We've Got God!
A nostalgic biographical essay about Stephen Sondheim, or to use his nickname: God.
(You are very much encouraged to listen to Sondheim music as a soundtrack to this and all future posts in Color and Light. As the title here is a reference to Sondheim’s song “God” from the revue Sondheim on Sondheim, I invite you to start with that one! Any time you see a song title mentioned, go ahead and add it to your queue. It will give some nice context and added flavor to what I’m writing about.)
Stephen Sondheim first enchanted his way into my life in 2006. I was fifteen, a freshman in my second semester of high school, early into rehearsals for the very non-Sondheim school musical that year, Les Miserables. Amber, the older foster sister of my best friend from elementary school, was in the musical as well. Since she knew me, she took it upon herself to bring me into the fold of the upperclassmen in the Drama department. She also effectively began my musical theatre education.
As a newbie and one of only a few freshman in the huge cast of Les Mis, having an upperclassman take me under her wing was extremely helpful. She asked me about which musicals I knew, and when I expressed my utter lack of knowledge beyond Wicked and Phantom of the Opera, she squealed and made a mission of teaching me everything she knew.
“Do you know Into the Woods?” She asked.
I shook my head.
Another squeal. “Okay, we’re going to sneak you off campus during lunch and we’re going to listen to it in my car.”
On the covert mission to get off campus (which, ultimately, was not very difficult, as the campus was open and had various unmonitored exits), Amber shared with me what she knew about Sondheim. She introduced me to the great musical theatre schism between fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber and fans of Stephen Sondheim, also understood (by me) as the divide between spectacle and high art, respectively. She mentioned Sweeney Todd and its dark, macabre story, Company and its great songs, Follies with its devastating ballads, and then—
“The one that you can just completely ignore is Sunday in the Park with George,” she said with undisguised contempt in her voice. “It’s so annoying and repetitive…. ‘Sunday in the park with George’” she mock-sang in a deliberately nasally voice. “But aside from that one, the rest are all amazing.”
That day, she got me to fall in love with Into the Woods. Then, two years later, like a gift from Apollo, I got the opportunity to play the Baker in our school version of Into the Woods, for which I won the Lead Actor in a Musical award in our county-wide high school theatre awards organization, called Cappies. That experience cemented my love and appreciation for Sondheim, not just because it’s a beautiful and meaningful show dressed in ostensibly simple fairy tales, but because digging into the meat of it as an actor reveals just how impressively complex, integrated, and masterful it is.
Woods is, perhaps, Sondheim’s most accessible work (discounting Gypsy and West Side Story, for which he wrote only the lyrics), because it initially has the bright energy and vibrancy Broadway musicals are typically known for combined with the familiar characters and scenarios of classic fairy tales. It also has a relatively linear and straightforward plot, unlike many of his other shows. But within those familiar constraints, deep psychology, symbolism, philosophy, and allegory are explored.
I poured everything I had into that role and those performances, and while it was gratifying that people enjoyed it, what mattered more was the spiritual and emotional alchemy that took place within me. Afterward, I was a different person. And to this day, it takes only a few seconds into listening to “No More” or “No One is Alone” or “Finale: Children Will Listen” for me to burst into tears.
My connection to Sondheim’s material ran very deep after that. But I took to heart Amber’s recommendations. I wrote off Sunday in the Park with George for years, not even bothering to listen to it while I consumed the others. It’s a hilarious irony to me, now.
At first, I understood why Amber disliked it. On the first listen, it feels more detached than his other work, and the music is often patter-y and non-melodic. But when I heard the key songs of the show: “Finishing the Hat,” “Move On,” and “Sunday,” I knew I had found some really special songs. For a long time, I listened only to those songs, plus occasionally “We Do Not Belong Together.” Not even the much-beloved female song “Everybody Loves Louis” really did it for me.
