Note: This article was selected as a finalist for The Norman E. Alexander Award for Excellence in Jewish Student Writing Contest. About 100 high school contestants from around the country answered the following question: “Choose a living or deceased person and write about his or her legacy in any musical specialty. Why are his or her accomplishments meaningful to you?” The contest is sponsored by the Jewish-American Hall of Fame and The Jewish Week Media Group.
Since last April, whenever I would turn on my phone, I’d get the same question. It would always be something about the glowing letters spelling out, “Anything you do. Let it come from you. Then it will be new.” Inspirational, right? Well, they’re not my words, they’re Stephen Sondheim’s. And since April, when I had the privilege of seeing the latest revival of “Sunday in the Park with George” on Broadway, I have carried those words like a mantra, but instead of repeating them over and over, I’ve had them by my side as my screensaver.
Although he’s not too well known outside of the Broadway-verse, Stephen Sondheim is one of the most incredible composers and lyricists. While other writers step onto Broadway for commercial success, Sondheim’s musicals never seem to be conformist or ordinary. Each one pushes boundaries, for example: “Into the Woods” twists fairy tales in directions no one had ever seen and “Sweeney Todd” is a serial killer barber who baked people into pie (enough said). None of these ideas were heard of on the Great White Way, but he made them famous. He opened doors no one before him dared to, allowing for the more renowned shows of today (“Hamilton,” written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and “Dear Evan Hansen,” written by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson—all of whom have cited Sondheim as an inspiration for their work) to be born.
He somehow spins his words, instruments and orchestrations into these beautiful pieces that seem so outlandish at first, but are actually unbelievably evocative. “Sunday in the Park with George,” for example, is about a painting and its artist. But somehow, Sondheim weaves a heartbreaking tale of originality, sacrifice, love and art from a simple pointillist piece.
As a writer, I’ve always admired him, but as a Jew and a playwright, I am constantly trying to emulate his spirit. He has never stopped working. Since twenty-five, when his first musical was produced on Broadway (the little-known “West Side Story,” for which he wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music), he has written countless musicals, creating even now, in his eighties. Even through his failures, he succeeded. When audiences fled and critics panned “Merrily We Roll Along,” Sondheim refused to stop.
As I write my first musical, struggling to connect, to find lyrics that evoke the mood I’m reaching for, to piece together a story that audiences could relate to, I look to my phone, to that quote waiting for me. All I have to do is produce my own work, and then it will be new, and then it will be art.
In another one of his songs, Sondheim writes that the only things that succeed us are children and art. He may not have any children, but his musicals will surely be his legacy. And I can only hope that one day, my lyrics will be saved on phones, carried around and recited like a mantra until they finally feel true.
Noa Spero is a recent graduate of Kohelet Yeshivea High School in Merion Station, Pa. Noa is headed to Midreshet HaRova in Israel and then will go on to attend the University of Pennsylvania.