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January 1, 2022

Remembering Stephen Sondheim: Lover of Words, Hero for Introverts.

 

“I like neurotic people. I’m neurotic myself….Everybody is troubled; everybody has problems, and they’re problems of circumstance, and they’re problems that start when you’re young and you’re growing up, and they’re professional problems and they’re personal problems. Nobody goes through life unscathed, and I think if you write about those things, you’re going to touch people.” ~ Stephen Sondheim

~

And thus begins the fascinating HBO documentary Six by Sondheim, which highlights the life and career of Stephen Sondheim through six of his signature songs.

The Broadway composer and lyricist, who lived 40 minutes from me in Roxbury, Connecticut, died on November 26— one day after spending Thanksgiving with friends and family.

At 91 years old, this seems like a wonderful way to go. It is especially poignant, too, given how his formative years seem to have been marked by loneliness after the breakup of his parents’ marriage, and his mother’s erratic, often abusive treatment of her sensitive son.

Stephen Sondheim was often described as “introverted” and “solitary” in real life, which almost runs counter to the persona he projected in the interviews he granted over the years. He spoke eloquently about how much pleasure he derived from finding the perfect “word” or “words” while writing, and how he wanted to share those delights with the public.

At the beginning of this documentary, there is a nice montage featuring a scene in which Sondheim is sitting alone, silently writing, when he suddenly starts chuckling to himself. As writers watching this, we know he has just stumbled upon something good, something funny, and we recognize and appreciate this moment because we strive for those moments ourselves.

It is bliss, isn’t it?

I was talking to a friend of mine earlier this evening, and she told me that Sondheim’s work had a huge impact on her life. I feel the same, though perhaps for slightly different reasons.

When I was 18 years old, I moved from Maine to New York to go to college. I was painfully shy and introverted, but I was hungry for experience and growth. I knew I had to break out of my shell, and no one could make me do that except me—and the help of Mr. Sondheim.

At the beginning of my freshman year, my college drama club announced they were holding auditions for Side by Side by Sondheim, a musical review featuring songs from many of the master’s Broadway shows. I was not a singer at all, but I knew I was funny.

As I stepped onto the stage to audition, my hands were clammy, and my stomach was churning with nervous knots, as I sarcastically announced, “I am not so much a singer as a ‘vocal humorist.’” I made that up on the spot, projecting this unfamiliar confidence outwardly while feeling like a complete dork inwardly. (To be honest, this is basically my baseline in life, anyway. But I digress.)

They laughed. And then they laughed again—I was in the show! I finally felt accepted. I had found my people.

Sondheim’s lyrics are not easy to sing, nor are they neat and tidy “happily-ever-after” songs. Oftentimes, they evoke (and invoke) ambivalence about many of life’s ubiquitous experiences. I was assigned three songs in that show, including “Getting Married Today.” For those who are not familiar with this song, it is from the Broadway show Company and has been performed by the late Madeline Kahn and others. It centers around “Amy,” an absolutely manic bride-to-be who is panic-stricken at the thought of getting married…as she’s getting married. She sings to the audience as though she is as high as a proverbial kite or perhaps on her tenth cup of Sanka.

“Listen, everybody, look, I don’t know what you’re waiting for. A wedding? What’s a wedding? It’s a prehistoric ritual where everybody promises fidelity forever, which is probably the most horrifying word I ever heard, which is followed by a honeymoon, where suddenly he’ll realize he’s saddled with a nut, and want to kill me, which he should.”

These are only some of the lyrics, but you get the gist. It was challenging to perform, but also the perfect song for me because I could just sing it funny, which is my natural state, anyway. But I was still protected by the “character” and could emote and really feel free and get out of my own head. I could be somebody else for a little while, while still bringing parts of my own personality to the role.

I remember at the end of the show, while all the real singers were greeted by excited audience members, an older man headed straight for me—and only me—and said, “You have perfect comic timing; I look forward to your future performances.” (No, it wasn’t Stephen Sondheim.)

In Six by Sondheim, he talks about how writers learn by “writing and doing and writing and doing.” This advice echoes that of his contemporary Sheldon Harnick, lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof and other shows, whom he mentions in the documentary. Years ago, while writing occasional theater reviews for a local (and now defunct) alternative weekly newspaper, I conducted a phone interview with Harnick to promote the Bock and Harnick musical “She Loves Me” at the Westport Country Playhouse. Incidentally, Sondheim was an apprentice at the WCP in his youth, his shows were performed on their hallowed stage, and he attended events there through the years.

Harnick’s advice to up-and-coming lyricists was, “See lots of theater, read a great deal, write a great deal. As time goes by, you can critically look back at what you’ve written and learn from that. Most writers are self-taught.” Priceless advice for any writer, really.

Throughout my life, I have (albeit slowly) learned that it is okay to be an introvert.

We can exist in this state and still be successful and tenacious in going after what we want from life. It doesn’t matter if people label us as “strange” or “aloof” because we don’t enjoy large parties and small talk. We can contribute our gifts to society while honoring who we are, fundamentally.

Sondheim knew that.

While I admit that I am not a huge musical theater fan, I am an admirer of writers who bring to the page—and to the stage—the words that help us all feel a little less alone in the world.

Thank you, Mr. Sondheim, for being a lover of those words—and a hero for introverts.

 

 

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