In honor of Stephen Sondheim’s 90th Birthday, 3/22/2020
I love Stephen Sondheim’s musicals. I love his music. I love his lyrics. Two of his musicals, Into The Woods and Company make my top 10 favorite musicals list. But I have to confess, this wasn’t always the case. <Gasp>
Besides, West Side Story and Gypsy, for which he wrote the lyrics, my first exposure to Mr. Sondheim was a college production of IntoThe Woods in 1991. I have to admit, with my head hung low, embarrassed beyond belief, I didn’t love it at the time. I can only chock this up to the ignorance and stupidity of youth. My only explanation is that I was raised on the silly, light hearted, feel-good musicals of the 1940s and 50s and the majority of Sondheim’s work is distinctly not that.
But with time and maturity, I came to adore his work. In fact, the older I get, the more I love and revere it; the complexity, the intricacy, the profundity of emotion in a single phrase, let alone song or overall show.
Teaching his songs at AMDA really helped me see the brilliance in them; the more you study them, the more wonderful they are, the more they reveal in their depths. After teaching ‘Moments in the Woods’ dozens of times, I felt I had to play that part in order to sing that particular song. It’s not even one of his tear-jerkers, but the fullness of character development in one song, the total fusion of music and lyrics is so delicious. I haven’t yet had the good fortune to sing the song or play the part, but hope springs eternal.
I will forever credit Mr. Sondheim for helping me through an extremely difficult time in my life. In 2008, I was a Visiting Professor at Ball State University. At the same time, I found out my beloved mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. (Turned out to be a misdiagnosis, but we didn’t know that until months later.) BSU was doing Into The Woods as their spring musical, and I was responsible for teaching the music to my students in the production and then taking notes on their vocals during rehearsals. During the day I taught his songs, and night after night I watched the show unfold. When they got to the second act, I sat in my seat in the thankfully darkened theatre and sobbed. It was such beautiful catharsis. This great work of art allowed me to express and process my most terrible thoughts, my most raw emotions that I did not have the luxury of having the rest of the day. My love affair with that musical began.
And then that same March, when we went to NYC for the Senior showcase, a friend bought me a ticket to see the revival of Sunday in the Park with George. When they started to sing ‘Move On’, I lost it right there in Studio 54. Oh, the painful and yet satisfying release of emotions I was allowed thanks to that song. For someone who rarely cries in the theatre, Sondheim’s songs bring me to tears almost every time. As I mentioned in my post about Bernadette Peters, I can’t get through her rendition of ‘Not a day goes by’ without tearing up, if not all out bawling.
And then years later, as I wrote in a previous post, I was fortunate enough to be cast as The Witch in Into The Woods. I would have played any character- I just wanted to be a part of such a perfect piece of theatre. I could talk about that show for hours on end. (And I have- just ask any of my students who have been subjected to my thoughts on the subject. I get totally carried away!) I love everything about it. The more I think about it, the more of his genius I uncover. It is so much more than a fractured fairy tale. It is a meditation on love, loss, family, community, friendship, parenting, society…it’s brilliant in every way. It is fun, tuneful, dark, twisted, hilarious, and devastating, all in one show.
I also got to perform in his two person show, Marry Me A Little. I have to say, I am probably the most proud of my work in that show of anything I have ever done. It is a somewhat random collection of songs cut from Sondheim’s other shows. The trick is to weave them together into an emotional narrative that makes sense, and with the help of my wonderful director and my co-star, I feel like I did the best integrated acting and singing of my life. Of course, the highlight was getting to sing the title song, cut from, and often now put back into, Company. It is a love song and a song of independence, a declaration of personhood and longing for coupledom all at once. It was a beast to get my voice and brain around, but what an honor to sing it! I hope I did it justice.
Thank you, Mr. Sondheim, for giving the world your genius. I, for one, am forever grateful.