(Amy Weiss-Meyer’s article appeared in The Atlantic 11/27; via Pam Green; photo: Douglas Elbinger / Getty.)
His work was strongest when it lingered in the pain of knowing that no ever after lasts long.
Back in 2020, I might’ve imagined the end of the pandemic being something like that gum commercial: everyone together, vaccinated, picking the same time to come safely and communally out of lockdown and get back to the way things were before, so grateful to be alive we practically leapt into one another’s arms as soon as we got the chance. That is not, of course, the way things have gone in 2021. But the closest I’ve felt to that gum-commercial feeling came from being in the audience at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on a recent Monday night, an experience I’ve played and replayed in my head since learning that Stephen Sondheim died suddenly on Friday at 91.
November 15 was the reopening night for Sondheim’s Company, which had abruptly ceased previews in mid-March 2020. This production, directed by Marianne Elliott, had previously run in London, and it makes the formerly male protagonist of the show, Bobby, a female Bobbie instead. My colleague Sophie Gilbert has aptly described Elliott’s reimagining of the musical as “a kind of 21st-century Lewis Carroll fever dream.” Bobbie becomes our latter-day Alice, a disoriented but intrepid navigator trying to make sense of the strangeness of contemporary bourgeois life. In that way, it is sort of a perfect show for right now, when a lot of us feel a bit like observers trying to relocate our place as participants in the world. “It’s much better living it than looking at it,” Bobbie’s friends say. They’re talking about love and marriage, but the line takes on a more expansive meaning during a pandemic. In the audience, it was hard not to feel elated to be living.
The nervous excitement in the crowd reminded me of the opening-night energy at a school musical, every member of the audience hoping for the best, just so proud and happy to be there. These were the die-hards, people who had waited throughout the pandemic for this moment. An older man and woman in the row ahead of me compared notes on the many versions of the show they’d seen over the years; the two people next to me kept turning to each other and shrieking. Every seat had a shiny party hat on it, and audience members gamely strapped them on—a nod to the evening’s celebratory mood and to the surprise birthday party at the center of the show.
At first, when some people stood up and started clapping, I was confused; the show wasn’t starting yet. Then a few more joined, and soon most of the theater was standing, facing a row in the middle of the orchestra section. Sondheim himself was taking his seat for the evening. How did he look? everyone I later told about the performance wanted to know. Did he seem well?
From the few, partial glimpses I caught of Sondheim from the mezzanine, he seemed better than well, smiling wide enough you could tell despite the mask. (He doesn’t seem to have been ill; indeed, he reportedly enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner with friends the night before he died.) He was so very alive, in fact, applauding so joyfully after every number, that his presence was utterly reassuring: We had, all of us, made it through. We could be surrounded, once again, by hundreds of strangers and not fear for our lives. It was tempting to think that everything, maybe, would actually be okay, and this genius composer who never really aged would live forever to help guide us through the difficult, confusing times ahead.