Stephen Sondheim may be gone, but his legacy will endure

Stephen Sondheim wearing a black shirt and smoking a cigarette
Publicity photo of Stephen Sondheim

Today would have been Sondheim’s 92nd birthday

Stephen Sondheim in NYC

Some of us have never known a time in which Stephen Sondheim wasn’t an icon. He was quiet and understated, yet intimidating and luminous. He was, in a word, unparalleled.

For many New Yorkers, it’s odd to think of Sondheim’s birthday without him here to partake in some of the celebrations of his life and work that happen every year around this time. His absence was especially conspicuous on March 10 at Carnegie Hall, when his misunderstood masterpiece Anyone Can Whistle was presented as a special one-night concert. He had reportedly been looking forward to attending.

This is the celebrity death that has hit me the hardest in a long time, with a level of grief I did not predict. It may sound silly to be taken by surprise at the death of a 91-year-old, but Sondheim’s talent seemed to defy gravity, so I forgot that the rest of him wouldn’t.

This was, after all, a man who was referred to as a “god” so often he was finally compelled to lampoon the fact with a comical song (“God,” appropriately enough) written specifically for Sondheim on Sondheim, a 2010 musical revue of his work.

I have no problem with that analogy at all.

In early November, I jokingly quizzed a friend about his musical taste after he took me to — bar none — the worst concert I have ever seen. I told him that Alan and Marilyn Bergman are the greatest pop songwriters of the last 50 years, adding, “I only stipulate pop because Stephen Sondheim is not of this universe.”

Within two months, Sondheim was gone, and so was Marilyn. (If you want to know the majesty of the Bergmans, Bea Arthur’s version of “Fifty Percent” and Nancy LaMott’s rendition of “Where Do You Start” are great starting points.)

I’ll never forget smiling happily on November 26 when a friend posted some of my favorite Sondheim lyrics to her Facebook page, only to rush a minute later in panic to Google his name. Once I saw he had died, I clutched my chest and let out a sound I didn’t know I was capable of.

His best work can be too much to digest sometimes, at least at first glance. It’s like staring at the sun —it’s wondrous, but if you look at it too long, you can be blinded by the sheer beauty.

That beauty has been baked into the lives of so many, and with his passing, those of us who were always hopeful for another Sondheim masterpiece to appear must accept the loss of a certain magic and wonderment. Although he was working on material that will surely surface when the time is right, the die is otherwise cast.

If most great artists give us one delicious dish, Sondheim routinely prepared banquets so lush and lavish you couldn’t possibly savor it all in one evening or afternoon. There is inevitably something stunning in his wit or insight that you can’t help but miss the first time.

To hear a Sondheim song delivered by a first-class performer, as far as I’m concerned, is like experiencing the rush of unwrapping presents on Christmas morning as one did at seven years old.

Though he was a towering figure and an inspiration to many – Michael Shulman’s lovely tribute in The New Yorker is perhaps the greatest testament to that — I look at the skinny boys sweating up a storm to EDM at the back of the club and wonder how many of them know who Sondheim was or can name any of his work.

More importantly, I wonder how many of them understand that sharing space on this Earth with him was like being alive when Shakespeare’s works premiered, and he attended his own plays at the Globe Theatre.

Do they realize that a man of confounding innovation and brilliance — Shakespeare’s equivalent in our time — was gay?

They should know and appreciate that.

I find it remarkable that the notion of Sondheim as a gay icon is seldom addressed, and yet, perhaps that is as it should be, because who he slept with was not the most interesting thing about him. Not by a long shot.

It did, of course, inform his work. He was emphatic that he wrote specifically for characters who were already on the page, but some of his own perspective inevitably crept in, all protestations to the contrary.

Though his work was universal at its core and touched people from all walks of life, for many gay men, his work justified and gave voice to a part of us that simply wasn’t available elsewhere — certainly not with that intelligence, specificity, and jaw-dropping emotional dexterity.

I can look back to when I first became acquainted with his work and realize that is when he began telling me about myself. I watched the 1981 filmed stage version of Sweeney Todd starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury and was overcome by the brilliance of the score, with its tragicomic commentary on the dank, dark, dismal side of human nature, with idealism inevitably shattered.

I still remember my father frowning as I watched it — worried that his son might be gay —and saying, “What makes you like this so much?!” I didn’t know how to answer that, but it was clear that a baseball game would be much more welcome on our TV screen.

Once I was seduced by his genius as a kid, it was inevitable that I would one day be attracted first and foremost to a man, not for his chiseled features, but his depth and intellect. His work has the power to make you realize those are the most seductive qualities of all.

