Sondheim: The Power of Music and Memory

My mother was a bolter, to use the UK term. Like Princess Diana’s and Sarah Ferguson’s mothers (and yes, many other kids’ mums), she flew the coop, leaving husband and children. I was 13 when it happened. She had not warned me. I came home from school one day and was informed that she had gone. She did not leave my life, I should add, but the whole thing was handled terribly. Years later, she and my father got back together, but it was not, I think, a romantic reunion. My mother carried enormous guilt and financial worries everywhere and I think returning to her marriage alleviated some of those. At any rate, she left me with my dad. He was, at the time, at the height of his (impressive) drinking and life with him was frightening, often violent, unpredictable and sad. One song he used to listen to during this period, over and over, was Send in the Clowns. Usually the Sinatra version but sometimes the Judy Collins version. It took me years to separate the song from the emotions of those years but it did happen and now I can appreciate both the song and the power music can have on memory. (As powerful as certain smells? More so?) I can also appreciate my parents’ struggles and what the lyrics must have meant to my father.

I give you the Sinatra version because it’s a million times better than any other.

Some people have the gifts of the gods – Sinatra, of course, and, among others, Stephen Sondheim. Another great one from him, now in the spotlight again due to the remake of West Side Story, is this gem. Imagine being able to write lyrics like this when you are only 27. (Or at any age.) I love the mockery of liberal/lefty pieties here. Such wit.

And so many more songs. So much more that he left us.

As Charles McNulty writes:
No one can feign shock when a nonagenarian shuffles off his mortal coil, but the magnitude of Sondheim’s death feels seismic. I’ve been called upon to write postmortem appreciations of Arthur Miller, August Wilson and Edward Albee — and only their legacies come close.

Another appreciation of his work here.