How Stephen Sondheim saved my life

Stephen Sondheim.Fred Prouser / Reuters

I heard the news that Stephen Sondheim, one of my greatest teachers and the man who showed me what could be possible in life, had died by noon on Friday.

It was a balm to have the news delivered by an old friend who knew the man’s importance in my life. I looked out the basement window of my Windsor Park residence in Winnipeg after one of my pilgrimages to the Centennial Library to get an armful of LPs; among them were A little night of music. I put it on hi-fi and I was amazed by the melodies, the sophistications, the double talents, the pun.

Listening to Sondheim’s Now / Later / Soon, I was transported to be 11 years old. As the beautiful counterplay swelled, I understood what each of these people wanted. And what we all want. As a gay boy putting a brave face on living in a cozy suburb of Winnipeg, I knew I would never hear that I had a secret that set me apart from the others. I wanted so much more from the world – oh how I wanted it.

The “I want” song in a musical is most often my favorite, although today they are the ones that quietly make me sob in my tie, while I desperately want Cinderella to get her prince, Sweeney Todd to take revenge, Sally for getting her moment in the spotlight, Bobby for getting whatever it is that straight men want, Maria for getting her Tony, like Juliet wanted her Romeo, and so on. I’ve found that we all want something – but it turns out that there are others who do not want us to get what we want.

These are the people you meet in the middle of musicals: the witch, the greedy businessman, the domineering mother. Oh, the intrigue, the complications. All the time I’m there in the front row or at my hi-fi wanting to scream warnings that might just avoid all the pain and confusion. But I also love those songs: Sondheims On the stairs to the palace from Into the forest probably most of all. Because in the pain and confusion comes the realization of what might just be possible – how it might just be possible to get what you want. To quote the baker in the musical who has had enough of it, we can only take so much before our spirit sinks: “All the witches, all the curses, all the wolves, all the lies, all the false hopes, the farces, the reverse. .. all those wondering what’s still worse waiting. Please, no more. “

Finally, there is a type of song that always makes me glow and makes it hard to stay in my place. It’s the song I long for, albeit conflicting, because I know that as soon as it comes, I’ll be out in the real world again. It’s 11 o’clock that finally gives our hero the opportunity to let go, to really count on what she’s learned in the fight – the last chance, so to speak, to get what she wants – or to understand, what trying to get what she might cost. To Rose in Gypsy, it’s her turn on stage. To Dot in Sunday in the park with George, allowing George to move on. To Desiree in A little night of music, finally getting her clowns – but too late for the man she loves.

My heart always stops beating for a moment while I hold my breath and wait to understand what to learn. As the best teacher I’ve ever had, Kay Unruh Des Roches, taught me at the University of Winnipeg: The world is falling apart daily – but just as much, it might just come together again. And I live in the “maybe”. It’s the gift I’ve been given by teachers like Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin, Adam Guettel, Liza Minnelli, Betty Buckley, Audra McDonald, the wonderful Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, and so many others. They have been brave enough to engage in our world, to put themselves in the firing line for the doubters, the cynics and the overly cool-to-school types.

But my first teacher in this was Stephen Sondheim. Cats was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway. Imagine my parents made me wait for the return queue alone at age 14 while they took my brother along to watch the Yankees. Mr. Sondheim taught me how to survive every moment in the forest. In particular, two of his songs have helped me through all that I have struggled through. From Children will listen: “Sometimes people leave you halfway through the woods, do not let it worry you, no one goes forever. You are not alone. No one is alone.” And from Move on, the song that I sing inside my head every day of my life: “I chose, and my world was shaken, so what. The choice may have been wrong, but the choice was not … something you let it come from you, then it will be new. Give us more to see. ” I learned from Sunday in the park with George that, yes, “art is not easy”, but it only means something to the world, if it is original, if I allow my muse to mention the spirit of the times, to tackle the painful and confusing and make it a way forward.

Stephen Sondheim, you gave me the belief that art could save us because your musicals saved me. They showed me the way. I’m really blessed and grateful to have you as a guide – to see what can happen if you fully try to get involved and how you deal with those out there who are waiting to knock you down. I learned from you what I thought I wanted and just as much what I really wanted. And it’s for people to get what they want. What I needed most from you – which I need from all the artists – was that you stay true to your vision, that you kept doing the heavy lifting and kept showing me what it was. next. I may not have always understood where you were going, but I learned to trust that you would take me to a place where I could just be better off because I had gone. Speaking of somewhere, thank you for writing the best articulation of faith in the American tradition: “There is a place for us, somewhere.” For me, it’s in a theater to see a Sondheim show. Thank you, sir, for giving me what I want.

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