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Remembering Sondheim

“There’s a giant in the sky….”

That is a Sondheim lyric I have heard many times over the last few days. A most appropriate sentiment. If you are like me, you are joining thousands, perhaps millions of Broadway fans across the globe in mourning the passing of Stephen Sondheim. My first introduction into his work was as the lyricist for Bernstein’s music in West Side Story. Later in my career as I started music directing and writing for theatre, I became obsessively part of that great Sondheim fan club.

Over the past 20 years I’ve had the privilege to vocal coach, music direct, and conduct his musicals and concert selections from Gypsy, A Funning Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Assassins, Company, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and A Little Night Music. While the music and stories were always entertaining, catchy, and artistic, what struck me most about Sondheim was his miraculous ability to reach deep into our hearts and minds with powerful lessons in his lyrics and music. Insightful life lessons that everyone needs to learn and be reminded of as members of this great human society we all belong to.

Though I am not a lyricist, I do reflect heavily on the text before writing the music. Sondheim’s repertoire is an incredible study for any songwriter or composer out there that works in creating storylines and developing melodies/harmonies to enrich the lyric. Studying his scores are some of the greatest self-assignments I have ever explored and motivation for my writing in not just musical theatre, but all genres.

I have always tried to assist actors and performers in going beyond the music to find those inspiring lessons to share with audiences. As a performer, three Sondheim selections I often include in my shows are “Children Will Listen,” “Not While I’m Around,” and “Being Alive.” Each time I sing these songs I feel I am always singing them for the first time and remind myself of their message as though I am learning their story with the ears of a child myself.

Just some of my favorite quotes of Sondheim lyrics….

“Careful the things you say, children will listen Careful the things you do, children will see and learn Guide them along the way, children will glisten Children will look to you, for which way to turn, Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell, children will listen”

“Still, you're not alone No one is alone, truly No one is alone”

“Somebody crowd me with love Somebody force me to care Somebody let come through I'll always be there As frightened as you To help us survive Being alive.”

"Most friends fade, of they don't make the grade

New ones are quickly make and in a pinch, sure, they'll do

But us, old friend, what's to discuss, old friend?

Here's to us! Who's like us? Damn few!

The lessons in those texts….such genius, so profound. While I admire so many creators of musical theatre, there is just something about Sondheim’s ability to create the perfect marriage between words and music that is magical, inspiring, and thought provoking for EVERYONE. Perhaps right now we need to sing and study those lessons in Sondheim’s work a little more closely these days and apply them in making a better community together.

As you plan out your Holiday playlists or think about what musical movies to watch with others, be sure to add a little Sondheim to your gatherings.

“There are giants in the sky…there are great big wonderful giants in the sky!”

Thank you, Mr. Sondheim!

Michael Shirtz

(Michael & Pamela reviewing Michael's newly written musical score for "Headliner" during NYC workshop rehearsal, June 2019. Sondheim's introduction of characters at the beginning of "Into the Woods" served as one of the inspirations behind Michael's treatment of the opening musical scene for "Headliner.")


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