Stephen Sondheim: Writing the notes of his times

WASHINGTON — It was a very good death, the day after Thanksgiving dinner with friends. The musical composer and lyricist was 91, born in 1930. Ironically, Stephen Sondheim belongs to America’s unsung generation.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, author of “Hamilton,” joined the outdoor throng of Broadway singer-mourners. It was an only-in-New York moment, a shining shared grief. Singing and weeping to warm the November cold, to make a beloved man’s lifework heard.

Who doesn’t know a Sondheim song by heart, even if you don’t know it’s his? “Send in the Clowns” is a bittersweet ballad. “Sunday in the Park with George” is an inventive play about artist George Seurat. “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum” is staged on college campuses all over.

“West Side Story” was a daring match of Sondheim’s lyrics and Leonard Bernstein’s music. They worked together when Sondheim was 25.

Sondheim’s songs are engraved on our octaves of emotions. His sensibility was that of an urbane New Yorker, mentored by masters Bernstein and Oscar Hammerstein. He surpassed them all in the American musical pantheon.

A complex grasp of character was Sondheim’s greatest gift. It wasn’t always the sound of music. His tunes played the dark notes along with the merry, witty, wry and maybe most of all, dreaming.

Now let me sing the praises of the “silent” generation, born during the Depression and World War II. Named by William Strauss and Neil Howe, the authors argue each generation is unique, shaped by turning points.

Yet the pair shortchanged that generation, forgotten because they were few — hard times hurt the birthrate — stuck between the so-called greatest and the “baby boomers.”

What cultural cliches these generations are now. The boomers gave us (two) too many presidents. They cling to their outsize power and influence, The Boston Globe reports. And the “greatest” jig is up, Tom Brokaw. Let others judge. Yet its white men were given the greatest opportunity of all time.

The “underrated” silents are the brightest on record.

Rich in poor immigrant children from the Old World, that was the era of excellent public schools. Social and mobility mixers. The segregated schools in Baltimore and Washington were also excellent. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., descended from runaway slaves, graduated from one.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929. So was Jacqueline Bouvier, future first lady. Two brilliant friends in academia and journalism were born in 1930. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in 1933, lucky to belong to the first generation of women with even a chance of professional success.

Does the name Anthony Fauci ring a bell? Yes, the Brooklyn delivery boy for his father’s pharmacy. Vintage ’30s, novelists Philip Roth and John Updike captured their WASP and Jewish worlds. Singers Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins are counted in the “silent” category. Strange as it seems.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., were born in 1940. Pelosi, born to the mayor of Baltimore, is the greatest speaker ever, with finesse that amazes me. Just watch her pass President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bills when jaded pundits said it couldn’t be done.

Here’s the urbane jest. Biden is in the “silent” generation, so named partly because they did not have a president. Then he was elected president in late life.

Hearing of the 1930s from my parents — a professor and doctor — I know another reason to cherish its children. They grew up with President Franklin Roosevelt.

From his jaunty voice, they absorbed American fairness, decency and optimism, reassuring in the worst of times. My father, son of a widowed nurse, recalls weeping women along his paper route the day the beloved leader died.

Sondheim’s early duet from “West Side Story”“One Hand, One Heart” — is a dream of a wedding that can never be, for Maria and Tony. As the lovers act out vows in a modest bridal shop, holding hands alone, it becomes real, if only for that moment.

“Tonight” shimmers with promise. I sang it the day my new love Michael Lewis was on a plane bound to see me in California.

Sondheim made a day like that into dreams that last forever.

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Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. To read her weekly column and find out more about Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit creators.com.


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