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FANDOM FLAMES: Stephen Sondheim, god of the theater, smile on us

One of the greatest theater-makers of the 20th and 21st centuries, Stephen Sondheim, passed on November 26, 2021.

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Musical theater is one of my first fandoms. It might be the first fandom of mine. I didn’t start with Stephen Sondheim, but as I grew into a teenager, I quickly became enamored with the Broadway legend who changed theater for the better for over half a century. When I had the news of his passing dropped on me vaguely on Tumblr, and I (not being on Twitter) raced to Google to see who had died, he was not who I expected, because, frankly, I never thought he’d die. That the news was delivered to me around 3:00 PM PST, just as I was about to go into my first panel at SDCC’s Special Edition has distracted me from almost everything here. Thank goodness I tried to take notes. We’ll see if they are at all legible.

I once saw a Stephen Sondheim show at a school I quickly transferred out of, but their production of Follies has stuck with me. I think I saw it several times. “Could I Leave You,” a declaration of both independence and dependence, filled with rage and sorrow, is one of my favorite Sondheim songs, if not one of my favorite songs, period. That it isn’t on karaoke rosters hurts. To be fair, most Sondheim songs aren’t. He’s known as being notoriously tricky to sing, but there’s a long line of performers whose mastery of his compositions would seem to dispute that. Or maybe it wouldn’t, because they’re all masters in their own right.

Company is another one of my favorites, and if I’m alone and “Being Alive” pops up on my collective playlist, I sing along. It’s the production that was broadcast on PBS — not the Neil Patrick Harris version, but the Raúl Esparza version from about 15 years ago. I had to have discovered it when I was 15 years old or so, and I have a vivid memory I’m recalling just now of staying up to watch it, after my parents were in bed. It’s an adult show, after all, full of sex and relationships and just general drama, and it’s really fairly depressing when you think about it.

But then again, I never saw Stephen Sondheim as writing shows strictly for adults. Into the Woods, for example, is essentially about fairy tales—the subversion of them, sure, but that’s the basis. I’ve seen a production of Into the Woods in Atlanta, too, and I went into it grumpy and exhausted and depressed from real life. Once I emerged from that theater, I felt completely rejuvenated. I was pretty young at the time; I was young when I watched bits and pieces of Sweeney Todd (the Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris version); I was just…young.

Now I’m still young, relatively, but not as young as I was, and I think part of me knew this was coming, because he was 91, after all, but part of me thought he’d genuinely never ever die, which I just keep repeating to myself and to others. My heart goes out to the people who had the blessing of knowing the man; it feels like every musical theater star and a lot of others have given their tributes on Twitter or other social media.

Stephen Sondheim (March 22, 1930 – November 26, 2021) was one of Broadway’s brightest stars, even though he wasn’t on the stage, at least not physically. But through his characters, like Bobby and Sally and Maria and the Baker’s Wife and George and so many others, I do think we got a good look at the man. He is survived by all he knew and touched over the years, not just with his music and lyrics, but with his spirit and soul and immense generosity.

I could quote the man himself as a final epigraph, but I’d rather use Shakespeare, who he has been compared to endlessly over the last day. It’s not a bad comparison, even if I think Sondheim was better.

From Hamlet, act V scene ii, Horatio: “Now cracks a noble heart. – Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”

May his memory be a blessing.

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