I never met Stephen Sondheim or had an endearing correspondence with him.
Apparently, there are a lot of people who have framed letters from him, or a tantalizing story about a chance encounter. Neither of these scenarios apply to me. (I did have a close call once, but I’ll get to that later.)
Shortly after his death, I saw a meme that said, “Stephen Sondheim always began with the assumption that we were all adults and there was no sense in bullshitting each other about what life actually was.”
Life wasn’t glitz and glamour. It wasn’t Jerry Herman. Life was awful, and beautiful, and fragile, and bountiful. It was so many other contradictions, too.
He was a gentle maverick who refused to become “commercial.” His sound was distinct, but varied. This was a man who could write the plaintive confessional “Send in the Clowns” and the grab-life-by-the-balls call-to-arms “The Miller’s Son” (and these were both from the same show). He also gave us the heartbreakingly beautiful “Sunday,” which always, always makes me cry.
My first Sondheim encounter was as a senior in high school. For some reason my drama teacher thought the best choice for the spring musical would be his biggest flop, “Merrily We Roll Along.” I was cast as one of the three leads, and the love began.
In college I was cast in “Company,” and the love flourished. However, it was “Into the Woods” that hit me where I lived. I encountered it on PBS in the early ’90s. Seemingly a mashed-up fairy tale, it goes so much deeper. Written at the height of the AIDS crisis, it deals with profound loss; friends and family die, sometimes randomly.
It also illustrates the power of one’s chosen family, those friends who we gravitate towards who stay in our lives. They’re not blood, but they’re family nonetheless. As gay people, especially in the ’80s and’ 90s, death was all around us. A simple assignation could lead to, what was then, a death sentence. My circle of friends then, my chosen family, understood me in ways my biological family couldn’t, because they were going through the same things; the same dangers that could befall us simply by venturing into the woods. We were just trying to survive as the government and so many others turned their backs on us.
Once I discovered Stephen Sondheim was a gay man, my love grew exponentially. Of course he was gay. Only a gay man could have written that brilliance at that time. He was writing from first-hand experience:
Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood
Do not let it grieve you
No one leaves for good
So much truth in four lines.
In 2018, I was in New York seeing “Hello, Dolly!” for the second time, this time starring Bernadette Peters. As I was taking my seat, I looked up and Stephen Sondheim was taking his seat two rows in front of me. Every gay bone in my body was screaming. At intermission, I timed my trip to the lobby perfectly so I was right behind him as he headed out as well. I wanted so badly to reach out and grab his arm and tell him how much his work had meant to me. But I couldn’t do it. I’m sure he got that sort of thing all the time, and in the end I just wanted him to enjoy seeing his friend in her show.
I mourn his passing, but I can’t believe our luck that we lived at the same time as him. We got to experience that exhilaration of a new Sondheim show opening that future generations won’t. Like Shakespeare, his shows and songs will be around for generations to discover, to explore and perform. And we will continue to reap the benefits of his truth. The truth about life. The only truth that matters.