While I know he was 91 years old, I belong to the huge legion of Stephen Sondheim fans who secretly hoped he would never, ever die, and that his unique creative voice would never fall silent. And now it has. The loss is inestimable, incalculable–and now we have no one to come up with clever rhymes for words like that. I am trying to console myself by watching some of the countless fascinating interviews he did in which he talks about his craft. And he left a catalog of brilliant, groundbreaking musicals that will outlive us all thanks to their astonishing alchemical blend of heart and mind. And he left the world his two books about his art and craft, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat.
Stephen Sondheim changed my life–twice. The first time was when my college friend Neal sat me down in his dorm room at Mather House (Harvard College) and played me the LP of A Little Night Music. The music and lyrics both took my breath away. I was intoxicated for the first time in my life. From that day on I knew I had to be a lyricist, to do what he did. It was kind of like when I was 13 and saw a relative perform a magic show; after that, I was determined to become a magician. And for a while, I did! Then in college I heard that album, and I wanted to create magic with words the way Mr. Sondheim did.
The second time he changed the course of my life was when I sat down at his home for a chat about an actual career as a lyricist/librettist. To say it was an unforgettable afternoon would be a massive understatement. And I still treasure the two brief notes I received from him on his now-classic personal stationery–even though both notes make it clear what an arrogant, clueless young man I was at the time. I cherish them because they make clear what a deeply kind man he was. He saw past my youthful callowness straight through to the seriousness of my intent. He did not have children of his own, but he mentored a generation of young writers–and more.
Below is the note inviting me to his home for that talk. If you’d like to read about what happened at that chat, what the note below refers to, and how I ended up steering him towards a film he later adapted into a musical, read my earlier post here.
I’m not going to quote anything of his, although so many lines spring to mind as a fitting tribute to him that it’s overwhelming. He famously resisted the idea that any of his works or characters was autobiographical. (Although of course on some level, especially as he approached his lyrics and songs with the rigor of an actor learning a character, they were all facets of him–and he was a diamond with infinite facets.) I will just say, with all my heart, and with tears in my eyes: Thank you, Mr. Sondheim. For sharing your genius. For your deep kindness. For reminding me what bravery can look like. For everything. My condolences to his husband, and to all who loved and admired him. The world is forever richer because of what he shared, and forever poorer now that he is gone.