An ode to Stephen Sondheim’s unexpected magic

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On Nov. 26, 2021, legendary composer Stephen Sondheim died at the age of 91. If you’ve seen the recent film “Tick, Tick… Boom,” written by Jonathan Larsen of “Rent” and directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton,” you know just how influential he was (and continues to be) in the world of theater. But every great actor, director and writer was once a weird little kid obsessed with niche musicals, and thus my connection to Sondheim began as so many others did: on the stage of a high school auditorium. 

When I was 16 and 17, I played Adolfo Pirelli in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and the Mysterious Man in “Into the Woods.” I could go into great detail about why I was most often cast as the male comedic relief, but that’s probably something to discuss with my therapist. I could tell myself that my high school drama club was simply lacking in suitable men for the roles, but that would be a lie. Anyway, as a lover of musical theater who could barely hit an E5 and had no idea how to sing vibrato, it’s a miracle I was cast at all. But no matter the jealousy I felt for the leading ladies, I loved every second of it. After all, Sondheim himself has encouraged gender-bent productions of his musicals, such as the current Broadway revival of “Company.”

But Pirelli, the flamboyant faux-Italian barber who sells a miracle hair tonic made of piss, was no easy role. The first time I heard his song “The Contest,” I panicked. The breath control required to keep up with the fast tempo, the precise sense of rhythm required to count every eighth note rest — and on top of everything, a ridiculously exaggerated accent — seemed impossible. As I rehearsed, I never knew whether or not the next note out of my mouth would be the right one. 

Sondheim’s melodies never follow the path our ears are trained to expect, with dissonant chords, anticlimactic buildups and slight variations on the same musical phrase in one song. I remember the director yelling at us until we could get the final line of the show right, with the same jarring note repeated twice, separated by two measures of rests: “Not Sweeney, not Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet — ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, EIGHT — Street!” 

But in the end, we put on an amazing performance. Well, as amazing a performance as two dozen disorganized high schoolers can manage. If I hadn’t acted in a Sondheim production, I never would have truly grasped the brilliance of his work. If you listen closely, you’ll hear recurring lyrical motifs and repeated fragments of songs interwoven and inverted throughout the show, foreshadowing multiple deaths and one of the biggest plot twists in “Sweeney Todd.” I was utterly obsessed with it. 

It’s a show about cannibalism and murder, yes, but it’s also about a man driven to Macbeth levels of madness by the desire to take revenge on the world for separating him from his beloved wife and daughter. “And though I’ll think of you I guess until the day I die, I think I miss you less and less as everyday goes by, Johanna,” always sticks with me, as he slowly loses sight of the reason why he began killing in the first place.

In “Into the Woods,” meanwhile, every character is born from fairytale archetypes, but each of them undergo a total transformation of identity as they travel through the dark, deep woods. As the Mysterious Man, I guided them on their respective journeys, offering cryptic bits of wisdom before retreating back into the forest. For me, the most poignant theme was the subjectivity of goodness, which isn’t always pretty, and also that of evil, which can hide behind a mask of charm. “And though scary is exciting, nice is different than good,” says Little Red Riding Hood about the Wolf. “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right,” says the Witch. 

Sondheim’s work was never grandiose or melodramatic like “The Phantom of the Opera” or “Les Miserables,” nor was it gleefully feel-good like the many musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was emotional, complex, and most of all, unexpected. His plots were never linear, his resolutions were never neat and tidy and his characters’ emotions were never binary. Though Sondheim is famous for his witty lyricisms and creative rhymes, above everything, his songs are always character driven. And that’s what makes it so unforgettable, even for a wide-eyed sophomore who could barely hit the right notes. 

Contact Asha Pruitt at [email protected].