Then, I watched the filmed version of the original Broadway production, and suddenly all of that strangeness and abstraction came into focus. I glimpsed, without yet fully understanding, the reasons why it was the way it was. It completely enchanted me then, and I appreciated the other songs much more. It wasn’t my number one favorite, maybe not even in my top 5, but it was still up there.
It took a deeply painful and messy breakup for me to finally plug into it, through the perspective of the lead female character, Dot. She struggles with George’s distant, selfish, and compassionless attitude, something I identified with, and she finally leaves him.
No, you are complete, George,
You are your own
We do not belong together…
You are complete, George,
You all alone
I am unfinished,
I am diminished
With or without you
Finally, within my own pain, I understood the emotional richness of this text that once appeared so dry. It held a new place as a musical I could rely on for emotional purging.
In the wake of this terrible breakup, I moved to Staten Island, New York City, to study musical theatre at Wagner College, and for the most part was caught up in the popular musicals of that era: Next to Normal, Spring Awakening, In the Heights, American Idiot. In my first Musical Theatre Performance class, my friend Olivia was assigned the opening number of the show, sharing the same title, “Sunday in the Park with George,” sung by Dot. I was asked to play the part of George for her, to read his spoken lines and to be a physical body for her to sing to.
The assignment prompted me to revisit the show in more detail from George’s perspective, and this, along with the process of watching her work on the song, expanded my love that much more. I finally had an inkling that this musical was even more profound and wonderful than I already believed—much like when I finally comprehended the deep well of meaning and genius that Into the Woods contained after having loved it for years. My connection to George as a character became much deeper than my connection to Dot—I realized that he was in fact nothing at all like the boyfriend who had treated me so badly.
Two years later, it was fully established as my favorite musical, and there it remains. That was the year I took Lauri’s notoriously difficult Musical Theatre History class. I knew she was also a huge fan of Sondheim, and when it came time for me to select the topic for my final essay for the class, the choice was obvious. I wanted to do an analysis of “Finishing the Hat.” That essay remains one of the pieces of academic writing I am most proud of, and it quickly became clear that the problem was really how to limit it to fifteen pages. (I believe at one point I even asked Lauri if I could turn in a longer paper. She declined, understandably.)
I got a 100 on the final draft of the essay, which, I must admit, was very gratifying, but I was left with a nagging feeling that I had only offered a glimpse into the rich text, from broad thematic elements down to what could be inferred from the most minor of details. I thought: some day, when I have the time and the wherewithal, I will expand the essay and include everything I had to omit for the sake of requirements and brevity. Even if I’m the only one who ever sees it. (That time is now! More on that at the end.)
But I was at Wagner to focus on the performance of musicals, not their analysis, and so I shelved my plans for a longer version. At the end of that school year, it was announced that the first musical of the following year would be the Sondheim revue Putting it Together. I wish I could say that my first response was excitement, but in reality, I was frozen in sheer terror. It would be my senior year of college, and if I didn’t get cast in the Sondheim musical, I knew I would be devastated. Most of the other students were more excited about Rent. I wanted to be in Rent too, but I knew exactly where my priorities were. In some absurd part of my mind, I would have preferred there not be a Sondheim musical at all than risk not being cast in one.
For the audition, I knew I wanted to sing something from Sunday, but “Finishing the Hat” has some beautiful floaty high parts that are in the upper part of my register, and if the nerves of the audition proved too much, there was no way I would emotionally survive a vocal crack or other mishap. I needed a song that I could count on vocally, but which offered the same range of acting possibilities.
I realized then that one of the songs I usually skipped over, “Lesson #8” was not only the perfect option, but I marveled that it might in fact be one of the best songs in the show, and somehow I had never noticed. It’s the song that leads into the inspirational “Move On” and shows George at his most vulnerable, yet it’s written in the third person like an old English grammar book. This is part of why I’d written it off before, but I realized it’s written that way because he is struggling to identify with his intense feelings. He fears he has lost his artistic vision, and after the death of his grandmother, he feels lost and adrift.
