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Opinion: In Sondheim's essential lyrics, a soundtrack for life

Stephen Sondheim onstage during an event at the Fairchild Theater in East Lansing, Mich., in 1997.
Douglas Elbinger
Getty Images
Stephen Sondheim onstage during an event at the Fairchild Theater in East Lansing, Mich., in 1997.

Folks on our show will tell you I use Blackwing grey pencils because Stephen Sondheim did. Not as well, of course. But I always hope for a scintilla of his magic in my words, which was really imagination, fueled by discipline.

I did a few stage shows with Stephen, who died Friday, over the years. I would toss up worshipful questions for him to brush aside. I told him that before we'd ever met, I had seen him do a crossword puzzle in a newspaper on his knee in a lobby, and was so gobsmacked to see my artistic hero in so mundane a setting I just stared; said nothing; and began to cry.

Stephen said, "I guess I was just working on the crossword."

My wife and I saw him a few nights ago, at the premiere of a new production of his show, 'Company,' which had been delayed by the coronavirus. I noticed many of us who gave him an ovation as he simply took his seat had tears in our eyes. So many times over these months, with so many locked down in loneliness and isolation, I have thought of his words from that show's 'Being Alive': "...alone / Is alone / Not alive."

Those of us who loved Stephen Sondheim have carried his lyrics along in our minds as if he'd somehow used his Blackwing pencil to excavate words from our own hearts.

I cannot think of my wife without feeling what Tony sings to Maria in West Side Story: "I saw you and the world went away..."

I can't think of my mother, who was a showgirl, a hostess, a secretary and a clothes seller, without singing from Stephen's show, 'Follies': "Plush velvet sometimes / Sometimes just pretzels and beer, but I'm here."

I can't be in New York without thinking how, as Stephen captured it, "Another hundred people just got off of the train / And came up through the ground /...And are looking around... /And they walk together past the postered walls with the crude remarks."

In times in which people have half-a-thought they put instantaneously into words on a public platform, Stephen Sondheim reminded us how craft and form give shape and strength to our feelings.

He told me once the most cherished of his own songs was 'Someone In A Tree' from 'Pacific Overtures' because it reminds us, as we've learned again so recently, that life stays with us in imperishable moments, of which he leaves so many.

"It's the fragment, not the day," Stephen Sondeheim wrote, "It's the pebble, not the stream / It's the ripple, not the sea / That is happening."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.