What Stephen Sondheim Knew About Endings

His work was strongest when it lingered in the pain of knowing that no ever after lasts long.

Stephen Sondheim
Douglas Elbinger / Getty

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.

I’m sure Sondheim knew better, though. He never believed in simple happy endings, but he knew exactly how to take advantage of his audience’s yearning for them. In Into the Woods, for which he wrote the music and lyrics, the characters end Act I singing the jaunty “Ever After,” blissfully unsuspecting of the complications that await them in the second act.

Sondheim’s work was at its strongest when it lingered in the pain of the dawning realization that no ever after ever lasts long. His music and lyrics looked squarely at life and insisted, gently and eloquently, that of course it was never going to be exactly how we wanted it to be, that messiness and ambiguity were to be expected, and could even be part of the beauty. Voices overlapped, words whizzed by, anxiety and sorrow and joy were written into the very structure of the songs. “I put it in as low a key as possible,” Sondheim once said of the opening of Sweeney Todd. “Always with a slight crescendo, so there’s always a little leaning in, as if something’s about to happen and then doesn’t. The feeling is of lifting the audience a little bit and then dropping, lifting and dropping.” I saw him give this explanation in a 2004 PBS documentary, but the footage is clearly from an unspecified time long before 2004.

He said it casually, as though this lifting and dropping of thousands of human beings were the easiest thing in the world to pull off. But to see Sondheim solely as a magician would be to miss the point. “Art isn’t easy” the refrain in Sunday in the Park With George goes. Sondheim loved collaborating, his New York Times obituary says, but he often worked alone, late into the night, when writing or composing. He wasn’t necessarily convinced by Company’s conclusion that being alone is incompatible with being truly alive. Or maybe, unlike so many generations of devoted theatergoers, he just didn’t see that as the show’s true conclusion.

Before Company, Sondheim said in the 2004 documentary, musicals “would always lead to the so-called happy ending. We were saying something ambiguous, which is ‘Actually, there are no endings’; it keeps going on is what, really, Company’s about.”

The night Company reopened, Times Square was eerily empty. Just north of 42nd Street, I heard a man announce to no one in particular, “Now you will all watch me take a COVID test.” He swabbed himself and I kept walking. I spent the subway ride home anxious about all the unmasked people riding the C train with me. So much for the romantic optimism of Sondheim’s city of strangers.

Which, I guess, is the point: It keeps going on. We haven’t reached the pandemic’s ever after yet, and if we do it won’t be in a single glorious moment. Cases are rising, again. A new variant has arrived, about which we know little. Sondheim has departed. But Company’s run goes on too; you can watch it on 45th Street this winter, if you wear your mask. There are no endings.