When I got older and began venturing into the city, I was surprised to see Sondheim out and about several times. One night I went to see Elaine Stritch at the famed Café Carlyle when she performed — on her 85th birthday, no less — a show she called Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim… One Song at a Time. When I saw Sondheim, Hal Prince, Nathan Lane, and Patti LuPone all assembled to see the show, I was sure there was no way I would possibly gain entry, but by some miracle, I did.

There was nothing more magical — more quintessentially Manhattan — than seeing Elaine Stritch on stage at the Café Carlyle singing Sondheim songs — biting her lip in frenzied frustration one moment, full of childlike wonder and satisfaction the next — while he watched her feet from the stage. Anyone familiar with Elaine’s performance style knows she didn’t just sing songs — she inhabited them.

Inevitably, she would unpack a phrase or take just the right moment or two of pause, leaving the material newly considered — as though she were performing it for the first time — and it would make you discover something new in a song you had already heard performed a hundred times. She reminded you that great art, like Sondheim’s, lives and breathes in perpetuity to be newly discovered, interpreted, and assessed. With her dry, acerbic wit and uncommon emotional availability, Elaine was the ideal Sondheim interpreter.

Business is crowding out art big time

To look back now is bittersweet. Elaine is gone, the great Hal Prince is gone, and now Sondheim has followed. As I see tourists amble around a now sterile Times Square, with their M&Ms and Forever 21 bags, I can’t help but feel that New York doesn’t hold the same magic anymore. Sondheim’s death really does seem to mark the end of an era.

Of course, there are other innovative voices in musical theater. Lin-Manuel Miranda is the first obvious example that comes to mind, with his own distinct, brilliant voice. However, he is a rare example — Sondheim himself was the first to say that the pop-cultural landscape and theater business of today would likely not have allowed his younger self the chance to be heard, produced, and embraced. Too much money is at stake, meaning precious few are willing to take a financial risk on an unknown quantity — that’s why Broadway is now overwhelmed by inorganic movie-to-musical concoctions and messy jukebox musicals where songs are shoehorned into preexisting plots, or new plots are shoehorned between preexisting songs. Creativity is on the wane, and chances are rarely taken on anything — or anyone — fresh and original.

That means business is crowding out art big time.

Sondheim understood this and mentored many aspiring artists, including playwrights, whose work he saw had promise. The stories of him calling up people who had no industry clout whatsoever and inviting them to lunch, offering advice and wisdom he’d learned, are innumerable and very touching. He understood how fortunate he had been — including having had the good fortune of being mentored by the incredible Oscar Hammerstein, an idol he aimed to equal and eventually eclipsed — and sought to pass whatever he could on to others.

This is beautifully depicted in the new film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick… Boom! starring Andrew Garfield as Larson. The superbly talented Bradley Whitford deftly portrays Sondheim in the film. It’s moving to see their relationship portrayed, especially given what a short window of time Larson was afforded to make his mark on the world. Sondheim knew he had a gift and encouraged him.

Like any good mentor, he did not run around and try to claim credit for the support he offered younger artists — he just did it.

Last summer, I had the pleasure of attending a production of Side by Side by Sondheim helmed by the excellent Jon Heron at Washington Memorial Park in Dunellen. I went not just to hear Sondheim but to support my exquisitely gifted friends Barbara Gurskey and Debbie Lingel.

I was not prepared for what was to happen.

When Debbie performed “Losing My Mind” from Follies, I was stunned by the specificity and depth of feeling with which she imbued every line. Then, when Barbara interpreted “Send in the Clowns” — perhaps Sondheim’s most famous individual song – I was overcome with emotion.

To this day, the treasures of Sondheim are still revealing themselves to me — the older I get, the better he gets. I know so many feel the same. That’s made easier by an exceptional performer with the power to take the work of a composer and make it abundantly clear, like freshly polished Swarovski crystal.

I knew both songs well, of course, but it became clear to me that hot summer night, hearing my talented friends perform these songs beneath the stars, that the experiences Sondheim articulates in these gems are ones I have grown into — the bitter, and the sweet.

The irony is that the more we get to appreciate these one-of-a-kind artists, the closer we are to losing them.

How I wish I had been born with a voice, certainly a voice to suit the demands of a Sondheim score. However, the one time I did audition for a musical (I wanted to get my EMC card, which stage actors will understand), I chose to sing the brilliant “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle.

The accompanist smiled when she saw the music I had brought to the appointment: “Ah, Sondheim — the actor’s choice.” She couldn’t have said it better.

The truth is I have never generally loved musicals except for Sondheim’s. What makes him different from the rest is how razor-specific his songs are to his characters, which means actors in his shows have a chance to perform roles. They can’t make it work by simply standing around and saying lines until their songs appear or focus only on showing off their voices like it’s a televised singing competition. It’s all about intention and specificity. His songs demand it.

