I have a profound affinity for Stephen Sondheim. I always thought it was because of his brilliant musicals. However, I watched an interview he did many years ago. He was trying to explain about being neurotic . It was so simple for him.
“I like neurotic people.”
That’s it! He likes me. I love him.
He went further explaining that most people, including himself, were neurotic concerning their problems, professional, personal. When he writes from that sensibility he is going to touch someone. And isn’t that why we go to the theatre; to be transformed, transported, in some way, touched.
Stephen Sondheim may have passed away, November 25th, but as in the name of the song he wrote for Follies, I’m Still Here… he will always be here.
His death was and still is a shock to me.
My inner monologue upon hearing about his demise:
I can’t believe it.
What’d you expect? He was 91.
I’m 88… 91 is only 3 years away… too close… much too close.
This is not about you. I know. I know. I can’t help it. When I consider Sondheim is no longer with us, and some of the jerks who still are, makes me crazy…life really isn’t fair, is it???
To make this news totally personal (when have I ever not made everything totally personal), I’d like to share my experience performing Sondheim.
No dates. It was a long time ago.
I played Mama Rose many times in Summer Theatres and local Washington, D.C. theatre productions of Gypsy. Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Julie Styne the music. It is a musically and lyrically brilliant score. In the climax of the second act (or as Broadway Babies are wont to call it, the 11 o’clock spot), Mama Rose has a nervous breakdown. Sondheim broke the sound barrier. It was Broadway’s first operatic aria. The music, but mostly the lyrics are compelling, complex and incisive. It can be said for any performer playing Mama Rose, it’s all in the writing. It’s extra if you have a performer like Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Patti Lupone singing it. However, because it is all in the words, it is actor-proof material. No matter how many times I played that role, and I did play it many times, I don’t think I ever plumbed the depths of what Sondheim wrote.
I had a similar experience when I played Joanne in Company (Elaine Stritch’s signature role). The score for Company was brilliant, but, oh sooooo challenging! I could read music but I would never call myself a musician. Singing a Sondheim score is like singing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Company is a brilliant and musically challenging ensemble theatre piece. No matter what grade of musician you are, performing that score challenged every actor beyond what they thought they were capable of. My song, Here’s To The Ladies Who Lunch was and remained a challenge until I saw Patti Lupone sing it at Lincoln Center’s Stephen Sondheim 80th Birthday Celebration:
Lupone took that song to where it was meant to go… to the moon. Even if I can’t perform it now, I am so grateful to have watched someone who got to the meat and heart of what Sondheim wrote. Another mystery solved.
My last example of performing Sondheim was a song he wrote for Yvonne De Carlo (remember Yvonne… exotic technicolor movie star of the 50’s?) in Follies, titled I’m Still Here.
I simply had to wait until I felt seasoned enough to fill the shoes of life experiences to give the nuances the lyrics demanded. I did a credible job with it. However, in that same Sondheim 80th Birthday celebration, Elaine Stritch literally knocks it out of the park:
Finally, I’d like to recommend a documentary produced and directed in 2013 by Sondheim’s friend and collaborator, James Lapine, and friend and former drama critic, Frank Rich, Six by Sondheim.
What makes a creative artist a genius? I don’t know. (laminate that statement…I don’t say it often enough)
I do know one such genius just passed this past Friday. As I watched the above documentary, two important and essential traits of Sondheim’s writing and ultimately who Sondheim is were made eminently clear.
Ambiguity, which for me translates to exhibit the zits and warts without judgement, and love.
If you study his lyrics which you can easily do by reading FINISHING THE HAT… the book he wrote of his collected lyrics with attendant remarks (aka delicious showbiz gossip), it is all there.
In the documentary he says, unequivocally, write from love.
Nobody says it is easy. No one says it is without pain. No one says it is without disappointment or grief. Considering his childhood was profoundly bereft of love, Stephen Sondheim is proof that along the way, as he opened himself to the universe, the universe did provide.
Love ~ Sally-Jane ❤️
P.S. If you want to look, I recommend this stunning making-of film, Company “Original Cast Album” Documentary. It’s an intense look at theatre and the art of Stephen Sondheim.