Or, an unexpected farewell
Let the WordPress record show that I had planned this post long, long before the sudden death of Stephen Sondheim a week ago Friday. As I told my family when I called them thirty seconds after reading the news, there are those figures whose deaths you prepare for, and those figures whose deaths you don’t think to prepare for. Sondheim was 91, but my mind wasn’t on the closing of his last and greatest show. It just…didn’t seem like a thing that was going to happen in any real way. Even though everybody dies sometime. It’s surprisingly easy to forget.
But here we are. There really is a giant in the sky.
It may come as a surprise to people who know me well that I first knew Into the Woods as something to be mocked. It was a Gigliotti family running joke long after we first saw it at a community theatre, summer 2006. We found Sondheim’s intricate, wordy, and very long pièce de résistance, which opened in San Diego thirty-five years ago today and went on to shake Broadway, tough to take seriously.
How things change.
As I learned over time, but definitely over the past week, that was just Sondheim’s lyrical approach cranked up to its highest pitch of intensity. I have realized I’m not intimately familiar with the vast majority of his repertoire. In high school I was given a copy of his lyric collection Finishing the Hat—named after a number from Sunday in the Park with George, which I’ve neither seen nor heard in full—and I read and reread the libretto of Sweeney Todd. The full libretto, including the cut songs. My friends were big into Sweeney Todd, and thus I was bound to be too.
But this isn’t about any of those shows, it’s about Into the Woods. Also in high school, my sophomore year, I was cast as Cinderella in the school’s production, a role that no fifteen-year-old has any idea how to play realistically. I like to think I did my best, though, and many of my close friends were in the show with me (either that or the people in the show became my close friends), and when our voices blended as we sang “No One is Alone” we seemed to be truly tapping into something greater than the sum of our parts. By and large, a success.
I did another production six years later, in the same role, at the school where I was taking graduate-level classes and would soon enroll full-time. This time I had some life experience to lend Cindy, and also enough character-analysis experience to examine her a little more critically. She spent a lot of time passively wishing for things, she struggled with making decisions, and despite the centuries-old mythology enshrining her as the paragon of virtue there was nothing especially virtuous about her. Were we…even supposed to like her?
This is a question we ask of all the principals in the show, and of the principals of most of Sondheim’s other shows. He understood better than anyone that protagonists do not heroes make, and that moral ambiguity—sympathy for a bloodthirsty barber, a girl pointing a gun at the gang members whose skirmishes killed her true love, a bunch of neurotic city-dwellers running out on their marriages—spoke to everyday Americans and the dreams they cherished. Everybody makes choices that bring the judgment of others (characters and audience) upon them. Nobody ends up ‘on top.’ Some may or may not be responsible for the deaths of others. It’s hard to know which way is up.
‘The Woods,’ as a setting, are a convenient metaphor for America: a no-man’s-land where the rules are constantly changing and promises cannot possibly be lived up to. (Not to mention where you’re up after midnight all the time and insurance won’t cover the damages to your house after a ‘baking accident.’) They’re a metaphor for life in general, sure, but as to the idiosyncratic comedies and tragedies of American life…the shoe fits a little too well.
I think the answer to my titular question is no. Into the Woods is not the Great American Musical any more than The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel. Also, maybe the fact that we keep compulsively creating Great American Categories should tell us something about ourselves. But Sondheim could well be the great American musical composer. Not musical number composer, for all ye who will protest in defense of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and the Gershwins (#Gershwinning). I mean that, by the time he was writing—and by the point of development the American musical had reached, largely thanks to him—he was able to address his soliloquies and anthems and ballads and group numbers directly to the people in the seats, and to the hopes and fears in their hearts. He could do this as no other composer could, because he was in the right place at the right time with the right skills.
Maybe he knew his path through the woods better than some. Maybe not. Either way, he put it best:
“Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Do not let it grieve you. No one leaves for good.”
In memoriam Stephen Sondheim, 22 March 1930-26 November 2021.
Image: from TheaterMania, the original Broadway cast—but mostly Bernadette Peters—presumably gazing up at the Giant