3 min read

On Sondheim

On Sondheim

Dear Friends,

Most weeks I try to gather up little bits of news to deliver in a bundle at week's end, with some thought or question behind them. I had thoughts and plans lined up for today. Then I read that Stephen Sondheim died.

The first Sondheim show I saw was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in Atlanta, in 2004. I was nineteen, and I loved it – more than the plot or the songs what I remember most is laughing with my whole body, raucously and painfully, at the kind of humour that suspends your volition and renders you helpless. But when I think of the Sondheim that really took root in my life, in my mind, in my sense of the world, I think of him as a gift from my friend Claire.

I'd watched Tim Burton's film adaptation of Sweeney Todd in 2008, and enjoyed it, and expressed this to Claire (whom I'd known by then for a scant few months); she refused to let that be my only experience of the show, and sent me a DVD of the stage play with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. I loved it so much more, and not least because I could see, now, something of Claire and her poetry in the lyrics and the performances dazzling me.

In Glasgow, Stu and I went to a wonderful amateur performance of Into the Woods staged in an old church with a haphazard layout. At intermission, Stu somehow managed to get himself locked out of the building without me knowing; I sat in my seat in the front row waiting for him to reappear, my phone off out of respect for the show, while on stage a woman sang sometimes people leave you, halfway through the woods.

He missed the whole second half; Claire sent us DVDs again, but he still hasn't seen the whole thing. But he did, completely independently, develop his own fascination with Sondheim, which over the years enriched mine. We saw Company together, and Follies, and I wrote elsewhere – while grieving a separate artistic loss –  about Merrily We Roll Along and "Opening Doors".

I've seen several people say, in the past few hours, in reference to his passing: "there are giants in the sky." It's a line from Into the Woods, a moment in the classical meaning of the sublime, a moment uniting awe and terror. He saw to the heart of things; he made reality fantastic, and the fantastic real. All evening I've seen people quoting Sondheim in grief and celebration. Claire said to me, earlier this evening, "Sondheim made my sky so big that even he fits in it."

The world ends one person at a time. Earlier today I lived in a world where I could still, perhaps, meet Sondheim and thank him for scouring my heart from my chest with Follies, for writing so many brilliant and complicated women so compassionately, for giving so much of himself to the public as a teacher and wonderer. That world no longer exists. But there's a giant sky above, and open doors, and all the paths he blazed, and the music he made, and the words he wrote, and the enormous generosity of a life lived thoroughly among us. I'm so grateful and so heartbroken.

And you scramble down
And you look below
And the world you know
Begins to grow
The roof, the house and your
Mother at the door
The roof, the house and the world you never thought to explore
And you think of all the things you've seen
And you wish that you could live in between
And you're back again
Only different than before
After the sky

There are giants in the sky!
There are big, tall, terrible, awesome, scary, wonderful
Giants in the sky