The death last week of Stephen Sondheim undoubtedly jarred loose the memories of devotees of musical theater, reminding us of so many times that he and his work intersected with our lives.
For me, it started with the movie version of Gypsy, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Watching Natalie Wood strut around the stage to that insistent stripper drum beat was mesmerizing. I was a child the first time I saw it, and there was another viewing a few years later in the home of a high school friend’s gay uncle. He offered me a cocktail, and I asked for a vodka stinger. So I had probably seen someone perform “The Ladies Who Lunch” by then.
There was my first trip north of the Mason-Dixon line, with classmates from college, to New York. We saw Pacific Overtures at the Winter Garden, and I think this was when I really began to understand who Sondheim was.
Then there was the Elizabeth Taylor screen version of A Little Night Music which, for all its shortcomings, showed me that a Sondheim song can’t be fully understood unless it is in the context for which it was written. I had long loved Judy Collins’ version of “Send in the Clowns” before realizing that an inexpert, even awkward, rendering of the song by Miss Taylor as Desiree would give the Sondheim song more meaning and nuance than a crystal clear performance ever could.
Over the years, there would more trips to New York and without ever thinking “Let’s go see the Sondheim show,” that’s exactly what we did. New productions, like Passion and Into the Woods, and revivals of Gypsy and Follies would find their way to my Broadway dance card.
I immediately fell in love with “I’m Still Here” when Shirley MacLaine performed it in Postcards from the Edge, with revised lyrics by Sondheim to fit the character of Doris Mann. But the original lyrics as written for Carlotta in Follies is not a vanity piece for a Hollywood star with an Oscar peeking out from her bookshelf but rather a layered review of a life that is sardonic, jaded, and ultimately triumphant. I’m still studying this one.
More recently, Stephen Sondheim helped get me through the long months of COVID quarantine. On demand, as it were, I could spend all the time I wanted down the YouTube rabbit hole watching the plethora of performances of Sondheim, from “Rose’s Turn” to “Losing My Mind” and “The Ladies Who Lunch” to “I’m Still Here”—all side by side to be compared and contrasted. Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, Bernadette Peters, Patti Lupone, Bette Midler, Judi Dench, Audra McDonald, Liza Minnelli, and even Meryl Streep. But always starting and ending with Elaine Stritch.
Speaking of COVID, that little bitch seems to be singing “I’m Still Here” as well. In my mind, the lyrics have been altered to something like “I’ve gotten through Pfizer, Moderna, and J and J; gee, that was fun and half. When you’ve been through Pfizer, Moderna, and J and J, anything else is a laugh.”
We’re being urged to stay calm and not panic with this Omicron variant. First up, I panicked a little bit because I thought I had forgotten the Greek alphabet. I’m still here, but I am at that age where there is some worry about all one’s memory bank being here, too. I thought the next one would be Nu, which I was already prepared to get around the obvious confusion with “new” by referencing this little bitch as the new Nu variant.
But the World Health Organization didn’t ask me and just avoided the whole issue by skipping over Nu and jumping past Xi, which is a common surname in certain places of the world where most of the folks don’t look like me. Naturally Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton went after the WHO for being scared of the reaction of the Chinese Communist Party, clearly part of their competition to become the single most odious person in the U. S. Senate. To avoid such politicization in the future, I recommend the WHO name the next variants that come down the COVID path Cruz and Cotton, two names already well associated with little bitches.
Most of us fully vaccinated and boosted types really aren’t panicked, and we deserve some credit. Those who aren’t similarly protected should start at concerned, move to worried, and then arrive at panicked. But whether they do or not isn’t up to us. We’re still here and well on our way to being stoic about this ongoing global pandemic.
Truth be told, I don’t have much of a life reference to “Send in the Clowns,” and I wouldn’t care to outline any commonalty with “The Ladies Who Lunch.” But I’m focused on “I’m Still Here.” Where are the insights? There ought to be insights. Well, maybe next year.