A Trump presidency is critically dangerous to many Americans’ lives. He has emboldened a rogue nuclear power. He has elected to deport 800,000 people. He has sided with neo-Nazis, and pardoned monsters in our legal system. But I want you to think about eighty-seven year old Oscar and Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim for a minute. Sitting in his dark wood paneled townhouse in New York City, “still here”, surrounded by his collection of odd carnival games, wondering if maybe this is the time to finally give in to old age and shuffle-ball-change off his mortal coil.
At eighty-seven, he is still pushing out a fairly decent musical from time-to-time. Sure they are a shadow of his masterwork years, with shows that delved deeply into universal complicated adult themes, such as questions of emotional paralysis or a painter’s metaphysical journey of painting a hat. His new stuff doesn’t pack the cultural punch of his fairytale-cum-AIDS crisis morality play stuff, per se. And that’s exactly why we need to worry for him, that on a personal level his waning ability to capture the daring brilliance of his early stuff and write about the accelerated madness of the world today, has him questioning if he’s just sitting around “being alive” for no good reason. We all remember with deep sadness and bewilderment the departing of many legends of the music and acting arts in 2016. Meanwhile, Olivier Award-winning Stephen Sondheim, is still journeying out occasionally to West Palm Beach to suffer through a small production of his later work, “The Frogs”. BUT FOR HOW MUCH LONGER?
Smash box office movie adaptations of his early works, like “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “Into the Woods”,starring the likes of Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep, had recently started to introduce large new audiences to Mr. Sondheim’s playfully anti-melodic scoring and upending of musical theater structure and tropes of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. But now in the Age of Trump, staring gloomily out his stain-glass windows from his third floor parlor room, in an old mauve turtleneck from the ‘70s, sipping a vodka gimlet out of a crystal sherry glass, he’s probably just as depressed as you are about the current state of affairs. Maybe more so, because he has the brain of a genius to thoroughly mull the bigger existential questions. Like he wrote, “Art is an attempt to bring order out of chaos”, but not even a young Stephen Sondheim in his prime could make sense of the daily onslaught of our current 24-hour news cycle. It’s not like he didn’t try to warn us of a Trump presidency, with lyrics like, “There’s a hole in the world like a big black pit, and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit.” Clearly not enough people were listening to Grammy Award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim,when they went to the voting booth. And Filled-With-Shit In Chief Trump could sure benefit from revisiting this lyric: “Careful the things you say. Children will listen. Careful the things you do. Children will see. And learn.”
Knowing Pulitzer Prize-winning Stephen Sondheim’s propensity for self-aware irony, he’s probably right now burping up his own lyric"death is a relief" as he ventures out for groceries at Fairway Supermarket. He’s probably thinking of besties, Barbara Cook and Elaine Stritch, who recently hopped the trolley. Perhaps they’re up in Heaven performing a boozy cabaret with Ethel Merman, mentor Lenny Bernstein at the piano. Honestly if you were Obie Award-winning Stephen Sondheim, in the face of this bleak time in our country, wouldn’t you contemplate taking a quick and almost painless tumble down the marble staircase of your Central Park adjacent home’s foyer?
So please, PLEASE, in all the outpouring of worry for a world threatened under a Trump presidency, remember to also worry for composer and lyricist, and Kennedy Center Honoree, Stephen Sondheim, as he might very well at this moment be contemplating chasing a fistful of Quaaludes with a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and leaving the woods for good.