I was in high school when I first heard the lyrics.
“We are the movers and we are the designers / We are the names in tomorrow’s newspapers / It is up to us now to show them.”
In context, the line – and the song “Our Time” from “Merrily We Roll Along” – is a moment of optimism marked by sadness, a moment that comes at the end of a show that begins with a bitter, broken ending and ends in a glorious beginning, full of a hope we already knew would not hold.
But for me, that ending to “Merrily” – where three friends on a roof imagine their future – was my beginning. I even taped that text to the wall of my dorm room.
This week, it’s Stephen Sondheim’s name that appears in all newspapers – as tribute after tribute poured in after the ingenious lyricist and master composer died last week at the age of 91.
I’ve always seen Sondheim’s ability to gather such seemingly simple moments and weave them into something more complex as one of his greatest gifts. They did not have to be mentally retarded or cardiac arrest to be full of meaning. After all, most of us do not have falling chandeliers, spinning helicopters, or temporary barricades in our daily lives.
Instead, Sondheim reminded us that the smaller snapshots of time are also worthy of history, song, or show and should be ingrained in our memories, even though they are often filled with complications or ugly undertones. A birthday party. A walk in the forest. A day in the park. A touch of history we can not forget. The creation of a single painting. A reunion. And yes, a get-together with friends on a city day.
In “Into the Woods,” where the events of Act 1 seem to go as one might expect from a Grimm adventure, only to go very wrong in Act 2, Sondheim wrote one of my favorite verses: “Oh, if life was made of Moments / Even now and then a bad / But if life were only moments / Then you would never know you had one. “
In a whole life of storytelling, Sondheim captured a whole life of moments, but also recognized that there was so much more. I often thought of him as the music theater’s journalist, a chronicler of events, a writer who could connect characters who apparently could not be connected, a historian and a narrator of truths – only he was a far better wordsmith.
Sondheim’s work went to the darkest places – a giant who kills almost an entire cast of characters, a barber who cuts the throat of customers who were then turned into meat pies, a carnival of assassins who all proclaimed “the right to be happy. ” Each of them reflects timeless themes that resonate today, especially now that we are struggling with the demons of a pandemic, a divided society, a country that is still “going a little wrong.”
But somehow he still left us with a bit of light – the notion that the same person who could “hurt you too deeply” could also “force you to worry,” that an artist could make a hat, where there was never one that “our dream” could still come true.
Or, as taken from an excerpt from “Sunday in the Park with George” that we could find “harmony” in a group of people “strolling through the trees / in a small suburban park / On an island in the river / On an ordinary Sunday.”
Here is the extraordinary Sondheim. And for every ordinary Sunday.
Columnist Randi F. Marshall’s opinions are her own.