How do you remember Stephen Sondheim?

Bay Area artists celebrate and mourn reinventor of American musical

Stephen Sondheim, who died Friday at age 91, had — and likely will continue to have — a unique place among composers and lyricists for theater-goers around the world. Other artists may be admired, even loved, but Sondheim spoke to his fans in a personal way, his words and music engaging the heart.

“Uncertainty, self-delusion, disillusionment: Sondheim knew that they could be as deeply felt as the primary-color emotions. His characters sang to think and to feel at the same time,” writes Michael Schulman in a New Yorker tribute with the title “Stephen Sondheim Taught Me How to Be a Person.”

The question “How do you remember Stephen Sondheim?” brought these responses from Bay Area musical theater artists.

Daniel Thomas, executive director of 42nd Street Moon, which is presenting the entire canon of Sondheim’s works in a decades-long project, says:

“I came of age as a theater artist when ‘Into the Woods’ was running on Broadway, so like many of my peers, that became my ‘gateway’ show into the world of Sondheim.

“From there I found myself in love with ‘Company’ and ‘A Little Night Music’ — both shows about love and relationships, but both highlighted the characters’ flaws and foibles, characters who sung at length about the cynicism, the loneliness and the darkness that so often walks alongside love and romance.

“There could be happy endings, of course, but those endings often left the characters a little battered and bruised — so much more like contemporary life than the lovers in a show by Cole Porter or Irving Berlin (both of whom I adore). Sondheim’s characters could emotionally soar or sink — often at the same time. As a young adult navigating my own romantic tribulations, these songs and shows felt closer to my experience than the rosy-pink romance of Golden Age Broadway or the navel-gazing emo of so much rock music.”

Of the company’s project of presenting all Sondheim’s published musicals, Thomas says:

“When we produced ‘Saturday Night’ at 42nd Street Moon in 2018, we started talking about the concept of doing each one of his works — something that we didn’t think anyone else had attempted on a professional level.

“We recognized that there was, post-1960, truly no other theater writer who had such a sustained career of innovation and excellence. I sat down and mapped out each of his works as a composer and/or lyricist — which would work best as a full production, an ‘in-concert’ version or a limited-run or staged reading. We figured at one or two shows each season it would take us to about 2032 to cover the canon, and with his passing we are more committed than ever to seeing each one of his works on our stage.”

42nd Street Moon just completed a run of “A Little Night Music,” and will next produce “Merrily We Roll Along.” S.F. Playhouse will present Sondheim’s grand spectacle “Follies” next summer.

Journalist Harvey Steiman’s recollection:

“In 1979, my desk neighbor at the San Francisco Examiner, music critic Michael Walsh, sidled over and handed me a copy of the LP album for a new musical, ‘Sweeney Todd.’ ‘It’s actually an opera,’ Michael whispered conspiratorially, ‘but don’t tell anyone.’

“When I put it on the turntable that evening, my conception of what a Broadway musical could be was changed forever. Sondheim had already made an impact with ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’ ‘Company and ‘Follies.’ Impressive as those were, this was something more, as musically powerful as a great opera, deep and complex while couched in the language of the music hall.

“Later that year, I found myself in New York for a conference, and scored second-row tickets for a performance. As many times as I listened to the score, seeing it play out before me was overwhelming. I never missed an opportunity to see a Sondheim musical on and off Broadway. Among the highlights were ‘Pacific Overtures’ (in the more intimate off-Broadway revival), and original runs of ‘Sunday in the Park With George,’ ‘Into The Woods’ and ‘Passion.’

“For me, Sondheim is the Giuseppe Verdi of the musical theater, endlessly inventive, magically using music to invest story and character with depth and honesty, and make his own words come to life.”

Taiji master and prolific author Al Huang writes from Esalen, where he is teaching for the 51st year:

“‘Anyone Can Whistle’ has been one of the theme songs in my Creative Tai Ji teaching worldwide. I was fortunate to be in NYC when the show was on, for only 12 days I believe. I saw the show which stirred me deeply. That title song lingers (and) has guided me to encourage all my students to allow Tai Ji to happen to them, just like whistling, naturally, with the irony and self-acknowledged humility and acceptance of what gets in the way when we try too much and too hard.”

Soprano Michele Kennedy says: “In 2011, I attended the Arts and Culture Awards at Alice Tully Hall, and saw Sondheim accept New York City’s highest artistic honor: the Handel Medallion.

“He spoke with such grace, humility and wit upon accepting the award — the entire audience was rapt. And then Patti Lupone performed his ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ with such raw vulnerability that I can call it to mind immediately: a bold, pithy, wry commentary on misogyny and class as only Sondheim could write it. It made me laugh and want to cry all at once. It gave me goosebumps. And it made me fall in love with songwriting in a way that’s stayed with me ever since.”

Former Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette notes something that also sets Sondheim apart: “These days when an artist I admired dies, I kind of brace for the social media revelations that he actually sexually harassed colleagues, was unkind to students, and so on.

“I have been struck by reading so many personal anecdotes of Sondheim’s humanity and kindness to young people. May they keep coming.”

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