THE TEACHINGS OF STEPHEN SONDHEIM

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If you have heard of Stephen Sondheim and seen any of his productions, then hopefully you will agree when I say that he is the master of musical theatre writing and cannot be equalled in modern history. His productions are storytelling of the highest calibre through the medium of music and song that not only entertains, but really provokes and challenges Your thinking in a way that is both cynical yet life-affirming.

I wanted to write this blog as a tribute to his writing and celebrate some of my favourite lyrics of his that have inspired and continue to inspire my life and hopefully can inspire you a little bit as well. This is a difficult one because there are a never-ending wealth of genius Sondheim moments to choose from, but I have selected my ultimate favourites just for you!

No knot unties itself” (Into the Woods)

Into the Woods takes some of our favourite fairytale characters and brings them together in a fable of pursuing your dreams, while warning about the risks of pursuing selfish, individualistic goals at the expense of others. We watch the characters get themselves into all sorts of trouble and some even lose their lives as a result of their blinkered thinking. The surviving few are eventually forced into becoming awakened to considering the other lives around them. As the story unfolds, some of the characters, like a Greek chorus, intermittently interject with comments of observation, one of which is the metaphor of your life being like a rope that sometimes gets tied up in knots. Sometimes this can cause despair and defeatism, but the characters provide hope that 'a knot was once straight rope' and while it can be possible to untie it, it is you who has to take responsibility to do it, as 'no knot unties itself'.

How did you get to be here?” (Merrily We Roll Along)

The narrative of this musical is told backwards. It begins with our three protaganists at the later stages of their lives, riddled with all sorts of problems and burdens, and journeys back in time to examine some of their pivotal life moments where key paths were chosen and decisions were made that led them to their present reality. At each transition backwards, the chorus provide us with commentary and thoughts turning the question to the audience to think about their own lives: “How did you get to be here?” and “What was the moment?”. It highlights the value in spending time examining our own life journeys to understand how we got to our current reality, but to remember that “dreams don't die, so keep an eye on your dreams” as it may “slip away slow, so you never really noticing it happening”. It reminds us to make more conscious choices and that “some roads are easy... some roads are all uphill... some roads you travel just for the thrill...”. Are you aware of which road you are taking right now, and are you aware of where it is leading?

There are prizes all around you if you're wise enough to see” (Assassins)

Sondheim clearly had to use his reputation to sell the idea of this musical, that examines the personalities and motivations of some of the United States' most iconic Presidential assassins (both who succeeded and failed). But once again it is a masterpiece in the way that he asks us to empathise with them and draw attention to one of the dark realities of the free world, that is so free that you can even assassinate a President if you want to and really try. I'm not in anyway endorsing the idea of assassination here (!), but it's underlying message is that when life has hit rock bottom, there are still options, as the narrator reminds us in the quote at the beginning of this paragraph, and to remember that “if can't do what you want to, then you do the things you can; you gotta try again”. This is the age-old mantra of not giving up, but instead trying something different; something new; something outside of the box, like employing a Life Coach (wink wink!).

Why look for answers where none occur” (Company)

Company is about the life of perpetual singleton Bobby, mid-30's, living in New York, observing his (or her, in the case of a recent London production!) married friends and debating the idea of marriage; what is it for and is it worth it, when being single may have more benefit? One lyric that stands out during a song in which Bobby asks the husbands whether they were sorry they ever got married, and each of them sings of the contradictions of being in a marriage: “You're scared she's starting to slip away... and scared she'll stay”. But in the end they sing in unison “why look for answers where none occur”. To me, this is a comment that we can spend so much time analysing and debating to make the perfect choice that will lead to ultimate and unending happiness, that we just stay still, literally scared stiff to make a decision, and thereby risking missing out on potential opportunities to actually increase our happiness and fulfilment. It's more important to embrace the fact that life is never perfect, so let go, try things out and enjoy the journey.

In conclusion to what seems to have become a mini-essay (!), if you get the chance to see a Stephen Sondheim musical, don't question it – just go! It will stir your thoughts in a way that other musicals just cannot and do not. Both cynical and life-affirming, Sondheim consistently exposes the complex world of the human condition, but reminds us that it is a struggle that we can all share and work on together as the characters in Into the Woods confirm when they say: “Believe me, no-one is alone, truly”.

And of course, a Life Coach can help you navigate through the complexities of life, so please feel free to get in touch!

Take care for now.

Oliver

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