“In our perfect park
Made of flecks of light
People strolling through the trees
Of a small suburban park
On an island in the river
On an ordinary Sunday
. . . Sunday
. . . Sunday!”
“Sunday” from “Sunday in the Park with George”
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
There was nothing mournful about the Sunday in the Square happening after Stephen Sondheim left us, not in the dark, but in the light of sharing his brilliance with fellow mortals in a way that uplifts us as a species worth saving. It’s the pursuit of happiness that counts. But it’s not guaranteed. It’s right there in the Constitution, written by a man, we’ll call him T.J., as gifted as any in American history and more flawed than most.
But some people, especially fellow Americans, seem to regard the Constitution as a document of leftist conspirators intent on sucking the Founding Fathers bloodline out of our national identity. It’s only the Second Amendment that they defend with every fiber of their citizenship.
I’ve been deeply depressed in the last five years or so about such things as the Constitution, democracy and the right to live one’s own life without being heckled or worse by those who think they have not only the right but the duty to stick their nose into your private business.
But at high noon Sunday in Times Square, such thoughts drowned in tears of gratitude for having lived in the time of Sondheim, experiencing first-hand the grace of his gifts. Watching the outpouring of emotion while hearing voices soar in choral unison streamed into our Easton home, my wife and I wept together. Many of the hundreds of actors, musicians, stage crew and fans gathered in Duffy Square, filling the TKTS grandstand and the street below, left that temporarily hallowed ground within the hour to show up for Sunday matinees at nearby Broadway theaters, including the Bernard Jacobs. That’s where the latest revival of Sondheim’s “Company” officially opens Dec. 9 with, for the first time, a woman playing unwed Bobby, now Bobbie.
This was hardly the first time that a musical lifted me out of despair. I recall the dark Friday of Dec. 14, 2012 when, in no mood for holiday cheer, I drove to a Long Island theater to review a performance of “White Christmas.” Twenty kindergartners and first-graders along with six adults had been killed in a gun-frenzy rampage by a suicidal 20-year-old. But as I couldn’t help but notice twin little girls seated in front of me, accompanied by grandparents, each delighting in the music and stagecraft arrayed before them, I pushed my gloom aside and shared my appreciation in a glowing review that night. Nearly a decade later, a hate-spewing troll spread the detestable lie that parents of those slain babies staged the massacre in order to confiscate guns from law-abiding citizens. But even his cause, protecting the Second Amendment, is a lie. He did it to reap more profit for InfoWars, a web purveyor of hateful untruths and truly “fake news.”
Aside from his many musicals reflecting on the complications of love in real life, from “Company” and “A Little Night Music” to “Into the Woods” and “Passion,” Sondheim also tapped into the darkest side of human nature. Cannibalism, you would think, qualifies as a theme you can’t make light of. But “A Little Priest” is one of the cleverest, laugh-out-loud songs in all of musical theater, recommending clergy as a meat-pie staple of the highest calling in “Sweeney Todd,” the demon barber whose co-conspirator is also his lover/chef who finds that plump men, too closely shaven, make far meatier pies than pussy cats.
One of Sondheim’s few political theater pieces delves into assassination from the point of view of the assassin. He even found humor in their deadly plots, though most of the jokes are on those who failed: two women who took poor aim at President Ford and the flaming anti-Nixon liberal who hijacked a plane to dive bomb the White House. And then there was Giuseppe Zangara who after ranting about the failed cures for his ailing stomach, heard a fellow assassin ask, “Have you considered shooting Franklin Roosevelt?” (Zangara took a shot at FDR but mortally wounded the mayor of Chicago instead.)
The opening theme of “Assassins,” reprised when JFK is murdered, applies to all such losers, including actor John Wilkes Booth, who, it is suggested in jest through Sondheim’s “Ballad of Booth,” shot Lincoln in a theater because of “bad reviews.”
Everybody’s got the right to be happy
Don’t be mad, life not as bad as it seems
If you keep your goal in sight
You can climb any height
Everybody’s got the right to their dreams . . .
Even though at times they go to extremes
Go to extremes
Everybody’s free to fail
No one can be put in jail for their dreams
“Everybody’s Got the Right” from “Assassins”
Music and lyrics by Sondheim
Happily, nothing from “Assassins” fit the occasion of celebrating the life and career of Stephen Sondheim. And I felt a weight lifted from my brooding over what has become of our country, of our countrymen, women and, yes, others. My rightfully obsessive concern about the essence of America under literal attack by fellow citizens evaporated before my tears could dry. There was nothing but love in the air that I experienced only virtually. Yet it was real.
Just in the lifetime of this good and great man it is undeniable that the arc of justice has bent, however interminably, in the direction of what is right. It was not possible to imagine in 1930 that baby boy Stevie would leave behind at his death 91 years later a husband. The “assassins” of today, will try to take that away along with the right to choose and to be whomever you are destined to be. It likely won’t happen in my lifetime, but in the end, no one will be left to follow men who are not welcome at funerals because they speak ill of the dead, even calling some who oppose them “losers” for having lost their lives defending their country. Collectively, we will grow weary of such soulless men and reject their kind. They may steal the next election or two as they have falsely accused the current and legitimate occupant of the White House of doing, while they keep on killing us by comparing Dr. Fauci to Hitler’s Dr. Mengele.
The only question is will the arc of justice bend soon and far enough to save America from itself? I’m sure Stephen Sondheim would have had an inspiring lyric or two. But we’re on our own now.
Steve Parks is a retired theater critic now living in Easton.