I don’t think I will ever understand how the same man who wrote “Another National Anthem” could have also written “Someone in a Tree” or “The Road You Didn’t Take,” “The Ladies Who Lunch,” “Broadway Baby,” “The Miller’s Son,” “Move On” and “No One is Alone.” If I didn’t already know it was true, I would never believe it.

I will also never be able to wrap my head around how a man who claimed he was never in love until his 60s could have written “Not a Day Goes By” before he finally did, nor how a man who never had children could have written “Stay With Me,” the definitive song about the profundity of a parent’s love, healthy or not.

I also don’t understand how anyone who wasn’t a “sloe-eyed vamp” in the roaring ’20s wrote the definitive musical theater story of survival, “I’m Still Here,” a song every great female cabaret performer now tackles when she reaches a certain age as an elegant, defiant rite of passage. (As of this writing, the great Marilyn Maye — at the peak of her prowess at 94 — is the song’s foremost living interpreter.) I certainly will never cease to be awed that anyone so reserved — even frosty and misanthropic — could have written the opening title song to Company, a soul-stirring anthem of anti-solitude.

Sondheim simply defies all logic to me. At the risk of sounding flippant, I find it inconceivable that someone could hear his music and want to throw their life away. The body of work he has left makes me endlessly curious to find out what’s next — no-frills or rose-colored glasses needed, thank you very much.

I was lucky enough to meet Sondheim twice, but the second time was much more memorable. When I saw him in the audience at a play we were both attending, I decided to be bold at intermission — I ran down to Colony Music, bought a copy of the original cast recording of Sunday in the Park with George, and ran back to the theater. There he was, the Shakespeare of our time, standing outside chatting with a few other theatergoers who recognized him.

When I tentatively approached him and asked if he might inscribe the album to me, he studied me with a look of cynicism and utter benevolence. One moment later, he laughed and asked, “Now, how did you happen to have that?!”

I smiled and told the truth: “I’m no fool. When I saw you, I decided to run to Colony!”

He laughed again and obliged to autograph it for me. When my first pen didn’t work, the blood nearly drained out of my face — imagine seeing a genius of his caliber doing something so workaday on your account. Fortunately, I had a second pen which worked fine. He was happy about it too: “There, that’s better!”

I said a few words about what Follies and A Little Night Music mean to me, looked him in the eye and thanked him for his work and for the autograph. I wish I could have said something profound, but I feel fortunate I was able to express anything at all. I’m sure he appreciated that I restrained myself and kept it brief — he must have had an encounter like that every time he went out on the town. You don’t reward someone for their life’s work by exhausting them.

Even if he were in front of me right now, there is still nothing I could say he hadn’t heard before, probably articulated better.

I feel extremely fortunate for the memory and the autograph. It helps mark an era for me and reminds me of the poignancy of time passing. In fact, if the same encounter had happened just a few months later, there would have been no Colony Music to run to. It’s now yet another CVS Pharmacy.

Sondheim may be gone, but of course, nothing could be further from the truth about his work. A film adaptation of Merrily We Roll Along featuring Ben Platt is underway, the cast recording of John Doyle’s excellent Off-Broadway revival of Assassins has just been released, and the superb revival of Company — directed expertly by Marianne Elliot, with Patti LuPone crushing it night after night in the role Elaine Stritch originated — is playing an open-ended Broadway run at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre.

Sondheim was present to see both productions less than two weeks before his death, receiving thunderous applause before the curtain re-opened on Company after a nearly two-year pause for Covid. We can all see it for ourselves on YouTube.

My hope is that reinterpretations of his work will introduce it to new audiences for centuries to come and that – if civilization carries on long enough – he and his work will be viewed in much the same way we think of Shakespeare, Sophocles, or Chaucer today.

I also hope he will continue to be venerated for the unique gay icon he is. He was not a fearless activist like Larry Kramer or a trailblazing performer like Cher. He was without equal, and his contributions to our culture came from a mind that seemed quiet from the outside but was stormy within. His work was not only beautiful, but timeless.

Sondheim articulated for us how little that is beautiful or worthwhile lasts forever, that life is ephemeral, that we must seize the day while we have it and accept that which we cannot change. For the many who miss him like I do and will continue to, he has already provided us the perspective to deal with it.

Seeing my friend’s eyes well with tears at the conclusion of the opening number of Company at the Jacobs Theatre went a long way toward that, too. I knew at once he was reminded of his friends, his loves, and how joyous it was to reconnect with others again after we had all, for so long, been shut away from one another.

When I saw those tears in my friend’s eyes, Sondheim never felt more alive to me.

As the man himself observed: “It was marvelous to know you, and it isn’t really through/Crazy business this, this life we live in/Can’t complain about the time we’re given/With so little to be sure of in this world/We had a moment/A marvelous moment…”