“Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened” and Stephen Sondheim’s Lyrics

April 20, 2020

Stephen Sondheim’s LYRICS

The publication last month of a volume of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics is a reminder to mention that one of the most overlooked documentary films of the past several years focuses on a musical that its creators all believed would be a hit, but proved to be resounding failure. Merrily We Roll Along, which opened in mid-November, 1981, and ran for 16 performances, accumulated a considerable amount of documentary footage in the process of auditions and rehearsals; one of its leading actors dug up this material and has interwoven it with interviews with the original cast, as well as conversations with Sondheim and Hal Prince. The compilation is deeply moving, and I say this as someone who pretended to enjoy “Company” when I saw it with friends at a theater in Century City almost a half-century ago. I’m not a fan of musicals. My youthful interest in theater was the dramatic strain.

Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened is both poignant and thoughtful; it reveals the wistfulness that fate keeps in store for those who choose lives imbued in the imagination, and it revels in the astuteness of acceptance that marks the maturity achieved by the cast and creators. Anyone born between 1945 and 1960 will especially find this movie to be a chance for personal reflection. My guess is that some people will suddenly remember friends from when they were young who also attempted to live with courage and dignity in the face of inexplicable disappointment. This film honors all those who made failure worth the risk, and gave it dignity.

Knopf recently sent out an email blast that contained a long portion of the lyric “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods. Sondheim says it is not a poem, but it is hardly only a set of lyrics meant to mount the melody like a horse that can’t wait to return to the stable. The argument about how to categorize song lyrics within the realm of poetry remains a prolonged dispute. Professor Steve Axelrod and two of his friends, for instance, have assembled a three-volume anthology of American poetry that includes the work of many songwriters, including Yip Harburg and Bob Dylan. Dylan’s work, at its best, comes closer to being “a poem,” but Sondheim’s lyrics perhaps attain something that poetry cannot: a consciousness of the frailty of language as it grapples with the knowledge that perishes at the hands of experience. “If only we had known then, what we know now,” Sondheim’s lyrics say to us. And they comfort us, and allow us to forgive ourselves for not having known, and yet still willing to endure what is come.