“The only regret I have in life is giving you birth,” his mother wrote in a letter to Stephen Sondheim.
The only regret so many of us feel now is that Sondheim, the iconic composer and lyricist, died on Nov. 26 at his Roxbury, Conn. home at age 91.
He is survived by Jeffrey Romley, whom he married in 2017, and Walter Sondheim, a half-brother.
F. Richard Pappas, his lawyer and friend, told the New York Times that the cause of death was unknown, and that Sondheim had died suddenly. The day before he passed away, Sondheim celebrated Thanksgiving with friends, Pappas told the Times.
“Every day a little death,” Sondheim wrote in “A Little Night Music.”
This isn’t the case with the passing of Sondheim. Whether you’re a Broadway star or a tone-deaf aficionado like me, you’ll sorely miss Sondheim, who the Times aptly called “one of Broadway history’s songwriting titans.”
Like multitudes of his fans, I don’t remember a time in my life when a song from a Sondheim musical hasn’t been in my head.
When I was a child, my parents repeatedly played the cast album of “Gypsy,” the 1959 musical with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents. My folks loved the story of the show, which was loosely based on the life of the burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Ethel Merman belt out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses!” When I need to jumpstart my creative juices, I remember that “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”
In college, I felt that “Company,” the 1970 musical with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by George Furth, spoke to my generation.
As was the case with Sondheim’s musicals, “Company” didn’t have a conventional plot, happy ending, or tidy resolution. It takes place during Bobby’s 35th birthday party. Bobby, who is single, is celebrating with his friends (straight, married couples). Bobby likes having friends but doesn’t want to get married.
Sondheim didn’t come out as gay until he was 40. Yet, even in the 1970s, it was hard not to think that Bobby in “Company” wasn’t gay.
Once you’ve heard Elaine Stritch sing “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company,” it becomes indelibly etched in your brain.
Who else but Sondheim could have written, “And here’s to the girls who play/smart-/Aren’t they a gas/Rushing to their classes in optical art,/Wishing it would pass/Another long exhausting day/Another thousand dollars/A matinee, a Pinter play/Perhaps a piece of Mahler’s/I’ll drink to that/And one for Mahler!”
In September, I, along with legions of other theater lovers, were thrilled when Sondheim told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show,” that he was working with David Ives on a new musical called “Square One.”
In his musicals from “Follies” to “Sweeney Todd” to “Sunday in the Park with George,” Sondheim, through his lyrics and music, revealed the internal depths of his characters and the sadness, tenderness, bitterness, rage, irony, wit, and love of humanity. Sondheim’s wordplay was so brilliant that he did crossword puzzles for New York magazine.
Over his decades-long career, Sondheim won every award imaginable from the Pulitzer Prize for “Sunday in the Park with George” to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to him by President Barack Obama in 2015). He received more than a dozen Tony Awards for his Broadway musicals and revivals as well as a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2008.
Thankfully, Sondheim’s art will be with us for the ages.
A remake of “West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, premieres this month.
Sondheim is a character in the Netflix film “tick, tick BOOM!,” directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The movie is based on an autobiographical posthumous Jonathan Larson (the composer of “Rent”) musical. Sondheim is supportive of Larson’s work.
Thank you Stephen, for your art! R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.