Farewell, Stephen

Yesterday, Stephen Sondheim died at the age of 91. He was almost certainly the most important musical theatre composer in American history. In fact, I’d argue that he was the central figure in American theatre in the last fifty years.

I’ve talked before about how I grew up loving musical theatre (this piece on romance tropes in musicals is the most popular blog post I’ve ever written), and Sondheim’s lyrics and scores were a massive part of my devotion. In middle school, I went through a period where I listened to the soundtrack for West Side Story every day. My then best friend and I wanted to mount a revival on Broadway: we designed sets for every scene and envisioned a Spanish translation of the lyrics (which of course did happen in 2009). I then went through periods where I obsessively listened to the revival cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the OBC of A Little Night Music, and especially the OBC of Into the Woods.

My tastes changed, of course, and there were Sondheim shows for me as I grew. I never got into Sweeney Todd (it’s a little dark for me) or Sunday in the Park with George (Dot is underwritten). But I came to adore Company and Assassins and more obscure gems.

Sondheim’s ability to quickly sketch a character–lyrically and musically–is just unparalleled. I’m going to drop a list of favorites below, but listen to “Now/Later/Soon“: ten minutes, three characters, three distinction voices and goals/motivations/conflicts. It’s just PERFECT.

The knocks on Sondheim, that there was no feeling in his shows and that his tunes weren’t hummable, strike me as bizarre. He didn’t write rousing chorus numbers a la “June Is Busting Out All Over,” but have you heard “Giants in the Sky,” “Losing My Mind,” or “The Ballad of Booth“? Heck, even “Someone in a Tree“–which is cerebral AF–slaps, as the kids say.

Everyone is publishing their ten favorite Sondheim songs list, and here’s mine. I wouldn’t argue that these are his best, but that they are the ones that have meant the most to me–and if that sounds like an invitation for you to share your favorites, that’s because it is. I offer these in no particular order.

Continue reading “Farewell, Stephen”

In Memoriam, Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney, the poet laureate of Ireland, died on Friday. As I’ve written about here before, Ireland is a very special place to me. For a while, I thought I was going to study Irish literature. That didn’t happen, but I’ve spent a lot of time reading Heaney, and Nuala ni Dhomhnaill, and William Butler Yeats, and Eavan Boland, and Paul Muldoon. I know contemporary Irish literature better than I know contemporary British literature, better perhaps than I know contemporary American literature. I’m an Irish American, and the literary tradition in Ireland moves me and wounds me and puts me back together again.

I can’t teach poetry without speaking about Heaney, without using examples from his beautiful oeuvre, without hearing his voice in my head.

I wouldn’t call romance a major theme in Heaney’s writing, but he did write several poems about his wife that I find deeply moving: “Night Drive” (“Your ordinariness was renewed there” makes me shiver) and “Honeymoon Flight” (which isn’t available online, but which ends, “Travellers at this point only can trust”).

When I write this week, I’ll be thinking of his words from, “The Flight Path”: “If I do write something, / Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.”

Chuid eile i síocháin, Seamus.