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In a lifetime of storytelling, Stephen Sondheim, seen

In a lifetime of storytelling, Stephen Sondheim, seen in 2004, captured a lifetime of moments, but also recognized there was so much more. Credit: AP/Charles Krupa

I was in high school when I first heard the lyric.

"We're the movers and we're the shapers/We're the names in tomorrow's papers/Up to us now to show 'em."

In context, the line — and the song, "Our Time" from "Merrily We Roll Along" — is a moment of optimism tinged with sadness, one that comes at the close of a show that starts with a bitter, broken end and ends at a glorious beginning, full of a hope we already knew wouldn't last.

But for me, that end of "Merrily" — where three friends on a rooftop imagine their future — was my beginning. I even taped that lyric to my college dorm room wall.

This week, it's Stephen Sondheim's name that's in every paper — as tribute after tribute rolled in after the genius lyricist and masterful composer died last week at the age of 91.

I always saw Sondheim's ability to collect such seemingly simple moments and weave them into something more complex as one of his greatest gifts. They didn't have to be mind-blowing or heart-stopping to be laden with meaning. Most of us, after all, don't have falling chandeliers, twirling helicopters or makeshift barricades in our everyday lives.

Instead, Sondheim reminded us that the smaller snapshots in time are also worthy of story, song or show and should be ingrained in our memories, even though they're often riddled with complications or ugly undertones. A birthday party. A walk in the woods. A day in the park. A touch of history we cannot forget. The creation of a single painting. A reunion. And, yes, a gathering with friends on a city rooftop.

In "Into the Woods," where events in Act 1 seem to go as you might expect from a Grimm fairy tale, only to go very wrong in Act 2, Sondheim wrote one of my favorite verses: "Oh, if life were made of moments/Even now and then a bad one/But if life were only moments/Then you'd never know you had one."

In a lifetime of storytelling, Sondheim captured a lifetime of moments, but also recognized there was so much more. I often thought of him as the journalist of musical theater, a chronicler of events, a writer who could link seemingly unlinkable characters, a recorder of history and a teller of truths — only he was a far better wordsmith.

Sondheim's work went to the darkest of places — a giant who kills nearly an entire cast of characters, a barber who slits the throats of customers who then were turned into meat pies, a carnival of assassins all proclaiming "the right to be happy." Each reflects timeless themes that resonate today, especially now as we contend with the demons of a pandemic, a fractured society, a country that still "goes a little wrong."

But somehow, he still left us with a bit of light — the notions that the same someone who could "hurt you too deep" could also "force you to care," that an artist could make a hat where there never was one, that "our dream" still could come true.

Or, as taken from a slice of "Sunday in the Park with George," that we could find "harmony" in a group of people "strolling through the trees/Of a small suburban park/On an island in the river/On an ordinary Sunday."

Here's to the extraordinary Sondheim. And to every ordinary Sunday.

Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.

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