Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
A meditation on what the master’s work has meant to me on this, the occasion of his 87th birthday.
1) My first exposure to Sondheim is happenstance, as a child of maybe five or six. PBS is airing the Angela Lansbury/George Hearn production of Sweeney Todd and before I think to change the channel I’ve just watched the strange pale man in the apron slit somebody’s throat from ear to ear while singing at the top of his lungs. The sound that I don’t yet recognize as a steam whistle confuses and terrifies me. I had no idea that a play–at this point, mostly adapted fairy tales–was allowed to show this kind of brutality, much less combined with music. I am not fully cognizant of the music, because for years I am instead haunted by the image of Toby screaming himself to the edge of his own sanity as the Beadle lands in the basement, and the image of Toby, again, hair shocked white and speech reduced to mumbles, drawing the razor across the barber’s throat.
2) The first time I see Assassins it’s a college production in Urbana. I walk in amused at the premise, expecting a lark of a cabaret performance, and it isn’t until John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme are singing love duets to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson that I realize the audacity of what I’m witnessing. By the time the ensemble has hectored Lee Harvey Oswald into historical infamy, I’m barely able to articulate how I still feel about America. It is a country so great that anybody can grow up to be president; it is a country so twisted that anybody can grow up to shoot that president dead.
3) Throughout high school and college my romantic pattern remains steadfast and stupid, in which I develop feelings for somebody and then proceed to avoid telling them because of my certainty that the feelings will not be returned. I develop a complicated relationship with “What Can You Lose?”, a particularly astute and aching Sondheim composition for the film Dick Tracy, instead of anything approaching a successful relationship with another person.
4) The first time I see the original Broadway production of Into The Woods is shortly after Dana and I start dating; she owns the DVD and decides to share it with me. I renew my appreciation for clever meta-theatrics when the Giantess breaks through the confines of the story to kill the Narrator. I laugh so hard during “Agony” that I miss half of what makes it so funny. And although I had been aware of Bernadette Peters prior to this viewing, I learn that I had not truly been AWARE OF BERNADETTE PETERS.
5) By the time I first hear the original cast album for A Little Night Music, I know that I can expect a Sondheim song to be a marvel of complexity and acrobatic writing. Nonetheless, “Now/Later/Soon” knocks the wind out of me. I spend years trying to write something that matches its interlocking structure and themes. I occasionally come close.
6) This will be my 17th year writing for Chicago’s theater and live literature events, so if you calculate the number of hours in a day and the approximate number of times that one might experience crippling doubt, requiring an internalized mantra of some sort in order to push oneself past the hill, it works out such that in my brain I have sung Sunday In The Park With George‘s “Move On” approximately 100 billion times.
7) Last year I borrowed the DVD of the Raúl Esparza production of Company from the Evanston Library, my first time watching any production of this musical. I watched it by myself one evening and then all but demanded that Dana watch it with me. The experience both times is intense and thought-provoking. I don’t know if I would have considered this show anything but an enjoyable trifle before I got married, and I don’t know that the production would be as important to me now if I’d first seen it before I’d been married for a decade.
Every experience I’ve had with Sondheim’s work has either changed me or made me ask myself if I needed to change. I don’t know that I can offer him higher praise, as an artist, than that.