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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

No Such Thing As Failure

Last night, the husband and I went to listen to a talk by Stephen Sondheim. It was actually not a talk, but a conversation between Stephen Sondheim and some lady named Mary. Sorry, Mary, I have forgotten your last name, as I almost always forget names. It’s to your credit that I remember your first name. You did a fine job. To give myself credit, let me say that I bought the tickets as a birthday present for the husband, who performed in “Sweeney Todd” in college, who was a composer before he was a doctor, and who just may get back to composing one of these years. Except that he’ll never be able to retire, because I, his wife, make too little money; but eventually, we will run out of British crime dramas to watch on Netflix, and he will have time of an evening to create.

It was really some kind of miracle that I found out about this Stephen Sondheim gig. I’m so out of every loop – except my own internal, neurotic ones – that it amazes me that I came across this event, in time to order tickets for it.  It was, of course, sold out last night.

Mr. Sondheim is 83, and still working. Artists never stop. He talked about his shows, mostly. He also gave little glimpses into the wild evening life he used to lead and had a couple stories about Elaine Stritch, who played Jack Donaghy’s mother on “30 Rock”, in case you don’t know her from Broadway. I learned that the phrase “Everything’s coming up roses” is from the lyric to the eponymous song from “Gypsy,” written by Stephen Sondheim. He admitted that coining a phrase that entered the lexicon was satisfying. I should think so.

But really, the most compelling thing he said, he said early on in the conversazione. (Throwing in a little Italian, just for kicks.) Mary Whose Last Name Escapes Me asked him if, when he was starting out, he worried that he would fail. He said, “I don’t think that ever occurred to me.”

Thank you, and good night. That explains a lot. That explains why I was sitting in the audience listening to Stephen Sondheim, and not the other way around. Or, at least, it explains one reason. It never occurred to him he might fail? That’s pretty much all I think about when I consider my writing.

Of course, it might have been a little easier for Stephen Sondheim to forget to consider the possibility of failure than it was for me. He had Oscar Hammerstein as a father figure. I had a father figure, but he wasn’t Oscar Hammerstein. He was my father. (Still is.) A fine man, a lawyer, but in no position to help me become a successful writer. He did help me get the job in a law firm that led me to decide against pursuing law. This was helpful, in its way, although more for defining what I wouldn’t do than what I would do with my career. Kind of like negative space in a drawing is important, but it’s not where the artistry lies. Usually.

So Sondheim’s first job was in the “family business,” too. Although he had some lean years, Sondheim had Oscar. Oscar Hammerstein helped him develop his skills and got him involved writing lyrics with Leonard Bernstein for “West Side Story,” when he was twenty-five. If he wasn’t working for Oscar Hammerstein, he could call Oscar Hammerstein for advice. So, you know, failure seems pretty unlikely to me, too, in that scenario.

I am glad that I didn’t call it a night after that astounding proof of self-confidence. After hearing that, I just listened and marveled at a person who had such self-confidence that he could question aspects of any of his works, without questioning his basic right and ability to work at that art.

In fact, he had a few shows that didn’t do all that well. One of them, “Merrily We Roll Along,” of which I’d never heard, closed after 9 shows on Broadway. It was, you know, a flop. Guess what? He revised it. He fixed it. That's the growth mindset at work, by the way, Readers. He kept on working at it, and eventually it showed in London and then on Broadway – years, indeed decades, later – and garnered great reviews. So he believed in his idea, and he had strength of character enough, or confidence enough, to deconstruct the parts that didn’t work for audiences, and to keep on revising them until they played well. Along the way he did “Company*,” and “Sweeney Todd,” and “Sunday in the Park with George,” and “A Little Night Music,” and a bunch of other musicals that you probably have heard of, even if you don’t care for musicals. 

All of these works were collaborations, by the way, and all developed over months and often years. He’s working on something now that’s been steeping for twenty-five years. What really struck me, was that once Sondheim felt some idea he came across had “something to it,” he didn’t look back and question that judgment. He worked, and continues to work, to get that idea out. All of that work is built on a steady foundation of accepting his judgment of what is worth pursuing. For those of us who work at bringing ideas into the world, that is a great lesson in success. 

*Video clip of my favorite song from "Company," sung by Carol Burnett here. She sings it a little slower than others do, but you can hear the lyrics clearly.

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