Funny enough it’s almost exactly 40 years ago to the day of his death this week at the too young age of 91 that Stephen Sondheim taught me a life lesson I continue to live by to this day.
Predictably enough, it was while I was sitting in a prized orchestra seat of a then-new Sondheim musical, Merrily We Roll Along, listening to one of his lyrical words of wisdom.
Unpredictably enough, and to this day in my mind unfairly enough, that show would also turn into one of his biggest Broadway flops.
Though as one of a very select group of people in attendance at the next to last Broadway performance of the original cast of Merrily in 1981, I can only tell you that in my mind that production and that show was, and will always be, a huge success.
Profound. Moving. Funny. Insightful. Scathing. Ironic. Wise. Deep. Joyful.
Oh, so smart.
What more can you ask for from any piece of art?
Oh, the song. It’s not one of the famous ones, popular ones or even obscure, uncovered and belatedly lauded ones.
Though it is the first act curtain.
And its three-word title has immeasurably endured, helping me to process some of the very worst times in my life right after and long after they happened. Then. And now.
What’s it called?
It’s called….Now You Know.
A jazzy little number sung by two best friends of a famous young composer who has cheated on his wife with the lead actress in his new hit musical.
They’re divorced and he’s on the courthouse steps, having just lost a bitter and salacious custody battle for their young son. And though his lovely, kind-hearted ex admits she still loves him she confesses she just can’t get past his infidelity and forgive him for the man he’s become.
So she’s moving thousands of miles away and taking the kid with her.
He’s blind-sided and suddenly devastated at the realization of life without them.
What’s worse, it gets played out publicly in front of a slew of venal and vindictive reporters and cameras.
It’s that moment when even the heel-iest of heels knows they will never truly be the same, much less recover. Forget about the rest of us.
That scene was set in 1966 and I was a recently out gay guy in my twenties with no thought of ever having a kid, much less a wife. But boy, could I relate.
Because it was about the type of hurt and devastation that in some way we will all be forced to experience, and more than once. That time when:
a. We’ve f-cked up royally and at great personal cost. Or,
b. We’ve had an unexpected death or perhaps devastating other loss. Or,
c. There’s been a terrible betrayal, to us or by us we can never get beyond. Or,
d. We finally accept that the bold, implied or sealed promises made to us by others, or to ourselves, will NEVER, EVER happen the way we imagined.
We’re lost. Bigly. Big time. And there’s no chance we can be who we once were. Ever again.
Here’s what Mr. Sondheim had to say to that:
Now you know:
Life is crummy
Well, now you know
I mean, big surprise:
People love you and tell you lies
Bricks can tumble from clear blue skies
Put your dimple down
Now you know
Okay, there you go —
Learn to live with it
Now you know
It’s called flowers wilt
It’s called apples rot
It’s called thieves get rich
And saints get shot
It’s called God don’t answer prayers a lot
Okay, now you know
Okay, now you know
Now forget it
Don’t fall apart at the seams
It’s called letting go your illusions
And don’t confuse them with dreams
Yes sir, quite a blow?
Don’t regret it
And don’t let’s go to extremes
It’s called, what’s your choice?
It’s called, count to ten
It’s called, burn your bridges, start again
You should burn them every now and then
Or you’ll never grow!
Because now you grow
That’s the killer is
Now you grow
You’re right, nothing’s fair
And it’s all a plot
And tomorrow doesn’t look too hot —
Right, you better look at what you’ve got:
Over here, hello?
Okay, now you know…
– Sondheim, 1981
It’s called letting go your ILLUSIONS, and don’t confuse them with DREAMS?
Are you kidding me????
What about, burn your bridges, start again, you should BURN THEM EVERY NOW AND THEN OR YOU’LL NEVER GROW?! With the lyrical promise, written by someone older and wiser and infinitely more talented that, that’s the killer…NOW YOU GROW??
You mean, it’s okay to walk away when you’ve tried everything and it’s not working? And there IS hope at the end of the tunnel?
But how will that work?
Well, you better look at what you’ve got?
Wait, you mean…oh…..your friends….who despite everything are still there and literally singing to you —
Over here, hello???
Wait, that’s what it’s really about???
I mean, it still slays me.
How he knew so much, put it so succinctly and rhymed so simply, completely and, yes, tunefully.
– It’s called devoting a lifetime to your art and never taking the easy way out.
– It’s called consistently mentoring generations of young writers for decades, despite your schedule, because in your teens you were lucky enough, through a family connection, to be mentored by one of the great lyricists of the American musical theatre, Oscar Hammerstein, and always promised to pay it forward.
– It’s called staying current with new work in the theatre for the next half century instead of spending your time reliving and pining for the good old days.
– It’s called daring to be bad, in your work and in your life, in order to become good.
– It’s called not letting it all go to your head and knowing at the end of the day it’s just you, your beloved Blackwing pencils and some paper late at night, trying to make a hat.
The thing about Sondheim is not that he didn’t know how good he was. It was that he didn’t dwell on it, tried to do better and always knew deep down that he wasn’t perfect.
As he so eloquently stated in one of the short verses of the above song I didn’t mention:
I mean, socks have holes,
I mean, roads have bumps,
They make meatheads champs and nice guys chumps…
I mean, even cream of wheat has lumps.
#RIP. From a fan.