with everyone who listens, and he did it very well. To put in so much realism and blatant honesty into his works that took the American musical theatre scene to new heights is quite the achievement. And he didn't even had to stoop down to the levels of disrespectful language or much obscenities in order to get his point across. The words flowed like honey, with just enough punch and sting to get the audiences thinking and reflecting on their own lives worked so beautifully. And the orchestrations are quite extraordinary as well. One CBS reporter made quite a discovery the last time he interviewed Sondheim. In A Little Night Music, all of the songs have the details and notations of a waltz in the accompaniment and instrumentals of the score. For example, in "Send in the Clowns": Isn't it rich? (1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3) Are we a pair? (1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3) Do you see the pattern? The next time you hear this song, count out the musical steps of the waltz in the instrumental sections and you will hear it. Or even start dancing. Either option is a good idea, right? I guess words and music DO go well together when it's done right. And that's what truly made Stephen Sondheim a genius.
Oscar Hammerstein II said this to his young protégé: "Say what you feel, as opposed to what other people feel... and don't be ashamed of saying them your own way." I can honestly say that Stephen Sondheim took those words to heart. And what a legacy he built with what Oscar Hammerstein II encouraged him to do. Sure, there were failures that shook his spirit and confidence, but Sondheim never gave up saying what he had to say in his own way through music and lyrics. And by doing so, he inspired other lyricists and musicians in the arts to speak their own messages to the next generation. The late Jonathan Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda come to mind. And they both did it their own way, which included the occasional/frequent obscenities and sexual innuendos. In a way, Sondheim encouraged them both to be INDIVIDUALS, rather than copies of what the classic musical theatre artists were doing for many years. And Oscar Hammerstein II, a giant of the classical musical theatre world, encouraged Sondheim to be his own person and bring about a change that would transform the way theatre is seen for many years to come. If there's anything I could say to Stephen Sondheim, it would be these two words: THANK YOU. All the songs, stories, and lives you've touched because you decided to be an individual and carve out your own path for musical theatre transformed so much of our lives. My only hope is that your 91 years on this earth transformed yours, as you are now resting in heaven. I hope that someday I get the chance to perform your songs with as much passion and individualism as you encouraged all of us to be. My biggest dream is to play the Witch in Into the Woods, and I would take "Children Will Listen" to new heights because that song changed my life for the better. It would be an honor to sing that song and more to audiences someday. But in the meantime... I may not be as eloquent or as well-versed in all of your works as I'd like to be, but for the songs you wrote and I listened to on repeat, they all touched my heart. You've earned your rest, good sir. It doesn't take away the pain of missing you. But just the same, we will never forget you and all you've done for the theatre. THANK YOU. There's a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us, somewhere.
There's a time for us,
Some day a time for us,
Time together with time to spare,
Time to learn, time to care.
We'll find a new way of living,
We'll find a way of forgiving.
Somewhere . . .
There's a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we're halfway there.
Hold my hand and I'll take you there
Somewhere! STEPHEN SONDHEIM (1930-2021)