Because of the recent death of Stephen Sondheim, we have been graced with a lot of his music, lyrics, and interviews, which have been poignant, searing, and heart-breaking, in turns. He was instrumental in opening the possibilities into what musicals could be. For example, Lin-Manuel Miranda has acknowledged that there would not have been Hamilton had it not been for Sondheim paving the way.
I remember singing a choral medley from Sondheim’s Company when I was in high school and seeing a community theater production of it, which was pretty amazing for a small-town girl. Even then, I could appreciate his incredible way of melding lyrics, melody, and story.
Most of my Sondheim memories, though, are in relation to my daughters E and T.
E’s favorite Sondheim musical as a child was Into the Woods. She especially enjoyed singing Little Red’s songs. When T, who is four years younger, got to be old enough to watch, we initially only let her watch the first act, which follows the fairy tales up to the “happily ever after” bit. We thought that the second act, which gets pretty grim, would be too much for her, but E, ever the big sister, told her what happened, so, soon, she too was watching the whole play. E and T later got to see a revival of Into the Woods on Broadway, courtesy of their NYC aunt.
T’s favorite Sondheim musical was Sunday in the Park with George. She used to sing along – and then sing parts of the score a cappella around the house. If you know the work at all, you know that it is incredibly difficult to sing, but no one told T that, so she just went along and did it.
My most poignant personal memory of a Sondheim song, though, involves a musical which is too disturbing for me to cope with, Sweeney Todd. In the summer of 2001, then teenaged daughter E sang “Not While I’m Around” during a summer theater workshop performance. A few weeks later, after the 9/11 attacks, I found it strangely comforting to remember her singing,
No one’s gonna hurt you
No one’s gonna dare
Others can desert you
Not to worry, whistle I’ll be there
Demons’ll charm you with a smile
For a while
But in time
Nothing’s gonna harm you
Not while I’m around
It wasn’t that I felt personally under threat from terrorists, but, somehow, a young voice singing protection from evil was comforting and hopeful in a way that rational thought was not.
It’s part of the power of music.
Thank you, Stephen Sondheim, for all the music and story and power and pathos and humanity you gave us over the decades. We will continue learning from you for many years to come.