When I told my husband that I was going to record my own thoughts about Stephen Sondheim, he asked, do you have anything new to say?
It was a fair question. So much has been written, filmed, and broadcast about Sondheim’s work, not only since his passing, but over the years. Still, I think I do.
My mother planted the seed of my love of musical theater. She played The Music Man and Bye Bye Birdie and, of course, West Side Story on our turntable. Yes, I’m that old.
Neither of the first two hold up for me in the age of Les Misérables, Rent and Dear Evan Hansen. West Side Story wasn’t even one of my faves. The only song I really loved was “Officer Krupke,” for its irreverence and inventive rhymes. I had to ask my mom what a “social disease” was. She dodged the question.
There’s nothing in this podcast you don’t know….
Last week, one of my daughters mentioned that the New York Times’ “Daily” podcast was a tribute to Sondheim. There might not be much in it you don’t already know, she acknowledged. His troubled childhood, the mentor he found in Oscar Hammerstein, his breakthrough musicals of the 7os…? What was the first show for which he wrote music and lyrics? No, not A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was Saturday Night, which wasn’t produced until 1997. Gotcha.
“No, there’s nothing in this podcast you don’t know,” she said, but I loved her for thinking of me.
I’ve been mostly avoiding the mass quantities of tributes, articles and interviews. (By the way, where were all you true believers when Assassins played a mere 73 performances at Playwrights Horizons?) I avoid them not because I’m such an expert – there’s plenty I “don’t know” – but because if I admire someone, be they scientist or painter, I don’t want to run the risk of finding out that they were jerks in their personal life. Frank Lloyd Wright, the genius architect – don’t get me started. Let the work be the work; never mind the person who created it. Sondheim once said something slightly unkind about Rodgers and Hammerstein, and even that bugged me. It’s easy to get on my bad side; I’ve often described myself as the Sweeney Todd of San Francisco: “she never forgets and she never forgives.”
A modest and kind man
With the exception of his remark regarding Rodgers and Hammerstein, by all accounts, Sondheim was a modest and kind man, who mentored others the way Hammerstein mentored him. (How is a man named Oscar Hammerstein not Jewish? It’s one of those one-Jewish-grandparent things.) But I’m not taking any chances.
However, I couldn’t resist Sondheim’s short interview with Patti LuPone from last year, since I’m also a huge fan of LuPone’s. Keep your Sarah Brightmans and Kristin Chenoweths – give me a mezzo-soprano who can belt. It was a mere six-minute clip, excerpted from a longer segment, first broadcast on CBS Sunday Morning. I didn’t mean to look at the comments, because I was certain it would be a long list of what I call “overkvell,” but one leapt out: It was from “Pam0626: Aside from his musical genius, he comes across as a humble man. Rest well, Mr. Sondheim.”
Now, I hate seeing the letters “R.I.P.” They evoke the tall, narrow headstones and skeletons of Halloween decorations. Spell it out as “rest in peace,” and it’s not distasteful, but it’s a cliché, which is, if anything, worse.
I envied Sondheim
But “rest well:” those two words make it sound as though Mr. Sondheim is still somewhere. Just taking a nap, or on a well-deserved vacation. Maybe getting ready to produce more work. Don’t misunderstand: I don’t like to think of the afterlife as a place where the smart and talented, let alone the famous, get special privileges. (When the mother of a friend of mine was dying, someone asked her what famous people she wanted to meet in heaven. Aimee Semple McPherson, maybe?) I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I can’t quite forsake hope, either. If there were one, it would be a place where everyone can do what they love, and there are no bad reviews, no Ben Brantleys, or John Simons, or Lindsay Ellises. I don’t believe in hell, either, but if anyone….
I didn’t just admire Sondheim, I envied him. Although he was older than I, and a gay man (I love gay men! My best friend is a gay man! However, in the words of Oscar Hammerstein himself, “I enjoy being a girl”), I would have traded places with him, if temporarily, because I would have liked to feel, in my own body and brain, what it was like to have produced the work he did.
Now I envy him for other reasons: he lived a long life, he was working up until the end, and when he went, he went fast.
So, rest well.
Donna Levin is the author of four novels, all of which are available from Chickadee Prince Books. Her most recent novel, He Could Be Another Bill Gates, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at the bookstore right across the street from your home. Please take a look.