Requiem for a Genius

I had just gotten home from work and was rushing to change clothes and head to the national tour of Hadestown when I got an alert on my phone from The New York Times. “Stephen Sondheim is dead at 91,” it said. I stood there in disbelief for a moment, wrestling with the news that a man I had never met was no longer with us. After catching my breath, I performed the traditional next step of millennial grief: I shared the article to my social media pages so that everyone I had ever met could grieve with me.

Only they didn’t grieve. The article was barely noticed and the death of Sondheim was scarcely acknowledged by the occupants of my various social feeds. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, musical theatre is a fairly niche interest, but I couldn’t help my frustration at noticing that Sondheim had been unappreciated by so many. It seems criminal. In fact, to my mind, it is.

I was nine when The Wonderful World of Disney premiered their brand new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. You know, the one with Brandy and Whitney Houston. Both Brandy and Whitney shine in their roles, as does the whole cast. But there was one performance that struck my little gay heart especially hard: that of Bernadette Peters in the role of the Wicked Stepmother. From the first time I saw her on my screen with her dress that was too tight for full strides and her red curls piled atop her head, I was in love. This, I thought, was a goddess. I hold that opinion to this day.

After watching Cinderella, I consumed as much of her work as I could and it was her Carnegie Hall concert album that first introduced me to the work of Stephen Sondheim. Now, Peters is often cited as the greatest interpreter of Sondheim’s work, but of course I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that she sang those songs as though they had been personally crafted for her by an angel. To say I was transfixed is putting it mildly. In the years that followed, I dug deeper into her body of work, including Sunday in the Park with George, Anyone Can Whistle, Gypsy, and of course, Into the Woods. This, my friends, was my Sondheim root.

Expanding beyond Peters’ contributions to the Sondheim catalog, I remember asking for a copy of the original cast album of Company one Christmas. I played it again and again, driving my parents mad. There is something to be said about a cast album from the 1970s resonating so strongly with a teenaged boy in the early 2000s. Sondheim understood timelessness better than perhaps any composer of his time. He understood the universality of human experience, so he centered his works around it. He understood that at some point in each of our lives, we blow out our birthday candles alone. The risk of building his shows around such vulnerabilities is what made Sondheim a genius.

Despite the deep respect I hold for Sondheim, it wasn’t until very recently that I really understood his impact. Around the time that I wrote my entry on Follies, I began to look at his work with fresh eyes and something clicked in me. This wasn’t an artist who ever tried to write the next big earworm, this was an artist who had something to say and that something resonated with millions around the world and will continue to resonate for generations to come. Because Sondheim had a secret weapon that so many artists have lacked: humanity. And that is the key to immortality.

Cheers to Sondheim. And thanks, Steve.

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