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Opinion | Stephen Sondheim Wrote My Life’s Soundtrack

But always, and forever, Sondheim has been my favorite. His work centers the genre for me — everything is either before or after him — and is one of my favorite things on Earth. His passing last week threw me quite a bit: He had been talking about a new work coming, and there was a possibility that I would have the opportunity to interview him myself for an audiobook series.

Alas, that won’t be in the cards. But Sondheim’s work has threaded throughout my life since that night in 1984: The second musical my older daughter saw was a production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” She and my younger daughter argue in the car over whether we’re going to listen to “Follies” or “Company.” Way back, I (rather miscast) played the lead in a small production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” and I have played piano for productions of “Funny Thing” and “Into the Woods.” Somehow, Sondheim has never gone away for me.

Part of the reason is that Sondheim’s characters are often saturnine types like me. In “Sunday in the Park With George,” the painter George Seurat sings of the difficulty in deriving ultimate pleasure from creation, as his lover seeks his company. Any writer can relate: “Look, I made a hat,” he quietly declares, as if to say, “Here’s why I couldn’t be with you — isn’t it worth it?” To me that might as well be, “Look, I wrote an essay.”

In “Follies,” Ben in middle age rues the things in life he didn’t get to, and now knows he never will in “The Road You Didn’t Take.” When I heard that song in my 20s, I just knew I was going to feel that way when I was Ben’s age and dreaded it. Now, here I am, musing on exactly that sort of thing as I consider that in four years, I’ll be 60. Then there’s the architect Addison Mizner (yes, Sondheim wrote a musical about him and his brother) coming to realize, as he gathers a mess of objets from parts hither and yon, that he has found his métier at last. Only Sondheim, in “Addison’s Trip,” would write a song about a man finding what Aristotle called virtue.

When I became a musicals addict in the ’80s, I noticed that there was a type of 50-something fan who had never taken to Sondheim’s music; they stopped roughly at “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Mame” and “Pippin.” I always vowed I would not become like them and would always be as open to the new stuff as to the old. But in truth, while they couldn’t get to Sondheim, I’m not sure I have ever really gotten past him.

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