“Every day a little death”: Stephen Sondheim, z”l (1930-2021)

Steven Sondheim Theater, New York (Ajay Suresh Photo/Flickr.com, CCC 2.0 License)
Steven Sondheim Theater, New York (Ajay Suresh Photo/Flickr.com, CCC 2.0 License)

After hosting guests in his home in Connecticut on Thanksgiving, Stephen Sondheim died the next day, Nov. 26, 2021, having experienced 91 birthday candles. His music has a profound impact on my life. It lifts me. It gives me joy. It makes me ponder and wonder. Mentoring until very recently, then dying at home with autumn leaves swirling and falling, is another beautiful illustration of sacred aging, the passion of this website.

In reading all the obituaries and tributes that were posted quickly, those in the religious press are in the Jewish press. The article on an atheist site was quick to point out that Sondheim (z”l), born into a Jewish family, did not have a bar mitzvah and needed Leonard Bernstein (z”l) eventually to teach Sondheim how to pronounce Yom Kippur. It is not that Sondheim needed Bernstein to teach him that. It is that Sondheim needed a mentor and Leonard Bernstein was there for him at the right time and in the right place. We often call those moments of serendipity spiritual moments because G-d was likely the catalyst.

From the Talmud, we learn, “Joshua ben Perahiah used to say: appoint for thyself a teacher, and acquire for thyself a companion and judge all men with the scale weighted in his favor (sefaria.org).” There is a similar saying with Buddhist overtones, of unknown origin per taoistic.com that goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready, the teacher will disappear.” Expounding on the Talmud, Rabbi Wayne Dosick, in his Golden Rules:  The Ten Ethical Values Parents Need To Teach Their Children (1995), explains that parents must teach their children how to swim in order to learn “how long to hold on and when to let go.”

The obituaries for Stephen Sondheim reflect that he had the blessing of two major mentors, both with Jewish roots, who walked the talk and knew how long to hold on and when to let go. The first, eloquently phrased in jta.org, “He found mentorship and a father figure in his teen years in a family friend, Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist of Jewish descent who had heralded an earlier revolution in the American musical, leading its transition in the 1920s from lighthearted reviews to novelistic treatments of major issues.” It was Hammerstein who helped bring Sondheim to the point where he encouraged him to accept the invitation to write the lyrics for “West Side Story” with Leonard Bernstein writing the music and begin that collaboration. From what I have studied, it was Bernstein who knew when to let go and encourage Sondheim to go it alone for both music and lyrics.

However, as Sondheim himself wrote in his lyrics for “Into the Woods” (1986), “No one is alone / Believe me / Truly / You move just a finger / Say the slightest word / Something’s bound to linger / Be heard /.”

As a chaplain, I am blessed to be with people as they face their mortality, in many ways, but always so “no one is alone.” Sondheim may have had one of those moments when he wrote “A Little Night Music.” The breakout song from that show was “Send in the Clowns” because it was able to permeate popular music in a standalone setting. Before Sondheim, many musicals had breakout songs, e.g., “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” and “Climb Every Mountain.”Less well-known from “A Little Night Music” is

Every day a little death
in the parlor, in the bed
In the curtains, in the silver
In the butter in the bread

For me, sharing the top of my Stephen Sondheim-inspired mantras comes from a closing song from his “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984).”The song is “Move On.”An excerpt from its lyrics is:

“…Stop worrying about where you’re going

Move on
If you can know where you’re going
You’ve gone
Just keep moving on
…I want to move on
I want to explore the light
I want to know how to get through
Through to something new
Something of my own
…Just keep moving on
Anything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see…”

In “Look, I Made a Hat,” Sondheim wrote about “Move On,” “The lyric is meant to connect with the earlier [songs] distantly, just the way the young George connects with his roots in the painting … if it works, if “Move On” feels like a satisfying and touching resolution as it does to me, it’s a tribute to my first principle:  Less is more.”

As Stephen Sondheim “moves on,” Zichrono Livracha, May His Memory Be For A Blessing.

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