By Sam Hendrian
“Careful the things you say/Children will listen/Careful the things you do/Children will see/And learn”
–Into the Woods
Solid parenting advice, for sure. This is just one set of lyrics from the vast catalogue of legendary stage composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who turns 90 next month. His wit and wisdom permeates some of Hollywood and Broadway’s greatest morality tales—West Side Story, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Gypsy, and many others—and they are often infused with unexpectedly Christian quips about human nature that can help all of us become wiser, more empathetic people.
Everybody dreams, but not everybody is a dreamer. Sondheim keenly understands the differences between the two, the main one being that a dreamer is constantly rebuking the phony allure of mediocrity. This distinguishing characteristic is depicted no clearer than in “Some People,” Mama Rose’s signature song from the musical Gypsy. She sings, “Some people/Can thrive and bloom/Living life in the living room/That’s perfect/For some people/Of one hundred and five!” In a world where technological advances have made so-called “living room comforts” more enticing than ever, Mama Rose’s words ring with an extra relevance and poignancy. Though a deeply flawed character, her refusal to settle for settling echoes the wisdom of Pope John Paul II when he said:
“Do not be satisfied with mediocrity. Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
Beyond dreaming, another aspect of human nature that Sondheim’s lyrics capture well is the plight of being misunderstood. This plight is humorously, honestly, and hauntingly explored in “Gee Officer Krupke” from West Side Story, a timeless musical that shall be experienced on the silver screen once again when Steven Spielberg’s adaptation hits theaters in December. Sung by a bunch of rowdy gang members who each come from rough upbringings, the song works both as a catalyst for empathy and as a piece of biting social commentary.
“Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke/You gotta understand/It’s just our bringin’ up-ke/That gets us out of hand/Our mothers all are junkies/Our fathers all are drunks/Golly Moses, naturally we’re punks!” In just a few words, Sondheim makes a hard-hitting thematic statement that is at the crux of Christianity and any faith that upholds the common good: The way parents act and do not act leaves an indelible influence on how their children grow up to perceive the world and the good/evil choices that lie within it.
This thematic statement is echoed in what is perhaps Sondheim’s most blatantly moral song: “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods. The Witch sings, “Careful the things you say/Children will listen/Careful the things you do/Children will see/And learn.” These words speak for themselves, and while the truth of them may seem obvious, it is often the most obvious truths that we humans overlook.
When it comes to marriage and romance, Sondheim has always been a bit of a cynic, or at least a take-no-prisoners realist. However, beneath his wittily bitter words are some profoundly true remarks about the paradoxically beautiful suffering at the crux of human relationships. These remarks come to the forefront in the song “Being Alive” from the 1970 musical Company.
The protagonist of Company is a man who has long avoided marriage for fear of the self-sacrifice it requires, yet at the end of the show, he finds himself mysteriously longing for this self-sacrifice no matter what pain it brings. “Somebody need me too much/Somebody know me too well/Somebody pull me up short/And put me through hell/And give me support/For being alive.” These wonderfully raw and honest words mirror the Christian concept of marriage: a mystic union between a man and a woman who are committed to sharing all that they are with each other.
A list of wise and relevant Stephen Sondheim lyrics could go on and on, but a solid one to conclude with is the following from Into the Woods:
“Just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’/When you’re back to ‘or’/Makes the ‘or’ mean more/Than it did before.”
Sung by the Baker’s Wife after she has momentarily strayed from her husband with a handsome prince, it succinctly and powerfully portrays the reason behind every virtue-minded “no” we choose in our lives: We say “no” for the sake of a better “yes.” The Baker’s Wife realizes that her brief dalliance with the Prince brought her a moment’s pleasure yet no joy, and she now appreciates her imperfect but caring husband more than ever before. This spiritual epiphany is one we likely all have regarding various choices in our lives, an epiphany that reveals to us the following truth: When we choose to embrace the “little” we have over the “everything” we want, we ultimately gain everything we need for true happiness.
Beyond their sheer brilliance, there is a concrete reason why Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics have remained prominent in theatre/film and likely will remain prominent for years to come: they tell the truth. The truth is not always pleasant, yet it is always enlightening and liberating, making us free to cherish our frailty not as a hinderance to love, but rather as an opportunity to love more completely with the aid of divine grace. For we cannot love all by ourselves, and fortunately, we do not have to. As Sondheim reminds us towards the end of Into the Woods:
“Someone is on your side/No one is alone.”
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.
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Image Credit: Posters for Company, West Side Story, and Into the Woods