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Stephen Sondheim: Writing the Notes of His Times

Jamie Stiehm on

It was a very good death, the day after Thanksgiving dinner with friends. The musical composer and lyricist was 91, born in 1930. Ironically, Stephen Sondheim belongs to America's unsung generation.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, author of "Hamilton," joined the outdoor throng of Broadway singer-mourners. It was an only-in-New York moment, a shining shared grief. Singing and weeping to warm the November cold, to make a beloved man's lifework heard.

Who doesn't know a Sondheim song by heart, even if you don't know it's his? "Send in the Clowns" is a bittersweet ballad. "Sunday in the Park with George" is an inventive play about artist George Seurat. "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum" is staged on college campuses all over.

"West Side Story" was a daring match of Sondheim's lyrics and Leonard Bernstein's music. They worked together when Sondheim was 25.

Sondheim's songs are engraved on our octaves of emotions. His sensibility was that of an urbane New Yorker, mentored by masters Bernstein and Oscar Hammerstein. He surpassed them all in the American musical pantheon.

A complex grasp of character was Sondheim's greatest gift. It wasn't always the sound of music. His tunes played the dark notes along with the merry, witty, wry and maybe most of all, dreaming.

 

Now let me sing the praises of the "silent" generation, born during the Depression and World War II. Named by William Strauss and Neil Howe, the authors argue each generation is unique, shaped by turning points.

Yet the pair shortchanged that generation, forgotten because they were few -- hard times hurt the birthrate -- stuck between the so-called greatest and the "baby boomers."

What cultural cliches these generations are now. The boomers gave us (two) too many presidents. They cling to their outsize power and influence, The Boston Globe reports. And the "greatest" jig is up, Tom Brokaw. Let others judge. Yet its white men were given the greatest opportunity of all time.

The "underrated" silents are the brightest on record.

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