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.