I had a potent, relevant real life experience to draw from. Only a few months earlier, I careened into a major identity crisis centering around what I wanted to do with my life when I graduated. I loved performing, but I was finally accepting that writing was what gave me the most fulfillment, and that I should pursue that instead. That decision shattered the vision of the future I had spent years building up: the vision of a life in New York trying to make it on Broadway. I too felt lost and adrift.
I gave that audition everything I had, and it paid off. I was cast in Putting it Together, and the experience was everything I wanted it to be. The cast of 9, including our beloved professor and vocal coach Amy Williams, became very tight. We spent weeks and weeks practicing the complex and difficult harmonies and rhythms and intervals. It was, of course, musically directed by Lauri Young, who had bravely chosen to challenge herself by performing the entire score of the show alone on piano. It was a Herculean feat that still impresses me when I think about it.
But the most special aspect of it for me was that our director, Drew Scott Harris, knew Sondheim and wrote to him asking for permission to make certain changes. Not only did Sondheim himself grant the permission, but he personally made some small changes to the lyrics that were original and unique to our production, such as changing “this is not a Mackintosh production” to “this is not a Disney, co. production.” He also requested that Drew film it and share it with him so that he could review the changes he’d made to see how they fit. I don’t know if Sondheim ever watched it, but the idea that he did just fills me with so much delight and satisfaction.
It was a powerful, emotional experience. Like Into the Woods, it changed me and helped me grow. Lauri and Drew added the song “I Remember” from Sondheim’s little known TV musical Evening Primrose, and that was to be my one solo in the show, and I couldn’t have been happier. It is a gorgeous song, usually sung by a woman, and it draws on the same kinds of emotions that “Lesson #8” does. I will cherish those memories forever.
After Wagner, I moved back to California to try to figure out what to do with my life. I likely would never have ended up in Prague had I stayed in New York, so I don’t regret it. But much like George in Act 2 of Sunday, I was adrift and lost there for a long time.
Two of the few things that sustained me during this time were Sondheim-related. The first was performing in a cabaret called Bent Broadway, where all the songs were gender-swapped. I sang “Every Day a Little Death,” from A Little Night Music and “Losing My Mind” from Follies. Those songs acted as real, healing therapy for me after another painful breakup.
The second was the final real-life experience I had with Sondheim the man. My friend Chelsea and I nabbed tickets to see an Into the Woods reunion concert in LA with much of the original cast of the show and presided over by Sondheim himself. I remember the electric excitement of being in the same room as him, as all of them—it was my first time seeing Bernadette Peters, Chip Zien, and Joanna Gleason live as well. I remember the tears of joy and love listening to the songs, and the recognition that I was present for a very special piece of musical theatre history.
I drifted away from musical theatre gradually over my six years living in Prague. I had other focuses, other interests and passions. And also, there weren’t many opportunities to sing in English… Now I’m at another turning point in my life, and musical theatre has flooded back into my life. It reminds me of how the impact of musical theatre can very much be a spiritual thing, a transcendental and larger than life experience. Like anything else, you just have to believe in it.
Sondheim’s musicals are inextricably tied into who I am as a person, and I feel a profound well of gratitude that I was shaped by such beauty and wisdom. They will continue to play a role in my life, no matter what. I do hope that, before I get too old, I will have an opportunity to play George, or Bobby, or Giorgio, or The Baker again. And I will do everything in my power to play Sweeney Todd once I am old enough.
Now that Sondheim has passed away, I feel the drive to start writing about his works. So, this admittedly self-indulgent personal essay is the introduction to my new essay series, Color and Light. Here, I will finally revive that old college essay and expand my analysis of Sunday in the Park with George. It will be a bit of a hybrid between academic analysis, unabashed hero worship, and pop journalism.
I hope to spread the knowledge of how truly brilliant these works are, not just their value as entertainment. I want to tease apart the fine strands of nuance that reveal a compassionate, expansive understanding of human nature and our place in the world. His legacy deserves all the honor and attention we can give it.
God that's good! :) I look forward to reading more.