Celebrity deaths I have noted: Leonard Nemoy, Carrie Fisher, Chuck Yeager, Sean Connery, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The list goes on. I haven’t personally known any of these people, but each has contributed in some way to something I love. I was sad to hear of their passing. Then Stephen Sondheim passed away and I found myself, for the first time, crying over the death of someone I didn’t know. What was going on?
I’m not really a Stephen Sondheim fan. I don’t dislike his work; I don’t know most of it. I saw the 1961 movie adaptation of “West Side Story” once and have heard the music as often as any American. I know a little about “Sweeney Todd.” But then there is “Into the Woods.”
I first heard “Into the Woods” around 20 years ago. My sister was working on a project for one of her classes; it was a paper or report on “Into the Woods.” She had the CD and as she listened to it, I picked up the booklet inside the CD cover and started reading. I found a little masterclass on storytelling inside. I learned about the power of symbols (such as the woods). I learned how protagonists stand in the audience’s place. I learned that many of the most interesting stories explore beyond “happy ever after.”
I returned to the music and listened as the characters traveled into the woods and accomplished their goals. The music was fun. It was nice to see how the characters met their challenges. It was satisfying to see them reach their happy ever after. But that was only the first act.
The challenges of life didn’t stop. New ones, heart-breaking ones, arose. The play ends on a more ambiguous, but far more powerful note. Characters have been betrayed. Some have died. It’s a lonelier and sadder ending, but those who are there at the end keep going. They help each other. They’ve found each other in the woods.
I didn’t get it all back then. But I loved it. I listened to that CD many, many times. When a local theater put on a production and one of the actresses (who went to church with my family) invited us, I happily went. Seeing the play in person was even better. Not only did I hear all the dialogue that wasn’t on the CD, but I was also introduced to a trope I love – the narrator interacting with the characters and the audience.
Over the years I’ve continued to listen to “Into the Woods,” but I’ve never explored any other Stephen Sondheim work. Up until last week, I would have just said “Into the Woods” was a musical I really enjoyed.
Then I heard the news of his passing. “How sad,” I thought. As I read the tributes online, people quoting his most powerful lines, sharing how he touched their lives, my eyes kept filling with tears. Why? I didn’t understand why.
“The Daily” podcast episode from December 3, which may have brought the most tears, helped me answer that question. In it the theater critic, Jesse Green, spent a few moments towards the end explaining “Finishing the Hat.” They play a part of the song (which I hadn’t heard before) and then explain how it explores an artist’s dedication to art, despite the cost. It capped a discussion of how Stephen Sondheim loved the art he was creating and valued it and encouraged others to produce art. His message? It’s worth it.
Which brings me back to the question: why did Stephen Sondheim’s death cause a casual fan grief? The best I can explain it, “Into the Woods” has given shape to my desire to be a storyteller. Reading that CD cover 20 years ago started a journey that I’ve only recently accepted as mine. Stephen Sondheim’s efforts to reimagine old stories, his ability to explore the complexities of life with nuance, his effort to elevate his artform have all stuck with me.
As I listened to the Daily’s exploration of Sondheim’s work, I thought about my own doubts. I have a law degree. I have kids to take care of. I never even actually wrote a draft of a book until a couple of years ago. Does the world need another writer? Does this really make sense?
Stephen Sondheim was telling me, yes. I spent 7 years studying economics, philosophy, and law. That was valuable time I spent trying to find meaning in the world around me, figuring out why it is shaped the way it is. And now it’s time for me to share that journey with others, to help them find meaning.
Maybe you’re rolling your eyes. Books are just entertainment, right?
Or maybe not. Is that just my inner critic?
Stories are all we have to make sense of the world. So, I’m doing it. I’m making a hat. Because I know things now I hadn’t known before. I know that Stephen Sondheim, without ever knowing I existed, helped nurture a love of stories in my heart. He showed me that stories can shape lives. I hope to someday produce something that can shape another’s life.