Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Stephen Sondheim

So yesterday was Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday (and Andrew Lloyd Webber's 62nd) but I was too busy hanging out with the wonderful people who attend the San Francisco Theater Pub to write a blog post in his honor. At one point in the evening, about 11 PM, someone pointed out that the day ought to be an official holiday for theater lovers, and we drunkenly sang "Happy Birthday, Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber!" I may also have broken into a tipsy version of "The Ladies Who Lunch."

Two years ago I went to see Sondheim and Frank Rich's lecture tour when it came to Portland. (It was a few days before he turned 78 and the audience sang "Happy Birthday" to him then, too.) Here are a couple of posts I wrote at the time:

Now, for years, I had wanted to write a letter to Sondheim; not only is he a genius whose songs touch my soul, but he also, in 1980, started Young Playwrights Inc., whose national playwriting contest I won in 2006. I wanted to thank him for that (and I knew that I could ask Young Playwrights to deliver my letter to him directly). Seeing him in Portland was what finally pushed me to write that letter that I'd been planning for years.

And I got a response back!--I still remember the excitement I felt when I opened my mailbox at college to discover the envelope. Sondheim still uses a typewriter for his correspondence, and fine Crane letter-paper. I'm not going to reveal what the letter said... but it is one of my most treasured possessions.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that not only is Sondheim a brilliant composer and lyricist, he also seems like a truly good man--because he is so indebted to the great artists, like Oscar Hammerstein, who mentored him when he was young, he gets the importance of nurturing future generations of writers and composers. I admire the way that he refuses to publicly comment on the works of living composers (including his co-birthdayist's) because he realizes that people in the American musical theater tend to take everything he says as though it was the word of God, and he wants to use his power in a positive way. Yes, he's famed for writing songs about ambivalence and negativity. But he doesn't come across as a grouchy old man! At his appearance in Portland, he was engaging and enthusiastic and emotionally open (crying when telling a touching story about Hammerstein).

Still, though, for those of us who can't get enough of the "word of God," it is wonderful news that Sondheim has a book coming out in October: Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. I know what I want for Christmas!

And now for a few of Sondheim's many dazzling compositions. First, Bernadette Peters will rip your heart into pieces singing "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along:

And here is Peters, with Mandy Patinkin, in the original production of Sunday in the Park with George, singing "Move On." This is one of those songs that I can always, always, return to and find a deeper wisdom in it. The struggle of my life is a struggle to live out the message of this song.

This just barely scratches the surface of what Sondheim has done, though, so I really enjoyed reading this Playbill feature in which younger composers and lyricists select their favorite Sondheim songs. It is easy to concur with just about every one of their choices!

Thank you for everything, Mr. Sondheim.

No comments: