There are only a few people to thank (/blame) for me become a writer. Same goes for me being a relatively happy guy. Only a handful occupy the center of that Venn diagram. And it’s not a round table, either. There are definitely two portly, stately gentlemen at either side of the long table. And one of them is Stephen Sondheim.
I stumbled into Sondheim obsession without knowing it when I was eight years old. My parents had recently re-finished the basement and I was romping around on the new carpet with a brand new Power Rangers toy (arguably the only corny television institution of its era that hasn’t gotten cooler with age). I was zooming around the basement, making laser and rocket sounds, when the television, which was tuned to PBS, began running the original cast production of Into the Woods, a terribly funny and dark musical about nursery rhymes and fairy tales. These bleaker, funnier, more adult versions- which I was young enough to think of as kids territory, my territory absolutely blew my mind. By the time the opening number was over, the Power Ranger toys had been forgotten. I was hooked, and on far headier, more addictive stuff.
Jump ahead oh twenty years or so and I am entirely obsessed with (to list them in the chronological order I discovered them), Into the Woods, Merrily We Roll Along, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, Assassins, and most recently, Company. I fell in love with the first two on this list having no idea their scores were composed by the same amazing person. Since then I’ve paced my exploration of his oeuvre because I want spend as much of my life discovering new Sondheim musicals as possible. Better critics than I have described the SHEER AMAZINGNESS of Sondheim’s music and lyrics, so I won’t try and tackle that task. Instead I’ll say that like all my favorite artists, Sondheim explores the very fine gray lines between the big blaring poles that rule most stories. He explores grays within grays, shades within shades, and seems to understand (and believe me, for my high school and even college years I really, especially, needed someone to understand this) the beauty and poignancy of loneliness, disappointment, and misunderstanding.
I was so fortunate to get to sit in the same room as this genius a few months back when he came and spoke in Princeton. He’s still so sharp, and so reasonable. Unlike what you’d expect from a Living Legend, Sondheim isn’t a blowhard. Like his art, he is subtle, asking questions rather than handing down answers, possessed of such startling human insight and empathy.
I could go on and on and on. I won’t. It’s the man’s birthday, and I love him. Thank you, Stephen. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Happy Birthday, sir. And whatever you’re thinking, the answer is yes.