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    Missed Always, But with Legacies That Will Live On

    By Jan Wahl–

    He made it to 91, but it will never seem long enough. I guess I fell in love with him during my teen craze with West Side Story. The Broadway cast recording, the incredibly wonderful film … all of it. The music by Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim held an indelible place in my mind and heart. It is still there, every word, note, and phrase. It is hard to believe Sondheim was 24 when he wrote it, moving from it to another glorious favorite, Gypsy.

    Sondheim had a very sad childhood, complete with a mother who always told him he was not wanted. Thankfully, he became a close friend of Oscar Hammerstein early on and was eventually mentored by him. The pain from Sondheim’s earliest years can be heard in his lyrics in shows like Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, and Sunday in the Park with George

    One of my personal favorite numbers is “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” from Gypsy. It seems at first to be about three strippers advising Gypsy on how to strip, but actually it’s about any of us finding our unique voice. “Broadway Baby” from Follies is a bittersweet look at what goes on beneath the seemingly sunny exterior during the showbiz climb. She might be belting out the journey, but it also reveals her relentless ambition for success. “I’m Still Here,” also from Follies, reminds us all to be grateful for being survivors through good times and bad. “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music is everyone’s despair, with entertainment legends from Judi Dench to Elizabeth Taylor making it their own over the years.

    Sondheim didn’t come out as a gay man until he was 40, and didn’t live with a partner until he was 61. Like many, it was a long struggle. He’s still here in my heart, and always will be.

    There are some wonderful CDs, books, and more on Sondheim. A few include Judy Collins’ A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim and Sondheim! The Birthday Concert (Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone, anyone?). I am not a fan of the movie Sweeney Todd, but I love the original Broadway cast album, with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury.  2013’s Six by Sondheim includes many interviews with the great man himself, as well as with his collaborators and performers. The book Stephen Sondheim: A Life by Meryle Secrest not only gives us chats with Steve but also with his friends and associates. Thank you for the gift of your talent, Stephen. 

    Once in a while I’ve been fortunate to interview amazing artists before they passed on. We lost Christopher Plummer this last February. He was once in town with his Tony winning Barrymore, where he portrayed the legendary alcoholic maestro of theatre and film. Sitting down with Plummer was almost like meeting Barrymore himself. He was flamboyant and darkly witty, a mix of Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp with Plummer’s own sexy persona.

    For those who missed Barrymore, see Plummer in his Oscar winning Beginners from 2010. He beautifully plays an older man coming out of the closet, living life with new joie de vivre. For a laugh this holiday season, find Knives Out, a brilliant ensemble comedy with Plummer as the patriarch of a madcap family. I know there’s the hunky Captain in The Sound of Music, which he referred to as “the sound of mucus.” He thought his performance was stiff and too sweet; I thought he was grand.    

    People we lost in 2021 will live on forever through their performances and moments we will never forget: Ned Beatty reminding Peter Finch about corporate greed in Network; Cloris Leachman sending the horses into a fright in Young Frankenstein; Jessica Walter showing Clint Eastwood she would not be ignored in Play Misty for Me; Jackie Mason making me laugh so hard at the Curran that I had to be excused for a moment; Norm Macdonald perfection as Burt Reynolds during “Celebrity Jeopardy” on Saturday Night Live; Charlie Watts as my favorite Rolling Stone keeping the beat and the heart of this great band; Cicely Tyson running to her man in Sounder; Dean Stockwell as The Boy with Green Hair; and Ed Asner explaining to Mary Richards why she will always be paid less in the newsroom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.       

    Let’s appreciate those who will always be with us. Hats off to an exciting and fulfilling (and healthy) 2022!

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian, film critic on various broadcast outlets, and has her own YouTube channel series, “Jan Wahl Showbiz.” She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at www.janwahl.com

    Published on December 16, 2021