Patron Saint: Stephen Sondheim

Way back when Synchronized Swim was just an idea in a notebook, one of the very first concepts Amy and I knew we wanted to write about was that of patron saints.  Amy followed through immediately and wrote about Madeleine L’Engle; I am just now getting around to it (in my defense, I’ve been dropping breadcrumbs toward him along the way).  I get generally irritated by the notion that anyone accomplishes anything alone – “hustle,” “self-made man,” etc.  Hard work and vision are irreplaceable, but they are always (often outside the photo frame) holding the hand of outside encouragement.  We are more often than not influenced more deeply by people we don’t know than the ones that we do, people who came before us and “successfully” did what we hope to.  I have been holding Stephen Sondheim’s hand since I was 10 years old, when my sister came home from school one afternoon and told me about the movie they’d watched in her literature class: West Side Story.  We have patron saints so that we can know for sure part of the good that lies ahead – someone one (or several) steps ahead of us in our practice, be it writing or acting or chess, and typically better at it, to tell us, “Hey! No one is alone.” (I couldn’t resist.)  Geniuses to look to that say for all you know, you might be a genius too, finding your way into the same family.

For those who don’t know, Stephen Sondheim is a lyricist and composer of musicals who is considered the best in his field, living and perhaps ever.  I’d seen West Side Story and Sweeney Todd during my childhood, but my first real encounter with him came my senior year of high school.  I was 18 years old, crying on the carpet of my voice teacher’s studio after finally making my way through Somewhere without her stopping me.  She told me that after graduation, I should do myself a favor and print out every lyric he ever wrote and put it in a binder.  “You’ll have a 6-month course in philosophy better than any school you end up attending in the fall,” she told me.

She was right.  Lucky for me, Sondheim did it himself and saved me the trouble.  There are two volumes of his collected works: Finishing the Hat, and Look, I Made A Hat.  I can’t even properly touch on half of my favorite songs for the purposes of this essay (Something’s Coming! Opening Doors! Green Finch and Linnet Bird!), and as far as I’m concerned, 6 years isn’t nearly long enough to melt into his lyrics.  The man is unparalleled.  Though of course his lyrics are best taken in when set to music as God and Steve intended, there is something very, very special about reading the words by themselves and just sitting with them, looking at his notes and seeing the reasoning behind choosing one word over another.  It makes sense that I care more about the words than the music because I understand one language better than the other, but if you’re a musician reading this I promise you he has the same effect across the board.  The titles of these tomes are drawn from his infamous (and perhaps most autobiographical) song from Sunday in the Park with George about the pioneer of pointillism, Georges Seurat.  My best friend used to make fun of me for singing the song all the time; I’ll admit, out of context it sounds a little silly.  It goes like this:

Finishing the hat – how you have to finish the hat

How you watch the rest of the world from a window while you finish the hat

The song’s purpose is twofold: Georges is processing the dismantling of his relationship with Dot, the only woman he’s ever really loved and probably the only woman that could love him, while simultaneously getting caught up in the all-consuming creative process that made her leave him in the first place, which, in his case, expresses itself in painting canvases.  The song ends with the declaration, “Look I made a hat – where there never was a hat.” His joy in creating something that didn’t exist before coexists with his full understanding that it will always keep him slightly at a distance from everyone around him.  To be a genius, you must always be looking for a place where no one else can reach you, which means you must be alone.  I listened to an interview with Steve on my favorite podcast, Desert Island Discs, about a year ago.  It didn’t take much listening to hear that he is a man very much alone, surrounded by exquisite hats – but I couldn’t help thinking that they make for better company.  He sounds so unhappy, despite having come closer to perfect expression through song than anyone else in his field.  The price you pay, I guess, for being able to make a perfect hat.

The most delicious thing about his music is how well it ages.  While you’re listening to it, you are vibrantly aware that you’ll get to come back to it later and it will be even better.  For instance, I heard Send in the Clowns for the first time when I was 21 years old, and immediately knew that while I was incredibly moved upon hearing it, I wouldn’t really understand it until probably my 40’s.  I feel really, really lucky to have been introduced to his music so young.  And I get to carry his songs around in my pocket! For life! They’re with me! He understands the female compromise better than any man I know (which may be because he’s a gay Jewish man, which in turn means he more than probably had an overbearing mother).  He does it over and over again, with Dot in Sunday and The Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods and Joanne in Company and even Mrs. Lovett in her way in Sweeney Todd.  He writes these unparalleled roles for women, women that I look at and know, partially in myself and partially in the women around me.  They’re asking the same questions as me and my friends, attempting to untie the types of knots that require years of patience and nimble hands and mistakes.  The women in his plays want something that 9 times out of 10 they can’t get, so they figure out a way around it – like every woman does.  It’s not that he’s not hopeful, just wildly realistic.

Except, sometimes he tips his hand and shows that perhaps he does think the fullness of things is in fact possible:

Someone to hold you too close, someone to hurt you too deep
Someone to sit in your chair, and ruin your sleep, and make you aware of being alive
Someone to need you too much, someone to know you too well
Someone to pull you up short, and put you through hell, and give you support for being alive, being alive
Make me alive, make me confused
Mock me with praise, let me be used
Vary my days, but alone is alone, not alive
This is the final song in Company, “Being Alive”,  arguably his very best.  It’s a musical about a topic that Sondheim admittedly knows nothing about – marriage.  And still, he found that to say about it.  That character gets to say the thing that so many other characters in Sondheim’s plays wish they could say, wildly articulate as they are.  And that’s the thing! His songs, across decades and subject matter and critical misreception, are in conversation with each other.  He never leaves anything with a final word.  Which, in my opinion, is the true mark of a genius: having the answers and still leaving the question open-ended. My other teacher calls Sondheim’s songs dashboard music – the stuff that you’ll come back to again and again through seasons of life because it’s rich enough to support you in the different ones.  In that same interview, Sondheim said that he thinks his audience has always been about 10 years behind him in terms of understanding his lyrics.  He didn’t say it arrogantly, either; it’s just that, historically, his plays get bad reviews, generally because critics don’t understand them the first time around.  They’re dense; intentionally so, because they both require and deserve prolonged reflection.  He’s a genius who knew he was a genius the whole time, even while waiting for everyone to catch up with him.  The best kind of patron saint, because by example he tells you it doesn’t matter if anyone likes you anyway, as long as you know what you’re saying.

There is one reason in particular that makes Steve, in my book, truly extraordinary.  It’s found at the very end of Sunday in the Park with George, said to a young artist who feels there is nothing more to say by someone who knows better: “Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new. Give us more to see.”  And that is why I consider him a patron saint – there is something distinctly beautiful about a genius saying that everyone’s creative offerings count.  You just have to be the one to say it, even if no one is listening.  He leaves the audience in front of a blank white canvas, brimming with possibility in the face of failure, misunderstanding, self-doubt.  The joy of having created something is what should drive the creative process – not the hope of reception, not fear, not a desire to make yourself count.  Joy.  It is the simplest thing to remember in the moment, and the easiest thing to forget past it.  You create something because you get to, not have to.  Over and over and over again.


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