What to say? He was the man with all the words. And here’s the thing: I have already probably written more about Stephen Sondheim—in reviews, features, blog posts, random musings, and an in-depth interview I’m singularly happy with—than any other artist I’ve had the privilege of writing about in my career. As hot and cold as I’ve run on his shows, about some of which my opinions have changed almost yearly, this has clearly been one of his enduring gifts to me and my fellow ink-stained wretches: He has been a worthy subject, even an inexhaustible one. His work has always amply rewarded my attention and rumination, even—perhaps especially—when I have struggled with it.
So the sudden news of his death last week, which I happened to receive in the midst of a long weekend spent emptying out my childhood home in Phoenix, prompted a complicated surge of sorry-grateful thoughts and feelings. Much as was the case with the house-clearing project, I knew this day would come and yet was woefully unprepared for it. The original cast albums went on rotation immediately, of course, more or less in order, prompting a few ugly cries and no small amount of appreciative chortles (and not just at the jokes). It did not escape my notice that I was spending hours sorting through the pieces of my own and my family’s history while simultaneously roller-coastering through the peaks and valleys of Sondheim’s career, and that they happened to run in roughly parallel chronology: Over the weekend I found news clippings and restaurant menus that my mom had saved from as far back as the late 1950s, about the same time Sondheim burst on the scene as the lyricist of West Side Story; and most of the stuff in the house had been accumulated in the ’70s and ’80s, the decades when Sondheim’s career had its peak run, from Company to Assassins.
I can’t quite claim that Sondheim was part of my life then; I remember a friend showing me the video of Sunday in the Park With George, which I found intriguing but remote, while the video capture of Sweeney Todd outright horrified me. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when my reviewing beat was the small theatres of Los Angeles, that I saw, heard, and at last embraced his shows as if they were newly minted: a lively Company at West Coast Ensemble, a crackling Assassins at Los Angeles Repertory Company (though that show, oddly enough, had its L.A.-area premiere at Rio Hondo College), a romping Into the Woods at Actors’ Co-op, a sharp Putting It Together at the Colony Theatre (at least as good as the Taper’s later staging), and an excellent Sweeney at East West Players. East West later opened their Little Tokyo theatre with what remains for me the definitive Pacific Overtures.
That his shows can thrive in small spaces as well as or better than in larger ones is something that seems to be continually rediscovered, from the Menier Chocolate Factory to Barrow Street Theatre. It’s something I asked him about when I had a chance. Why did they work so well in intimate settings, I wondered? His reply:
I think it’s about character. A lot of the shows I’ve been connected with have been very character-driven. The characters created by the book writers I’ve worked with have all kinds of subtleties, and they come across better, I think, when the camera is close in on them. It’s not so much necessarily that they suffer on a larger scale; they are larger than life, but they are filled with subtleties. They are closer to characters in straight plays than other musicals. And if they’re rich characters, then they’re very good close up.
In recent days, I have read a surfeit of smart and moving pieces about the life he led, the formidably questing intelligence he possessed, the ties that bind his disparate catalogue together (especially, in my opinion, his work’s most crucial glue: his too often underrated music). Like many, I was especially struck by Helena Fitzgerald’s deeply personal and intensely thoughtful tribute, not least for the way she captures, with a rueful precision worthy of Sondheim himself, how wrenchingly painful it is to now speak of him and his work in the past tense, like a geological era that has entered the fossil record. Even for a writer who hadn’t completed a show since 2008, Sondheim still felt like a part of the conversation.
And of course his work remains so, perhaps ever more so, and not only because a gender-switched Company and the eerily prophetic Assassins are currently running in New York. Musicals of his once dismissed or damned with faint praise by critics, including me, haven’t improved with age so much as they’ve taught us to listen more closely, to attune ourselves to their unique individual logic. Personally, I have never considered wasted the time I’ve spent giving a Sondheim show or score I didn’t initially like another chance, and another, and yet another; and luckily I’ve had many chances and heartily expect to have more. Meanwhile the ones I’ve warmed to in nearly every incarnation I’ve witnessed—a list that includes Forum, Company, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd—only seem to get better, deeper, and fresher with age.
This, after all, is what a canon is, if we must have canons: not invariable paragons of perfection, necessarily, but works that somehow stay alive with surprise, with the shock of recognition, with argument. The musicals Stephen Sondheim wrote with a handful of deft collaborators remain among the most teemingly alive works anyone has ever composed for the stage, and it is hard to imagine a day when they won’t feel that way. As he put it in the second volume of lyric collection/memoir, Look, I Made a Hat, “The very thing that makes theatre impermanent is what makes it immortal. In a sense, every night of a show is a revival.”
As I packed up a suitcase full of mementoes, including theatre programs, and headed to the airport to fly home yesterday, I happened to be listening to Road Show, the quaint, valedictory show Sondheim and John Weidman wrestled with for years in various incarnations until it sputtered to a bittersweet final stop at the Public Theater, where director John Doyle’s set consisted chiefly of assorted luggage. The story of two brothers, one an inveterate hustler, the other his reluctant accomplice and occasional nemesis, Road Show anatomizes what little they, and by extension we, have left to show after lives of anxious acquisition and needless competition: little more than a suitcase of scraps.
But also each other. The show ends with the two siblings bantering in a sort of afterglow, if not quite an afterlife.
“Where do you think guys like us go after they die?” asks Willie Mizner. Replies his brother, Addison: “I don’t think they go anywhere. I think they just keep going.”
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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