By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.
The final dress rehearsal of the original West End production of COMPANY was a disaster. It was the night before the first performance; everything was going of the rails; it was after midnight; nerves were frayed, tempers flaring when one of the cast members snapped, and storming downstage center he shouted,
“Who do I have to fuck to get out of this show?”
There was dead silence in the theatre. Then from the backrow of the house came the voice of Stephen Sondheim replying,
“The same person you fucked to get into it.”
That tale of musical theatre lore has been around for decades, and I don’t know if it’s true or not but today I need it to be. I need it to be because Stephen Sondheim died suddenly yesterday, and I don’t want to believe that’s true. No one does.
He was 91 so some might say his passing was not unexpected, except for the fact that we’d seen him out and about in person recently. Just last week he attended the first preview performance of the Broadway revival of COMPANY. Two months ago, he made an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (something he rarely ever did during his career) and talked about the new show he was working on.
So for me, the news of Stephen Sondheim’s death was unexpected, is heartbreaking, and very disorienting.
Countless tributes and retrospectives of his illustrious, unparalleled career and body of work continue for an unquestioned seismic influence in musical theatre. He was the last bridge back to Broadway’s “Golden Age” whose talent, vision, and genius forged unimagined ways forward. He brought forth a new kind of musical each and every time he put pen to staff. Whether in subject or structure, Stephen Sondheim “never did anything twice.”
For generations of audiences who’ve spent lifetimes enjoying his shows, his passing will fade but for artists who have worked on Sondheim shows, his loss is immeasurable. Speaking for myself, I feel lost in the dark, like the ghostlight that’s always been there lighting the way on stage has gone out.
His 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning, Sunday in the Park with George made my life as an artist make sense. I do what I do because I have to.
Anyone who’s ever picked up a Sondheim score knows he liked composing in keys God hasn’t even thought of and with rhythmic patterns that would drive Satan mad. He also loved words and was a Grandmaster of wordplay, arguably the greatest lyricist in history. Since the news of his death, that’s what’s been going through my head – his brilliant words.
As a writer, I marvel at Stephen Sondheim’s ability to say deeply profound insights, ideas, and wisdom in utterly few words.
“Some day, Somewhere, We’ll find a new way of living,”
“Alone is alone, not alive.”
“It’s our time, breathe it in. Worlds to change, and worlds to win.”
“Nice is different than good.”
“All you have to do is move your little finger and you can change the world.”
“White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities…”
He also wrote, “There are only two worthwhile things to leave behind when you depart this world of ours – children and art.” Stephen Sondheim has left the world more art than a dozen other composers combined. Their depth, brilliance and insight into our humanity will undoubtedly withstand the test of time like the works of Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Mozart.
For generations to come, children will listen and learn.
Thank you, Stephen Sondheim… forever