Opinion: In Sondheim's essential lyrics, a soundtrack for life NPR's Scott Simon reflects on the life and legacy of Stephen Sondheim, the venerated composer and lyricist who died Friday at the age of 91.

Opinion: In Sondheim's essential lyrics, a soundtrack for life

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Folks on our show will tell you I use Blackwing gray pencils because Stephen Sondheim did - not as well, of course, but I always hope for a scintilla of his magic in my words, which was really imagination, fueled by discipline.

I did a few stage shows with Stephen over the years. I would toss up worshipful questions for him to brush aside. I told him that before we'd ever met, I had seen him do a crossword puzzle in a newspaper on his knee in a lobby and was so gobsmacked to see my artistic hero in so mundane a setting I just stared, said nothing and began to cry. Stephen said, I guess I was just working on the crossword.

My wife and I saw him a few nights ago at the premiere of a new production of his show "Company," which had been delayed by the coronavirus. I noticed many of us who gave him an ovation as he simply took his seat had tears in our eyes. So many times over these months, with so many locked down in loneliness and isolation, I have thought of his words from that show's "Being Alive" - alone is alone, not alive.

Those of us who love Stephen Sondheim have carried his lyrics along in our minds as if he'd somehow used his Blackwing pencil to excavate words from our own hearts.

I cannot think of my wife without feeling what Tony sings to Maria in "West Side Story" - I saw you, and the world went away.

I can't think of my mother, who was a showgirl, a hostess, a secretary and a clothes seller, without singing from Stephen's show "Follies," plush velvet sometimes, sometimes just pretzels and beer, but I'm here.

I can't be in New York without thinking how, as Stephen captured it, another hundred people just got off of the train and came up through the ground and are looking around, and they walk together past the postered walls with the crude remarks.

In times when people have half a thought they put instantaneously into words on a public platform, Stephen Sondheim reminded us how craft and form give shape and strength to our feelings.

He told me once the most cherished of his own songs was "Someone In A Tree" from "Pacific Overtures" because it reminds us, as we've learned again so recently, that life stays with us in imperishable moments, of which he leaves so many.

It's the fragment, not the day, Stephen Sondheim wrote. It's the pebble, not the stream; it's the ripple, not the sea, that is happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEONE IN A TREE")

GEDDE WATANABE AND JAMES DYBAS: (As Boy and Old Man, singing) It's the ripple, not the sea; not the building, but the beam; not the garden, but the stone; not the treaty house - someone in a tree.

MARK HSU SYERS: (As Warrior, singing) Pardon me. I am here. If you please, I am also here.

JAMES DYBAS: (As Old Man, singing) They kept drinking cups of tea.

GEDDE WATANABE: (As Boy, singing) They kept sitting on the floor.

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