When I heard that Stephen Sondheim died on Friday morning, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I certainly didn’t have any of my own words, so I did the only thing I could: I went back and listened to all of his.
Sondheim’s music has been present in my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up listening to the original Broadway cast recording of “West Side Story” and watching the movie adaptation of “Sweeney Todd.” I found “Into the Woods” at 13 and cried all the way through my first listen to “No One is Alone.” My relationship with “Sunday in the Park with George” is relatively new, but “Move On” makes me feel such an indescribable enormity of emotions, and I’m sure it always will.
But, through everything, my favorite Sondheim musical is “Company.” I shouldn’t feel such a connection to a musical about a single, 30-something commitment-phobe and all of his married friends, but I do. A few years back, I even planned an entire spring break trip around seeing a revival of the show on London’s West End. From my seat in the mezzanine, I remember watching the entire cast sing the crest of the opening number and realizing, acutely and startlingly, how happy I was in that moment.
Before going to bed on Friday, I went back to watch D. A. Pennebaker’s “Original Cast Album: ‘Company,’” an hour-long documentary shot during the marathon recording of the studio album in 1970. Technically and narratively, it’s not exactly a feat — the handheld cinematography is shaky and sort of frantic, cuts happen in seemingly random places and there’s no real structure — but it’s an intimate, rare look into a corner of entertainment that’s not known for its transparency or accessibility. In that way, it’s everything a fan could hope for.
When people talk about the documentary, they mostly talk about the 13-minute sequence that acts as the film’s climax: Broadway legend Elaine Stritch struggling through take after take of “Ladies Who Lunch” before finally nailing it at the end. It’s true that there’s a lot there to love; my favorite moment is when Stritch is listening to herself sing on a previous take, tired and unsatisfied, before rearing back and roaring at herself to shut up. There are also a ton of little gems strewn throughout the film as well, though. At one point, Sondheim approaches an actor after a bad take to say, not unkindly but still condescendingly, “I don’t want to upset you, but I’d love to hear the tune.” There are moments during the recording of “Another Hundred People” when the camera cuts to specific sets of the orchestra and isolates their sounds, revealing layer upon layer of instrumentation I never knew was there.
However, the part that completely sold me on “Company,” not only as a musical but as my favorite musical of all time, is Dean Jones singing “Being Alive.” Raúl Esparza’s 2006 version is probably more widely loved, but for me, no one will ever top Jones. At the end of the show, Bobby, the aforementioned 30-something, has some realizations about himself and what he wants. He wants someone to “hold him too close, to hurt him too deep.” He wants someone to “vary his days,” to save him from boredom, to exist with, to make him feel alive. It’s such a simple song with such simple desires, but it never fails to make me cry because it’s about just wanting to be seen by someone, to be known by them. That’s something I can understand, something that cuts right through me.
For me, “Being Alive” encapsulates a huge part of Sondheim’s genius. He was a composer and lyricist who could write lines like “It’s a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the pouch and the paunch and the pension” — complex, boggling lyrics that are so good they make me a little bit angry — but also ones as concise and impactful as “Alone is alone, not alive.” He could pack an immensity of feeling into a single musical phrase, put seemingly inexpressible sentiments into simple words.
I’ve dug through the YouTube archive of Sondheim interviews a lot, and something that’s always struck me about him is that he often seems sort of removed, incredibly articulate but for the most part unemotional, especially in some of the earlier ones. He could write musicals about loneliness and marriage and obsession and children and grief and creation, write lyrics that hit me like a ton of bricks, but he was far more comfortable and satisfied talking about the process, the practicalities of writing and composing, than the emotions or themes beneath. He wrote things that make people feel so much, that help them realize things about themselves, about life, but he didn’t really talk about his impact. He was a genius, but I don’t think he was proud. Everything was about the music and the stories he set out to tell.
I sort of get that, though. I’m much better at writing about how much Sondheim means to me than speaking about it. When I finally went to bed on Friday night, I still didn’t have many words, but his are a tribute to himself. I’ll leave you with a few from “Sunday in the Park with George”: “There are only two worthwhile things to leave behind when you depart this world of ours: children and art.”
Stephen Sondheim died on Nov. 26 at the age of 91. I’m so grateful to have all of the music he left behind.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.