I must make a terrible admission: I believe Stephen Sondheim is the most talented composer of this century or any other. Yes—not Bach, Mozart or any of the other so-called on greats we are called on to worship from grade school on, but dear, beautiful, ironic, soulful Sondheim.
My out-of-control admiration pinched like a bad nerve last night when I saw a video presentation by a dear friend. She showed an audience of friends the eighteen songs she sang and produced as a cabaret act earlier this year in Manhattan.
The title was something like “Grown-Up Love.”
This beautiful woman of a certain age, with a piano accompaniment, sang songs she’d chosen from the pop songbook celebrating—well, not exactly celebrating—her status as an older woman living alone.
She sang sweetly, she used her naked, well-muscled arms to good effect, she was touching, honest, ironic—and I found myself both moved and infuriated.
As I hurried home, two Sondheim songs from “A Little Night Music” began to circulate in my mind and would not let me rest for most of the spring night.
One is “And I’m still here”—that outrageous blast, in a deep female voice, dismissing resignation in favor of a recitation of all the horrors and triumphs the singer has surmounted—“And I’m still here.”
I don’t know if I can’t introduce Sophia here to any effect that is not simply ironic, but I often think this mysterious, underlying, powerful influence of the feminine—or of the female—is what is embodied in “I’m Still Here” and also in the deeply ironic and yet strangely joyful “Liaisons,” from the same show.
“What’s happened to them?” the gravelly-voiced woman singer inquires. Gone are the goodies she expected and received as a result of loaning her favors—including “a tiny Titian.”
The form is broken, the intimacies are automatic, the rewards are supposed to be only sexual, not material. Certainly this song is not about love, but about the special accomplishment of, as my mother would have said, “Rising Above it.”
All her other friends loved it: much applause followed the video, many congratulations. I felt like a heel and a heathen for not joining in, but I simply couldn’t do it.
There are a lot of other factors here: my life-long fascination with the theatre which has led to many bruising disappointments, not worth describing, versus what seems from Sondheim’s photos to be his easy comradeship with the people and the form with whom and in which he has spent his life.
Maybe his ease, and his success, stem from his total commitment. Certainly he has been able to “rise above” questions about his personal life, which seems not to have meant much to him; which is why his big beautiful “biography” disappointed me, and a lot of other people, because it is only about his music: no love affairs, no romantic disappointments, in fact a life, as he presents it, bare of everything but the execution of his art.
Not my choice.
Another aspect of New York theatre, and New York life, is the knee-jerk attention paid to a certain kind of playwright, usually a Harvard graduate, whose minor, totally self-absorbed work has occupied audiences and critics all over the country.
Small output, little reach, but total entitlement. I’m thinking of that dismal effort called “My Dinner with Andre” and its offshoots.
So what if these efforts have been rewarded a success out of proportion to their merits? Don’t they “entertain?” And isn’t this what we all want, and even need?
I don’t think so.
Grit? Is that it?
Romance with a cruel bite?
I don’t claim to be objective here. My attitude was furiously crimped when, as a college Freshman, I was asked by one of these later-celebrated playwrights who was a member of my writing class (I didn’t know his name, but since I was the only girl in the class, I didn’t know anyone’s name) to play a big role in the play he’d just written and planned to produce—a big role, he said, he’d written specifically for me.
My! Was I flattered! He’d seen something, maybe, other than the mouse-like creature who never spoke in class and hardly dared to read my poems—which the boys always found laughable.
I was too flattered, and too naïf, to ask to see the script before signing on to play that special role.
It was certainly special as I discovered when I went to my first rehearsal. I was to play a “retarded”—in the lingo of the period—southern stripper, in a hideously unbecoming although revealing costume, who delivered lines in a little-girl southern lisp while clutching a teddy bear she addressed as Jefferson Davis Bear.
Did I back out?
I’d agreed to play the part.
My willingly endured humiliation, as that young age, was compounded when my father journeyed from Kentucky to see the show, bringing my three brothers along with him. They all laughed and laughed, feet on the little stage, perhaps believing that the truth about their solemn, studious, ambitious daughter and sister had finally been revealed.
The play was called, “On the Runway of Life, You Never Know What’s Coming Off Next.”
My father, who was what was called an Angel because he supported Broadway shows, used this play as a reason to introduce the writer to an important producer, which kick-started Arthur Kopit’s career—and it continues to his day.
Father didn’t introduce me, a determined young writer who began with plays I forced my second-grade class to perform. Perhaps he thought he could only have said that I was willing.
And surely, surely, this couldn’t happen today.
Maybe, maybe not. Recently I sat through hours of a young man’s filming of a script that featured another “retarded” beautiful southern girl—except in this case she was just called crazy—who spent a lot of the time crawling on her belly while the camera rolled.
An unconnected onlooker, I asked her later about her scraped elbows and knees. (She also crawled under a petition raised maybe a foot off the floor to reach the room she was sharing in a crowded student warren.)
She didn’t have anything to say. Hoping for a career on the stage in New York, she perhaps already knew, as I didn’t at that age, that it was going to require a lot of crawling.
I doubt if Stephen Sondheim ever crawled.
And that may be all there is to say.