A world without Sondheim

A world without Sondheim

It’s not that I ever met Steven Sondheim, but he was one of the presences that always assured me that the world still could hold genius, and that meant that the world still would be okay.

How did he do it? How could one person write the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy”? “West Side Story” is about to be revived, for the zillionth time, and it’s still not only brilliant but also relevant, and “Gypsy,” well, those kinds of toxic relationships rarely appeared in musicals before but happen in real life. (And “if you wanna bump it bump it with a trumpet!”)

And then there were the others, the ones he did by himself, starting with “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which is dated in parts but hilariously funny, because, after all, Comedy Tonight! And then the breathtaking grown-up elegiac beauty of “A Little Night Music,” the blackness of “Sweeney Todd,” the sharp jagged wit and insight of “Into the Woods,” the sad wisdom of “Sunday in the Park with George,” and right now, at least for me, the terrifyingly on point “Assassins.” (“I am going to the Lordy” indeed.)

A few summers ago, we were at Tanglewood. (That isn’t surprising; about a quarter of Jewish New York and environs is there at any one time.) We saw “Sondheim by Sondheim.” It was glorious. And then, at the end, the conductor announced that Steven Sondheim was in the audience, and induced him to stand, although Mr. Sondheim adamantly refused to go onstage.

That’s a little thing, right. It’s not as if I ever met him. It’s not even as if he even spoke. He didn’t. Just stood and as I remember raised his arm to acknowledge the wild whoops and cheers, even from a crowd as genteel as that one. It was a gorgeous late-summer night; we were under the tent, protected but still in the open air. And then there was this man who embodied brilliance, who could make words and music dance separately and then together, for our edification and our delight.

And then he sat down, but the electricity remained.

Thank you, Mr. Sondheim.