Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim | Credit: Jerry Jackson/HBO

Shakespeare and the Bible are more generally recognized sources as quotes, but I am among the many Stephen Sondheim fan(atic)s who think of lines from his musicals to fit every situation. He hasn’t failed me yet.

Sondheim, who died on Friday at age 91, had — and likely continues to have — a unique place among composers and lyricists for a multitude of theatergoers around the world. Other artists may be admired, even loved, but Sondheim speaks to his fans in a personal way, his words and music go to the heart, engage constantly.

Sondheim memorial notice
Mourning Sondheim Sunday in the Park

“Uncertainty, self-delusion, disillusionment: Sondheim knew that they could be as deeply felt as the primary-color emotions. His characters sang to think and to feel at the same time,” writes Michael Schulman in a New Yorker tribute with the title “Stephen Sondheim Taught Me How to Be a Person.”

In the SF Bay Area, in addition to countless Sondheim productions by large and small companies, even the San Francisco Opera joined the parade in 2015 with Sweeney Todd, and the San Francisco Symphony’s Todd production was filmed for commercial distribution.

A quick weekend survey produced these responses/confessions to the question “How do you remember Stephen Sondheim?”

Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic and Rubin Institute panelist Tim Page, who wrote the Sondheim obituary for The Washington Post, told SF Classical Voice:

It was always Steve Sondheim. He wanted to put new friends at ease, likely to stem the adulation most of us brought to a first meeting.

I’ve observed this informality in a number of great, generous, hard-working geniuses, the only one who I will name for now being Glenn Gould. Such people are well aware of their gifts and certainly not without pride in them but prefer to share and laugh as equals when they are in company, rather than the usual struggling to make something all alone.

When I came to Steve’s house to record a radio interview in early 1985, I started off with a brief biography of my subject — the ‘intro.’ But Steve had never before heard the word that some on-air folks use for a back announcement — ‘outro’ — and when I suggested we record one, he burst into delighted laughter, and we stopped the show for a minute or two.

He was fascinated by the idea, and I told him where I’d first heard it, in the first cut on the debut album by the Bonzo Dog Band, a tune called ‘The Intro and the Outro.’ He wrote down the name of the band and a couple of their albums that I recommended to him.

I have no idea whether he ever looked into their work, but I was happy that we’d brought this most literate of songwriters the sort of gift that would matter to him — a new word!”

Tim Page with Rubin Institute
Tim Page (right) at a Rubin Institute for Music Criticism session in San Francisco | Credit: SF Conservatory of Music

Daniel Thomas, executive director of 42nd Street Moon, which is presenting the entire canon of Sondheim’s works, says: “As a composition student, I appreciated how Sondheim, more so than perhaps any other composer, could effortlessly go between styles — such as the pop-rock Broadway sound of Company, the late 19th-century Romantic influence of A Little Night Music, the Golden Age pastiche of Follies — all with such skill and all while keeping his trademark sound.” Thomas continues:

I came of age as a theater artist when Into the Woods was running on Broadway, so like many of my peers, that became my ‘gateway’ show into the world of Sondheim.

From there I found myself in love with Company and A Little Night Music — both shows about love and relationships, but both of which highlight the characters’ flaws and foibles, characters who sing at length about the cynicism, the loneliness, and the darkness that so often walks alongside love and romance.

There could be happy endings, of course, but those endings often leave the characters a little battered and bruised — so much more like contemporary life than the lovers in a show by Cole Porter or Irving Berlin (both of whom I adore). Sondheim’s characters can emotionally soar or sink — often at the same time. As a young adult navigating my own romantic tribulations, these songs and shows felt closer to my experience than the rosy-pink romance of Golden Age Broadway or the navel-gazing emo of so much rock music.”

Of the company’s unprecedented project of presenting all Sondheim’s published musicals, Thomas says:

“When we produced Saturday Night at 42nd Street Moon in 2018, we started talking about the concept of doing each one of his works — something that we didn’t think anyone else had attempted on a professional level.

“We recognized that there was, post-1960, truly no other theater writer who had such a sustained career of innovation and excellence. I sat down and mapped out each of his works as a composer and/or lyricist — which would work best as a full production, as a concert version, or as a limited run or staged reading. We figured at one or two shows each season it would take us to about 2032 to cover the canon, and with his passing we are more committed than ever to seeing each one of his works on our stage.”

