Most every Stephen Sondheim nut has had a kind of near-mystical conversion experience. Mine happened in New York City in a balcony seat at the Booth Theatre in the fall of 1984. The show was Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim’s musical drama about Georges Seurat, the making of his pointillist masterpiece and the emotional price artists pay “to get through to something new.” I tried for years to figure out what conjunction of life and art left me sobbing in my not-so-cheap seat and then drew me back a few weeks later to shed yet another liter of tears.
The virtues of the show were patent. Sunday was brilliantly acted, beautifully lit, powerfully staged. Its songs were rich and sharp and wise, attuned to the heartache and evanescence of life: “Pretty isn’t beautiful, Mother, / Pretty is what changes / What the eye arranges / Is what is beautiful.” And the score! A person would have to be deaf not to be swept up in its harmonies, its soaring arpeggios and dreamy, pulsing undercurrents.
Still, my emotional havoc seemed beyond reason. I suppose I was primed for a catharsis, being stuck in an uninspiring job in Washington, D.C. and, like the modern-day George in Sunday’s second act, casting about for new directions. When George and his mistress, Dot, sang the ravishing duet “Move On,” I could hear the very verses of my own doomed love affair: “I chose, and my world was shaken / So what? / The choice may have been mistaken, / The choosing was not.” The theater let out, and I staggered into a record store searching for the cast album with the fervor that a teenager today might feel pursuing a Britney Spears single.
Years later, I now see that those rapt hours in the balcony marked a kind of awakening, the end of a protracted adolescence and the beginning of adulthood with its cultivated ironies, bittersweet pleasures and continually more complex forms of folly. To encounter Sondheim’s songs of experience for the first time—to discover the nuances of a mind that could rhyme “Schweitzer” with a slurred “lights’re” in the couplet “Who needs Albert Schweitzer / When the lights’re low?”—was to stand as a hayseed on the threshold of urbanity itself. I was mad to immerse myself in the Sondheim canon: mad to move on. I owe part of my decision to leave Washington for the lyric Oz of Manhattan to the romantic impetus of a Sondheim song from Company, “Another Hundred People”:
Another hundred people just got off of the train
And came up through the ground
While another hundred people just got off of the bus
And are looking around
At another hundred people who got off of the plane
And are looking at us
Who got off of the train
And the plane and the bus...