Stephen Sondheim died last week, as you probably know.
His death last week affected me in several ways, not the least of which was taking me back to an afternoon in the Spring of 1988 when my friend Billy Crockett and I wandered up to the TKTS booth in Times Square and scored two half-price tickets to Into the Woods. I will confess I knew very little about Sondheim and nothing about that particular show. Billy was the one who suggested it. I can out of the theater changed by that one evening. From there, I began to learn more about Sondheim and his amazing body of work.
What I learned this morning, thanks to this article in the New York Times, was that for all of his composing and lyric writing, he spent a great deal of time encouraging: showing up for other people’s shows, and then writing notes of support afterwards. Laura Collins-Hughes writes,
To a legion of fans Sondheim was and is the be-all and end-all. But his own horizons as a theatergoer were significantly broader than that. In an art form that is so much about being present for the unrepeatable moment, he not only showed up, but he also often did so to experience work that was offbeat and obscure, challenging conventions just as his own work did.
The phrase in the middle of the paragraph is what caught my eye:
In an art form that is so much about being present for the unrepeatable moment . . .
She was talking about theater, but I read her words and thought, “That’s life: being present for the unrepeatable moment,” because we live days filled with them, rolling by one after another. Much like an actor who must inhabit a character to be convincing, we are called to be awake and aware in our existence because so much of it is made up of you-had-to-be-there moments. Even the things we repeat day after day are not the same from one day to the next. Perhaps the biggest difference between a life and a theatrical production is that life offers no chance to rehearse. We can remember, regret, redo, or even repent, but there is no practice life; this is it.
If we are not intentional, all that I just said can lead us to think the point is our performance. We are better at life when we remember that’s not the only point. Back to Sondheim:
It was part of Sondheim’s gift to understand not only the encompassing job description of great artist but also his singular effect on his colleagues—how even a few words of appreciation, or moments of attention, could prove enduring sustenance over the long slog of a career in an often pitiless field.
It was unglamorous work, and Sondheim did it exquisitely.
My father carried a story with him from his days as president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. After one of the conventions, he received a letter from a young pastor who said he had tried to engage Dad after one of the sessions and really needed to talk to him, but just as he got my father’s attention someone Dad knew better came up and my father turned away and never turned back to the man. “I needed your help that day,” the man wrote, “and you turned away because someone you knew better or who mattered more got your attention. I am writing in hopes that my letter will help you do differently next time.”
What the young pastor didn’t know about my father was that they shared an inferiority complex. For all of the things my father did, he never felt worthy. He thought he had to prove himself everyday–mostly to himself. The letter stung him. He didn’t forget. I can’t say he never was distracted by attention again, but the story stayed fresh, and he encouraged a lot of people.
Beyond the importance of backing one another up, as I wrote last night, and being aware of unexpected opportunities to affirm one another, as my father learned, what I see in Sondheim is someone who intentionally inserted himself to put himself in a position to encourage and affirm. He didn’t wait for people to come to him.
One of the people Sondheim touched with his encouragement was Jonathan Larson, the man who created RENT. The new Netflix movie Tic Tic Boom tells the story of Larson finding his way in New York, and Sondheim plays a critical role, simply because he reaches out and offers support.
One of my favorite poems, Zen of Tipping by Jan Beatty comes to mind:
My friend Lou
used to walk up to strangers
and tip them—no, really—
he’d cruise the South Side,
pick out the businessman on his way
to lunch, the slacker hanging
by the Beehive, the young girl
walking her dog, and he’d go up,
pull out a dollar and say,
Here’s a tip for you. I think you’re doing a really good job today. Then Lou would
walk away as the tipee stood
in mystified silence. Sometimes
he would cut it short with,
Keep up the fine work.
People thought Lou was weird,
but he wasn’t. He didn’t have much,
worked as a waiter. I don’t know
why he did it. But I know it wasn’t
about the magnanimous gesture,
an easy way to feel important,
it wasn’t interrupting the impenetrable
edge of the individual—you’d
have to ask Lou—maybe it was
about being awake, hand-to-hand
sweetness, a chain of kindnesses,
or fun—the tenderness
we forget in each other.
Because I love to cook and I’m pretty good at it, people are sometimes afraid to cook for me, as though I will come to the table as a critic rather than a guest. But eating other people’s food is also one of my favorite things. I know what it takes to prepare a meal, I am happy to honor the offering. I also know what it feels like to have people love your food; I am happy to share that feeling as well.
Life may be a team sport, but it is not a competition. No one wins when we get our affirmation at the expense of someone else. Life is hard. May we remember what Sondheim knew well–that a few words of appreciation or moments of attention can be enduring sustenance to those around us.
We will all be remembered more for our affections and affirmations than our accomplishments.