Although there will likely be video at some point — vaguely dreading that, to be honest — I’ve decided to share the homily I delivered last night at Sondheimas, the annual celebration of our birth and savior Stephen Sondheim. It was a thrill to take the stage at 54 Below and nerd out over a man who is, without question, one of the most significant influences in my life. What follows is the homily as I wrote it. (I ad-libbed a bit on stage, so if you happened to be at Sondheimas and thought my homily was much better as you remember it, you’re being really picky. But you might also be right!) Anyway, without further ado, the homily.
Steve be with you.
The Bette Midler Gypsy came out when I was seven, a decade before I did. I’ve always connected the two, if for no other reason than being gay seems to be some combination of nature and nurture, and if watching the Bette Midler Gypsy every day for a year doesn’t turn you gay, you’re not trying hard enough. The funny thing about the Bette Midler Gypsy is that I never saw the whole thing until years later, when I learned that my diligent parents had been stopping the VHS tape after “Together, Wherever We Go.” That means that for years I had no idea that Gypsy was about a stripper. It also means I missed Christine Ebersole’s iconic performance as Tessie Tura. In retrospect, I’m lucky I still turned out gay.
The Sondheim musical my parents did let me watch start to finish was Into the Woods, which my dad had taped when it aired on PBS’s American Playhouse in ’91. I was four years old, still a few years shy of the Bette Midler Gypsy and barely old enough to follow the fairy tales that inspired the musical. But I knew that the Baker’s Wife died. I’m not sure why the trauma of Into the Woods was inflicted on me while I was spared the knowledge that Louise becomes a stripper, but like most parents, mine had a harder time explaining sex than violence. I guess they hoped I would miss the giant wolf dick in Into the Woods.
I probably did, at first. I missed a lot of things during those early repeat viewings, which were even more frequent than those of Gypsy. But unlike the Bette Midler Gypsy, the PBS Into the Woods has been a constant in my life. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t watching it. That worn VHS tape, which I eventually upgraded to a DVD, has been a lifelong companion and friend. Sometimes I fear I’m touched. And when I wasn’t sitting down friends to watch Into the Woods, nervously gauging their reactions to decide if we could actually keep hanging out, I was watching it again on my own, taking more of it in each time, my understanding deepening the older I got. I know things now.
I don’t want to put all of my emphasis on Into the Woods because it wasn’t the only Sondheim show that moved me during my adolescence. I remember seeing Company a week after getting my first hickey and bawling during “Being Alive” because somebody had held me too close and then stopped returning my calls. I experienced something close to a goth phase when I became deeply obsessed with Sweeney Todd. I saw an all-Asian production of Pacific Overtures and an all-Asian production of Merrily We Roll Along. Both were great. For those not in the know, the East West Players is LA’s premiere Asian American theater organization, and they do a lot of Sondheim.
But nothing could ever replace Into the Woods for me. The connection was too strong. No matter how many thousand times I listened to the original cast album, I found new relevance to my life. Lyrics from Into the Woods comforted me in times of turmoil. When I came home from college to a city that didn’t feel the same: “And you think of all of the things you’ve seen, and you wish that you could live in between.” When I made my first online dating profile: “But then what if he knew who you were when you know that you’re not what he thinks that he wants?” When a close friend died suddenly: “Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Do not let it grieve you, no one leaves for good.” And, of course, when David asked me if I wanted to deliver this homily: “Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.” Which I’m pretty sure is a James Lapine line, but work with me here.
I know I’m not the only person in this room who looks to Sondheim for guidance or context or inspiration. His songs are so intricate that they force you to engage: “Every moment makes a contribution. Every little detail plays a part.” You can’t not think about his words long after you’ve stopped listening, and you can’t not find meaning in every line, whether funny, tragic, or somewhere in between. Sondheim helps us think and feel. And if you’re anything like me, you need all the help you can get. Sometimes the best way to process that which we cannot understand is through Sondheim.
The other day at work I published a list of quotes I commissioned from various performers, composers, and directors who have worked with Sondheim or have a special relationship to his music. At the risk of losing you all with a Glee reference, I want to read what Chris Colfer wrote, because I think he sums it up well. Sorry, haters. Chris wrote, “Performing Sondheim is more than just singing a song; it’s exposing a soul — sometimes a character’s, sometimes your own. Listening to Sondheim is like handing over the keys of your psyche. Every lyric and every note is so beautifully assembled, it instantly levels your mood to whatever emotion is being portrayed. It takes a true gift to make audiences feel music as much as they hear it, and a performer couldn’t ask for a better tool.”
It’s a really nice quote, right? Almost makes up for the horrifying Auto-Tuned cover of “No One Is Alone” that Glee did. I digress. Chris’s quote really resonated with me, even though I’m not a singer. Because you don’t have to be a performer to be grateful for that lyrical journey Sondheim takes you on. You just have to be a human being. With really good taste.
At this point in my life, I still turn to Into the Woods the most. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve watched and listened to it so many times that it’s now deeply rooted in my soul. All I know is I can’t remember the last time I made a decision that didn’t involve consulting “Moments in the Woods.” It’s the perfect anthem for someone as anxious and indecisive and Jewish as I am. The older I get, the more I realize that having it all is a fallacy. Believe me, I know: I’ve tried to be bicoastal. But I’m also OK with life as a sometimes disappointing but often wonderful work in progress. Things are complicated: No matter what my parents would have me believe, Gypsy doesn’t end with “Together, Wherever We Go.”
So do your best, be kind to one another, and maintain your faith in a higher power, whether it’s Stephen Sondheim or one of the lesser deities. As my therapist has been telling me for years, “Live in the moment.” Now I understand. And it’s time to leave the woods.