Stephen Sondheim Wrote My Life’s Soundtrack

The last thing I wanted to sit through, one evening during my senior year in college, was something called “A Little Night Music.” A friend had tickets to a local production of it and dragged me along. I was imagining that it was going to have something to do with setting Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” to some kind of story. Little did I know that that evening was going to be, in a way, the beginning of the rest of my life.

“A Little Night Music” turned out to be, of course, a musical by Stephen Sondheim, a musicalization of Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night.” Around the middle of the early number combining the songs “Now,” “Soon” and “Later,” I realized that I was hearing some of the most wonderful music of any kind I had ever heard. The harmonies were Ravelian, the lyrics were dense yet conversational and genuinely funny. “What in God’s name is this?!” I kept thinking.

I walked out on air.

I get obsessed with things. After that, I wanted to hear more music by Sondheim and started collecting the requisite cast albums. Devotees I knew kept raving in particular about “Sweeney Todd,” and I will never forget the cloudy afternoon in the summer of 1985 when I stretched out on a sofa, listened to it from beginning to end and arose feeling almost reborn.

Then I wanted to know what the roots of this man’s work were, what had inspired him. His “Follies” is a pastiche score in which many of the songs were intended to sound like ones by composers such as Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. This led me to want to know what their songs were like, and one thing led to another. I didn’t grow up caring about musicals in any real way — I was steeped mainly in jazz and classical. But these cast recordings were a revelation to me. I had no idea what “My Fair Lady” was or why anybody would care about something called “No, No, Nanette.” I soon found out: In a few years I had amassed hundreds of recordings (mostly on cassettes!) and had become a fan of musical theater. I stayed that way.

But always, and forever, Sondheim has been my favorite. His work centers the genre for me — everything is either before or after him — and is one of my favorite things on Earth. His passing last week threw me quite a bit: He had been talking about a new work coming, and there was a possibility that I would have the opportunity to interview him myself for an audiobook series.

Alas, that won’t be in the cards. But Sondheim’s work has threaded throughout my life since that night in 1984: The second musical my older daughter saw was a production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” She and my younger daughter argue in the car over whether we’re going to listen to “Follies” or “Company.” Way back, I (rather miscast) played the lead in a small production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” and I have played piano for productions of “Funny Thing” and “Into the Woods.” Somehow, Sondheim has never gone away for me.

Part of the reason is that Sondheim’s characters are often saturnine types like me. In “Sunday in the Park With George,” the painter George Seurat sings of the difficulty in deriving ultimate pleasure from creation, as his lover seeks his company. Any writer can relate: “Look, I made a hat,” he quietly declares, as if to say, “Here’s why I couldn’t be with you — isn’t it worth it?” To me that might as well be, “Look, I wrote an essay.”

In “Follies,” Ben in middle age rues the things in life he didn’t get to, and now knows he never will in “The Road You Didn’t Take.” When I heard that song in my 20s, I just knew I was going to feel that way when I was Ben’s age and dreaded it. Now, here I am, musing on exactly that sort of thing as I consider that in four years, I’ll be 60. Then there’s the architect Addison Mizner (yes, Sondheim wrote a musical about him and his brother) coming to realize, as he gathers a mess of objets from parts hither and yon, that he has found his métier at last. Only Sondheim, in “Addison’s Trip,” would write a song about a man finding what Aristotle called virtue.

When I became a musicals addict in the ’80s, I noticed that there was a type of 50-something fan who had never taken to Sondheim’s music; they stopped roughly at “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Mame” and “Pippin.” I always vowed I would not become like them and would always be as open to the new stuff as to the old. But in truth, while they couldn’t get to Sondheim, I’m not sure I have ever really gotten past him.

I try my best, but I don’t listen to “Hamilton” or “Hadestown” as much as I listen to “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd.” I’m beginning to accept that and to stop feeling guilty or incurious about it. There’s no place like home, and Sondheim’s work has been one of my home bases for most of my life. I don’t intend to die at all (that’s a whole different conversation), but if by chance I do, I hope I can do that interview with him at last.

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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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