42nd Street Moon just completed a run of A Little Night Music and will next produce Merrily We Roll Along. SF Playhouse will present Sondheim’s grand-spectacle Follies next summer.

42nd Street Moon has a decade-long project presenting all of Sondheim’s musicals

Journalist Harvey Steiman recalls his first encounter with Sweeney Todd:

In 1979, my desk neighbor at the San Francisco Examiner, music critic Michael Walsh, sidled over and handed me a copy of the LP album for a new musical, Sweeney Todd. ‘It’s actually an opera,’ Michael whispered conspiratorially, ‘but don’t tell anyone.’

When I put it on the turntable that evening, my conception of what a Broadway musical could be was changed forever. Sondheim had already made an impact with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, and Follies. Impressive as those were, this was something more, as musically powerful as a great opera, deep and complex while couched in the language of the music hall.

Later that year, I found myself in New York for a conference and scored second-row tickets for a performance. As many times as I listened to the score, seeing it play out before me was overwhelming. I never missed an opportunity to see a Sondheim musical on and off Broadway. Among the highlights were Pacific Overtures (in the more intimate off-Broadway revival) and original runs of Sunday in the Park With George, Into The Woods, and Passion.

For me Sondheim is the Giuseppe Verdi of the musical theater, endlessly inventive, magically using music to invest story and character with depth and honesty and make his own words come to life.

Because he had a hard-nosed editor’s willingness to discard something really good for something better, he also left us a treasure chest of songs replaced before opening night in every one of his musicals. Many of these have been folded into stunningly effective revues.”

Tai Ji master and prolific author Al Huang writes from Esalen, where he is teaching for the 54th year:

‘Anyone Can Whistle’ by Sondheim has been one of the theme songs in my Creative Tai Ji teaching worldwide. I was fortunate to be in NYC when the show was on, for only 12 days I believe. I saw the show, which stirred me deeply. That title song lingers on to have guided me to encourage all my students to allow Tai Ji to happen to them, just like whistling, naturally, with the irony and self-acknowledged humility and acceptance of what gets in the way when we try too much and too hard.

I was also able to see the pre-Broadway production of Into the Woods at La Jolla Playhouse and bumped into Lee Remick, who was one of the stars of Anyone Can Whistle, to share moments of our summer training days at the same Perry-Mansfield School of Theater and Dance in Colorado.

I cried with Larry Kert, who replaced Dean Jones in the title role of Bobby, singing “Being Alive” in Company. I was in the audience of the short run of Passion performances that night when the show was recorded for posterity. Saw the original Broadway Follies and had the good fortune to mingle with Sondheim and the UK production team at the revival of Follies in London — as well as the original production of Pacific Overtures and recently the off-Broadway revival.

So many fortuitous encounters with this American musical theater genius and innovator ... for this Chinese immigrant who came to America to study architecture in his teens, to have a chance dancing Curly in a college production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! My continuous lifelong love/obsession for the American musical theater owes a deep debt to Stephen Sondheim for all these synchronistic connections, a mini-miracle of marvelous human encounters in musical heaven.”

Michelle Kennedy
Michele Kennedy | Credit: Jessica Osber Photography

Oakland soprano Michele Kennedy also names Anyone Can Whistle as the Sondheim work that’s most important to her: “It captures what it means to love, and to be vulnerable, in just a few words. Saying a profound thing simply: the hallmark of a true master.”

Kennedy also recalls attending the Arts and Culture Awards at Alice Tully Hall in 2011, where she “saw Sondheim accept New York City’s highest artistic honor: the Handel Medallion. He spoke with such grace, humility, and wit upon accepting the award — the entire audience was rapt. And then Patti LuPone performed his ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ with such raw vulnerability that I can call it to mind immediately: a bold, pithy, wry commentary on misogyny and class as only Sondheim could write it.

“It made me laugh and want to cry all at once. It gave me goosebumps. And it made me fall in love with songwriting in a way that’s stayed with me ever since.”

Former Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette notes the lack of controversy about Sondheim: “These days when an artist I admired dies, I kind of brace for the social-media revelations that he actually sexually harassed colleagues, was unkind to students, and so on. I have been struck by reading so many personal anecdotes of Sondheim’s humanity and kindness to young people. May they keep coming.”

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