Finishing the Hat

Stephen Sondheim (Photo: Fred R. Conrad, New York Times)

On Friday November 26, 2021, Stephen Sondheim passed away. We share here some tributes to his award-winning work.

A flight attendant, circa 1970, sneaks away at dawn from the site of her one night stand; the man in bed awakes and half-heartedly asks her to stick around, calling her “June.”

“April,” she corrects him.

“April,” he repeats.

“Thank you.”

There is so much a writer can learn from Stephen Sondheim. Of course there are the internal rhymes, the tricky patter, and his widely publicized habits of creativity. But there’s much to be found in his economy of language: the muttered asides, the stammering clarifications, the afterthoughts. This flight attendant, for instance, who thanks her date for calling her by her own name: exactly how many demeaning encounters has she endured? Or the drunken socialite, sneering at bourgeois women and their cultural pretensions, as she throws back her drink and barks, “And one for Mahler!” Or the down-on-her-luck purveyor of meat pies, who suspects her rival of cooking up cat meat: “Just the thought of it’s enough to make you sick. And I’m telling you them pussycats is quick.” Or the ambitious conceptual artist who reminds himself to schmooze with potential donors “so that you can be on exhibi- so that your work can be on exhibition.”

Sondheim’s people don’t always say what they mean, but they’ll always say what they think should be said. The irony lies in the gulf between who these characters are and who they think they are. Never one to talk down to his audience, he expected us to reconcile the fundamental loneliness of being alive with the fleeting comfort of old friends. He found humor in the grimmest situations (who else would write a love duet for John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme?) and heartbreak in the slightest of throwaway lines (oh, that whispered “thank you”). Mostly, though, Sondheim wrote about art, about its urgency and its permanence. About the necessity of finishing the hat.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Stephen Sondheim, and for me, as for the millions who loved him (“fans” is too pallid a word) the loss is personal. And yet he left so many clues about how to survive a world without him. We die, but we don’t. The artist may be gone but the organizing principles of art live on. Order. Design. Tension. Balance. Harmony.

— Katy Karlin, Associate Professor

I was just a Broadway baby, at least in my own mind, and I stumbled into a truly amazing theatre department at the University of Nevada under the direction and guidance of Bob Dillard and Jim Bernardi. Among my favorite shows were Sondheim classics. I enjoyed playing Agnes in Gypsy, and I’ve loved teaching Into the Woods, but Sweeney Todd had the most challenging and satisfying score of all the shows I performed in. I savored Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett’s witty duets. I marveled at the complexity when Johanna and Anthony trilled onstage while Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford menaced from the back of the theatre. I held my breath as the beggar woman’s secret was revealed. In all of his shows, Sondheim created complex, haunting, exquisite music, and lyrics that perpetually whisper to me. I’m sorry that we have lost the master, but I’m so glad to have lived in his era.  

— Anne Phillips, Professor

I’m a late bloomer of sorts when it comes to the work of Stephen Sondheim. I knew of him, and was familiar with Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods from their film adaptations, but had never fully dug into the intricacies of his musicals. Then, feeling uninspired in my own creative work this past summer, I stumbled across Six by Sondheim, a 2013 documentary in which Sondheim breaks down six of his most famous songs. The way he described songs as belonging to the characters, how he likened his method of songwriting to actors getting into the mindset of their characters, fascinated me. However, once Sondheim reflected on the song “Being Alive” from Company, something shifted for me.

Sondheim got personal as he dissected the desires that the character, Robert, sings about in the song, mentioning how he himself didn’t fall in love until he was sixty years old, and had gotten so used to the idea of being alone that he wasn’t open to a relationship. Once I knew the general conceit of Company—a single man within a friend group of all couples—and heard Sondheim’s own musings about his personal life as they related to the show, I immediately sought out the cast album. Now I know that Company is a favorite for many, but in that moment, the show and Sondheim’s own experience with love and relationships, seemed to speak directly to me and my own thoughts on those subjects.

This seems to be what makes Sondheim so special: his innate ability to craft music that is purposefully complex, yet if you take the time to peel back the surface, there might be a part of yourself staring right back. Sure, I might feel late to the party when it comes to discovering and appreciating Sondheim’s work, but something tells me that he would appreciate that.

— Dustin Vann (BA ’16, MA ’20)

When I learned of Stephen Sondheim’s passing, I was writing a song. I paused my own work, feeling gutted at this great loss, and spent a few liminal hours immersed in Sondheim’s music. I mused through “Moments in the Woods” from Into the Woods, belted “Being Alive” from Company, and returned to one of the most soaring lyrics I’ve ever performed on stage: “Tonight” from West Side Story. In those hours at my piano, I experienced what I will clichédly describe as a lifetime of emotions: deafening loss, hopeful earnestness, outright longing, calming peace, and even some emotions that defy description. This emotional journey is the power of Sondheim. His work makes us feel things, sometimes unexpectedly. So tonight, listen to your favorite Sondheim song (check out this article from Playbill if you need suggestions) and let yourself experience the magic of his repertoire. 

— Brent Weaver (BA ’14, MA ’16)

A production of Company at Lawton Community Theatre in Lawton, Oklahoma was my first introduction to Stephen Sondheim. My family had season tickets to LCT, so I got the chance to see several plays and musicals I had never heard of. This production, some time in the late 1970s, changed my perspective on what theatre could be — what life could be.

Like other more traditional musicals I had seen, the show was entertaining. The songs are emotionally rich, and Bobby’s emotional journey is compelling. Most memorably, Company showed me the universality of ambivalence, especially in terms of the characters’ feelings about love, marriage, and intimacy.

Since then, I’ve seen dozens of live productions of Sondheim’s shows, including some on Broadway; yet, the first image that came to me when I heard that Sondheim had died:  an image of a young man and woman on a community theatre stage. They are in bed, putting their clothes back on and singing to one another. She’s waiting for him to ask her to stay; when he does seem to be asking her to stay, she says yes, and he regrets it. As some of Bobby’s married friends sing in “Sorry-Grateful,” “You’re scared she’s starting/To drift away,/And scared she’ll stay.”

Like Sondheim’s other musicals, Company demonstrates the complexity of human emotions; compared to the simplistic messages about love my teenaged self received from my culture, Company provided a shape for my feelings, a way to understand some of the more complicated feelings I was feeling about love and intimacy. Through his emotionally powerful songs, Sondheim continues to help me cope with the joy and pain of being alive.

— Deborah Murray, Instructor

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