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Storytelling Through Music: A Tribute to Sondheim

Throughout our lives we are told and read stories; a beloved pastime. Children love stories as do adults. Our brains construct meaning through stories and it is primarily through stories that we learn, create understanding, and make connections.
I have always loved stories. While I enjoy reading a good novel, I love movies, and especially Broadway shows, because they engage more of my senses in the storytelling.  Add beautiful music with meaningful lyrics to the story and I become entranced in, and moved by, the narrative.

Stephen Sondheim z”l was a master storyteller. He told his stories mostly through incredible, and often, poignant lyrics and music. He often said that writing lyrics was like writing a play. “If a lyric is a one act play then each line is a scene – seven words in a line, so each word is  a speech – if  you are writing a play and something is wrong with the speech, you cut it or change the speech. You have to do it word by word.” He invested that much care and time into his craft.

I became a lifelong fan of Stephen Sondheim after seeing the original production of Sweeney Todd in 1978. No matter the Sondheim musical, he continually amazes me with his uncanny understanding of humanity through relationships, desires, hopes, dreams, and failures. He captures feelings and yearnings in a few poetic lyrics better than many writers can in entire books.
He changed the nature of the Broadway musical by taking on serious subjects, exploring the depths of the human spirit and shining a mirror into our own souls. We watched his singing protagonists learn about life, disappointment, hurt and compromise. We learned about love and the fear of being alone. He could be passionate, ambivalent, and reflective all in one song.

I love his works because his music and lyrics touched me deeply and helped me to understand myself in emotional and spiritual ways. He taught us about life and about ourselves.

Here are just a few my favorite lyrics that also demonstrate his insight:

“Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.”
– Into the Woods
“I chose and my world was shaken, so what? The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not.”
– Sunday in the Park with George

“Oh if life were made of moments
Even now and then a bad one–!
But if life were only moments,
Then you’d never know you had one.”
– Into the Woods
Stephen Sondheim z”l was a master storyteller for contemporary musical theatre and I honor his memory today through this blog. For me, it is not a huge leap from loving Sondheim musicals to loving our Jewish stories from the Tanakh all the way to modern Jewish literature.
Stories told through song or our sacred texts are both powerful ways to make connections between people and ideas. Stories have the power to transmit culture and values that promote a common understanding among people. Stories help us to see and understand the world in a broader and different way beyond our own perceptions. Stories teach and inspire. They make memories of events shared with others. They are how the brain makes meaning of our inner and outer universe.

May we continue to learn from great storytellers whether religious, ancient, modern, musical, literary, and theatrical. And may all the stories bring us strength, inspiration, empathy, meaning, and value to life!

One final thought about Stephen Sondheim. I particularly loved how he often explored the innermost needs of a person – to be loved and not left alone. He saw the messiness of this intensity to be needed in order to be fully alive, yet, at times, fearful of being too needed. This was reflected in the moving song, “No One is Alone,” from Into the Woods, and perhaps most poignantly, in the song, “Being Alive,” from Company:

Someone to hold you too close
Someone to hurt you too deep
Someone to sit in your chair
And ruin your sleep
And make me aware
Of being alive
Someone to need you too much
Someone to know you too well

Someone to pull you up short
To put you through hell
And give me support
For being alive
Make me alive
Make me alive
Make me confused
Mock me with praise

Let me be used
Vary my days
But alone
Is alone
Not alive
Somebody crowd me with love
Somebody force me to care
Somebody let come through

I’ll always be there
As frightened as you
To help us survive
Being alive
Being alive
Being alive

May we always be needed too much and crowded with love, and may Stephen Sondheim’s z”l memory be for a blessing.


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