Why We Can’t Let Stephen Sondheim Go

It was on a late summer’s night in 2022, about eight months after his death, that I confirmed that Stephen Sondheim had turned into a holy ghost.

The setting was the St. James Theater on Broadway, where I had wearily gone to yet another revival of “Into the Woods.” I had seen the show many times before but was told I had to experience the pop star Sara Bareilles’s breakout take on the role of the Baker’s Wife — and though Ms. Bareilles was indeed very good, it wasn’t her performance that was that night’s great revelation. What truly stirred and shook me was how the audience, including me, was responding to the show. In some unexpected way, we had been transformed into trembling pilgrims gathered at a sacred meeting spot — sighing, gasping, sobbing.

As the show respun the Grimm Brothers’ bedtime stories of wishes granted and lives transformed, people seemed to be registering the songs’ familiar lyrics as if they were newly writ gospel, heaven-sent to counsel and console. Often the words felt especially pertinent to a world emerging from the isolation of a long pandemic: “And you’re back again, only different than before,” or the repeated, “No one is alone.” Or, to quote a passage that showed up frequently on social media in the days after Mr. Sondheim died two years ago, on Nov. 26, 2021: “Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Do not let it grieve you. No one leaves for good.”

Stephen Sondheim would seem not to have left us at all. There have been four recent revivals of his musicals on Broadway: a gender-reversed version of “Company,” his 1970 breakthrough about marriage Manhattan-style; the latest “Into the Woods”; and two other current hits, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “Merrily We Roll Along.” There’s also a new Sondheim musical Off Broadway: “Here We Are,” a contemporary riff on two Luis Buñuel films on which the composer had been working with the playwright David Ives.

Then there are the books — the new biographies and deconstructions and collected interviews. He permeates our cultural oxygen like a latter-day Shakespeare. As with Shakespeare, his words are often applied in ways that their creator most likely never intended. To borrow from W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”: “The words of a dead man/Are modified in the guts of the living.”

Mr. Sondheim, who specialized in portraits of yearning outsiders, would probably regard his canonization on Broadway with the deeply mixed feelings in which he specialized. (Surely, he would have cocked an eyebrow at his apotheosis as the warm and comforting spirit guide that seemed to materialize at that recent performance of “Into the Woods.”) While he seemed to reinvent himself with each new show, his works have always centered on a sense of human isolation, and those who perceived the composer in his early years as too clever by half failed to notice the attendant pain that underlay so much of what he wrote.

It is the empathic awareness of that pain, I think, that has kept us hooked on his work — not any omniscient wisdom but his ability to summon so clearly our confused, contradictory humanity. Ravishing individual songs may reassure us that no one is alone but, in the five decades since “Company” made his reputation, Mr. Sondheim had been creating group portraits of a crowded world where loneliness was an existential fact. When he writes, “No one is alone,” it hurts so much precisely because we sense that it is ultimately a falsehood.

It should be noted that, when he was alive, Mr. Sondheim was aware of and amused by rampant tendencies to deify him. Consider this sardonic ditty from a show called “Sondheim on Sondheim,” a 2010 Broadway revue commemorating his 80th birthday. He wrote the song in response to a 1994 headline in New York magazine that asked, “Is Stephen Sondheim God?” His musical answer: “You have to have something to believe in. Something to appropriate, emulate, overrate. Might as well be Stephen, or to use his nickname: God!”

That the works of this god have continued to be fruitful and multiply (barely a week goes by when I don’t receive notice of a new Sondheim revival or revue) partly stems from our deep reluctance to ever let him go. There’s a half-voiced fear among musical acolytes, understandable in a time in which theater itself is newly under siege, that on some level Stephen Sondheim represents the end of the line for a once-flourishing art form.

Contemporary composers like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel, Michael R. Jackson and Jeanine Tesori have all been producing work of high caliber and originality. Yet none, with the qualified exception of Mr. Miranda, seem likely to engender the kind of enduring, passionate cult that Mr. Sondheim has inspired. Nor is it easy to imagine any of them ascending to the unapproachable dominance of their profession that was Mr. Sondheim’s for roughly half a century. His combination of sense (such ingenious rhymes, such intricate melodies) and sensibility (the aching ambivalence that always throbs beneath) remains ineluctably singular.

Of the three Sondheim shows playing in New York right now, only “Merrily We Roll Along,” as directed by Maria Friedman, fully plumbs those emotional depths, with their swirls of darkness and light. The recent “Sweeney Todd” was fun to look at and wonderful to listen to but it never grabbed me viscerally. “Here We Are” — on which Mr. Sondheim was still working just before he died — unsettled me but perhaps not in the ways it was meant to. Fittingly, this posthumous show was the last of the three productions that I attended.

A loose adaptation of the Buñuel films “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “The Exterminating Angel,” the musical follows a group of narcissistic, superrich Manhattanites in their futile search for nothing more nor less than a proper meal. As a work of satire, with its arch dropping of fashionable names and pursuits, it sometimes felt like a thinned-out throwback to “Company,” and the songs emerged in spasmodic spurts of music, which to me suggested death throes.

Then, near the top of the second act, a bishop (played by David Hyde Pierce) sits down at a piano to play. No sound emerges.

The music, it would appear, has ceased to be.

The audience, appropriately dressed in discreetly bourgeois style, seemed to enjoy the antic cleverness of the show but its eulogistic quality left me chilled and sad. If Mr. Sondheim were indeed God, then the evidence of this show — appropriate to a Buñuel adaptation — was that God had died before our eyes.

Afterward, though, I felt newly grateful for the saturation of all things Sondheim this season. After all, it offers vast and diverse evidence that his music hasn’t died. His songs will never stop being revisited and revived for as long as people remain confused and isolated and hopeful against the odds, in divided times, for some kind of human connection.

That’s what being alive (to use another Sondheim lyric) means. That’s why his music keeps being reborn, again and again, all over this lonely city — sometimes in ways that might have surprised, and pleased, even him.

Ben Brantley is the former chief theater critic for The Times.

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