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Art and love
Making art, making love, doing the work
Don’t talk to me unless it’s about art, or love.
Stephen Sondheim dies the same weekend you end things with someone you were hopeful about. You’re sad, and your theater friends are all in New York. You wish you were on a couch with them singing “The Little Things You Do Together.” But you’re alone, watching Six by Sondheim on HBO.
When Sondheim was a teen, he handed his first musical to his neighbor and mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. Sondheim thought it was brilliant. Hammerstein told him it was “the worst thing I’ve ever read.” Then he told Sondheim to write the next one.
Sondheim was just 27 when he wrote the lyrics to West Side Story. His musicals were mostly commercial flops throughout his career. But over eight decades of doing the work he changed musical theater forever—and found time to mentor others coming up behind him, including Jonathan Larson (Rent) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton).
You are 33. You wonder if any art you’ve made has made any difference, changed anything at all. You watch Mandy Patinkin in Sunday in the Park with George and shed a couple tears.
You fly to the desert to be reunited with most of the people on this planet who know and love you best. Bikini-clad, you lie poolside in Palm Springs and talk about Sondheim for hours with your friends. Finally.
You are here to be the maid of honor in Fran’s wedding. You’ve known Fran since you were 14, when you used to lie on the floors of the school hallways and pretend to be seals calling out to each other. You go on a morning walk through palm trees and bougainvillea and practice your speech for the reception, thinking of how much you love Fran. How much her husband clearly loves her too.
During your speech, you tell everyone:
“Here is a man who loves my friend for exactly who she is. There is such truth and vulnerability between them. You know Fran will be the first to say that she’s insane. And Mike saw all of that crazy, and also saw all of Fran’s love and empathy and loyalty and intelligence and bravery, and said ‘I SEE YOU. I love you. All of you.’ Mike and Fran, your relationship is one I look to when I need to see true love in the world.”
You mean every word.
You know that great love is real, and that it’s possible for you. You still believe, after everything.
You think of the great loves you’ve seen with your own eyes—so few. And then there are the great loves you’ve hungrily read and heard about. Like Roxane Gay and her wife Debbie Millman. Ashley C. Ford and her husband Kelly Stacy. (Lena Dunham and her musician pandemic husband?!) Glennon Doyle and her wife Abby Wambach.
Years ago Doyle wrote Love Warrior, a memoir about saving her marriage after she found out her husband had cheated on her multiple times. By the time she was on her press tour for the book’s release, she knew her marriage was falling apart.
And then she experienced love at first sight with former US soccer player Abby Wambach. Within weeks of meeting Wambach, Doyle left her marriage and told her kids and the world that she was queer. And then she wrote another book about that! The way she told shame to f*ck off into the sun. The way she did the work.
Untamed talks a lot about how we can shorten the gap between knowing and doing in our lives—such as the time between knowing a marriage is over, and actually ending it. Doyle writes:
HOW TO KNOW: Moment of uncertainty arises. Breathe, turn inward, sink. Feel around for the Knowing. Do the next thing it nudges you toward. Let it stand. (Don’t explain.)
You think about how far you’ve come with exactly this. Your own gap between knowing and doing is constantly shortening, especially when it comes to relationships. You no longer force relationships into submission, or beg for your basic wants and needs. Instead, you ask for your needs early and clearly, and remove yourself from the situation if they’re not met. You listen to your body, you protect your heart above all, you feel your feelings, you leave few things unsaid.
Now, you know that you are not asking for too much. You know that you are not too much. You know that all you ask for are the very same things you are jumping up and down to give.
“We are alive only to the degree which we are willing to be annihilated. Our next life will always cost us this one. If we are truly alive, we are constantly losing who we just were, what we just built, what we just believed, what we just knew to be true…If I am living bravely, my entire life will become a million deaths and rebirths.”
You reflect on the 2.5 years you’ve spent documenting your own annihilation and rebirth, over and over, in your newsletter.
Your quest for musical theater and love stories leads you to La La Land, of all places.
You rewatch this love letter to LA through a new lens, thinking about New York, your own city of dreams. You think about how many (many!) of the dreams of your twenties actually did come true. You think about being in love in New York, the happiest time of your life.
You watch the ending montage of the Plan B life Mia and WhatsHisFace could have had together, if only, and you remember how you sobbed through it the first time you saw it.
You think of your own life’s Plan B. You have always loved to dance, sing and act, and would have been a child actor if you had different parents (but not necessarily better ones).
You think of the dormant dreams that still burn like embers deep inside your ribcage, in this life, the Plan A life. Your one and only life. You think of Jonathan Larson.
Your study of Sondheim takes you to Tick, Tick…Boom!, the new Netflix film directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and starring Andrew Garfield. Tick, Tick…Boom! is an autobiographical musical written by Jonathan Larson, Rent’s writer and composer. It’s about the eight years he spent writing his first musical that was dead on arrival, hustling at a restaurant job to (barely) pay the bills, choosing art over love, or money, or sleep—always, always choosing art. It’s about the pain he felt turning 30 and feeling like he had accomplished nothing.
Anyone who’s ever gone to New York to chase a dream and live paycheck to paycheck can relate to Larson’s story—and all of his failures.
Jonathan Larson did the work. He worked his ass off in New York for 15 years, writing music and performing and putting on shows and not getting anywhere. Sondheim himself gave Larson encouraging notes along the way, and when Larson’s first musical doesn’t get picked up, he is told the same thing a teenage Sondheim once was: “Write the next one.”
Larson did. And on January 25, 1996, it was Rent’s opening night Off-Broadway. In that morning’s pre-dawn hours, Larson died from an aortic aneurysm. He was 35.
Rent went on to win Tonys and Drama Desk Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It ran on Broadway for 12 years. Larson didn’t get to experience a single second of his own success. Your heart aches with all the whys.
You are 33. You made some art this year. And now you want to make more. A lot more. If you’re lucky, you still have time.
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