The most beautiful sounds I ever heard early in my life were always associated in some fashion with Stephen Sondheim, now in his eighth decade, his fifth of wringing singers out.
My first coming to musical consciousness struck one wonderful day, hearing the score from “Westside Story,” with his addictive, chewable lyrics for “I Like To Be in America.” Then the sound of my family’s too rare laughter incited by “Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” earmarked by his silly ditties lightened our evenings. I played every part in every piece in my parents’ parlor, singing and stomping along with the LP’s in our living room til I wore out the rugs. His words and tunes scored and made palatable our sourness for hours. He could make anguish sound so pleasurable in ways the Jewish cantors couldn’t.
Later, as theater critic for my college newspaper, I got to sit with the big guys at Broadway opening nights (the scalding John Simon, the sweet Edwin Newman, the classy Clive Barnes, erudite David Goldman, TV’s Stuart Klein) as we heard scores like the groundbreaking “Company” and the mood piece “Follies” wash over us for the first time. I wasn’t as cool as they—I frothed, danced, I writhed, wept, cringed, so simpatico was I with the way he strummed my sensibilities that I was helpless to criticize them. I instead began to embody and emulate them.
I was inducted as a lyricist in training in Lehman Engel’s B.M.I. Musical Theater Workshop in NYC in the 70’s, which spawned such geniuses as Ed Kleban (“Chorus Line”), Alan Mencken ( too many Disney musicals to mention), Maury Yeston (“Nine”) and Doug Katsaros (“Orphan Train”). Like all the guys, I tried to defy the formulas of traditional Broadway musicals and create new forms. I wrote lyrics for Jules Feiffer’s “Carnal Knowledge.” I tried for an opera styled “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller. My reach exceeded my grasp. Sure, we were all adept at puns of profundity and the fun of rhyming internally in near perfect prosody in moody music. But in terms of scanning the intimate scams of the human heart, Stephen surpassed our mastery by miles.
His 4 D character studies depicted so unpredictably the specifics of flawed humans. In “A Little Night Music” alone, “The Miller’s Son,” “Soon,” “Send in the Clowns”—-the man captured women’s self-aware ironies in ways of which I wasn’t yet aware. How did he know the secrets of women and men so darn well? He had a great psychotherapist to help undo the damage of his difficult mother.
He came and lectured to our BMI class, and provoked us to strive, dancing just beyond our precocious capabilities with such ease and inventiveness. We went from arrogance to humility pretty quickly in his presence. I knew my stuff was sophomorically clever, yet not competitive—he set the bar far too high. But how could one resent him? He gave too much pleasure. I threw in the towel for writing lyrics for the musical theater. Good that I knew my limitations in my twenties. I jumped genres. Special material became my forte, and, singing my comedy songs at the Improv clubs, a far cry from his canon so I couldn’t be compared, I retained some dignity.
I postponed writing musical theater tunes til I knew more of life, and instead became one part of his fleets of devoted singers. My first starring role in summer stock was as “Gypsy” Rose Lee which he wrote with Jule Styne. My first off Broadway success was in a revival of “Do I Hear a Waltz” which he penned with RIchard Rodgers. I later played Dot in the American Conservatory Theater’s West Coast premiere of “Sunday in the Park with George,” with his incredible score, perhaps the most all encompassing part an actress could ever act. To play in that one show: an artist’s model, his spurned, pregnant lover, a pragmatic wife, and aged granddaughter to that same woman, played notes in me I never knew I had. It ruined all other musical roles for me. But, still, I couldn’t get away from the guy. I was happily haunted. To this day, I hear a phrase of his, and I’m on alert, like a truffle hunting pig with a scent in her flaring nostrils and a stirring in her guts and heart.
So now I’m completing lyrics and libretto for my own, original two character musical, with a possible production next year. It’s got sophisticated, self-aware lyrics that smack of, yet can’t quite match his. And I’m writing with the gifted Doug Katsaros, another BMI graduate, who despite himself, sends superb subliminal, and liminal salutes to Sondheim in some of our songs.
Not that Stephen needs any more salutes. English speaking stages are deluged with them, starring the greatest of stage ladies, Barbara Cook, Elaine Stritch, thriving on his fabulous fumes in their eighties, too. For those of us raised with a love of musical theater at the end of the last millennium, Sondheim’s sounds are synonymous with joy.