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Stephen Sondheim.Fred Prouser/Reuters

Writer and editor Michael Schellenberg is a former publisher at Knopf Canada.

I heard the news that Stephen Sondheim, one of my greatest teachers and the man who showed me what might be possible in life, had died midday on Friday.

It was a balm to have the news delivered by an old friend who knew the importance of the man in my life. I looked out the basement window of my Windsor Park abode in Winnipeg after one of my pilgrimages to the Centennial Library to get an armload of LPs; among them was A Little Night Music. I put it on the hi-fi and I was transfixed by the melodies, the sophistications, the double entendres, the wordplay.

Listening to Sondheim’s Now/Later/Soon, I was transported to being 11 years old. As the gorgeous counterpoint swelled, I understood what each of those people wanted. And what we all want. As a gay boy putting a brave face on living in a cozy suburb of Winnipeg, I knew that I’d never belong, that I had a secret that marked me from the others. I wanted so much more from the world – oh how I wanted.

The “I want” song in a musical is most often my favourite, even though nowadays they are the ones that make me quietly sob into my tie as I pine in desperation for Cinderella to get her prince, Sweeney Todd to get his revenge, Sally to get her moment in the spotlight, Bobby to get whatever it is that straight men want, Maria to get her Tony as Juliet wanted her Romeo, and so on. I’ve sorted out that we all want something – but it turns out there are others who don’t want us to get what we want.

Those are the people you meet in the murky middle of musicals: the witch, the greedy businessman, the domineering mother. Oh, the intrigue, the complications. All along, there I am in the front row or by my hi-fi wanting to scream warnings that might just avoid all of the pain and confusion. But I love those songs, too: Sondheim’s On the Steps of the Palace from Into the Woods probably most of all. Because in the pain and confusion comes the realization of what just might be possible – how it might just be possible to get what you want. To quote the Baker in that musical, who has had enough of it, we can only take so much before our spirit sinks: “All the witches, all the curses, all the wolves, all the lies, the false hopes, the goodbyes, the reverses ... all the wondering what even worse is still in store. Please, no more.”

Finally, there is a type of song that always makes me glow and makes it hard to stay in my seat. It’s the song that I long for, albeit conflictedly, because I know that as soon as it comes I will have to head out into the real world again. It’s the 11 o’clock number that finally allows our hero to let loose, to truly reckon with what she has learned in the struggle – the last chance, as it were, to get what she wants – or to understand what attempting to get what she wants might cost. For Rose in Gypsy, it’s her turn on the stage. For Dot in Sunday in the Park with George, allowing George to move on. For Desiree in A Little Night Music, finally getting her clowns – but too late for the man she loves.

My heart always stops beating for a moment as I hold my breath waiting to grasp what there is to be learned. As the greatest teacher I’ve ever had, Kay Unruh Des Roches, taught me at the University of Winnipeg: The world falls apart daily – but equally it might just come back together. And I live in that “might.” That is the gift that I have been given by teachers such as Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin, Adam Guettel, Liza Minnelli, Betty Buckley, Audra McDonald, the wonderful Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and so many others. They have been brave enough to engage in our world, to put themselves in the line of fire of the doubters, the cynics and the too-cool-for-school types.

But my first teacher in this was Stephen Sondheim. Cats was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway. Imagine my parents allowing me to wait on the returns line alone at the age of 14 while they took my brother to see the Yankees. Mr. Sondheim taught me how to survive all of the moments in the woods. Two of his songs in particular have buoyed me through all that I’ve struggled through. From Children Will Listen: “Sometimes people leave you halfway through the woods, do not let it grieve you, no one leaves for good. You are not alone. No one is alone.” And from Move On, the song that I sing inside my head every day of my life: “I chose and my world was shaken, so what. The choice may have been mistaken, but the choosing was not ... anything you do let it come from you, then it will be new. Give us more to see.” I learned from Sunday in the Park with George that, yes, “art isn’t easy,” but it only matters to the world if it’s original, if I allow my muse to name the zeitgeist, to tackle what is painful and confusing and turn it into a way forward.

Stephen Sondheim, you gave me the conviction that art might save us because your musicals saved me. They showed me the way. I am truly blessed and duly grateful to have had you as a guide – to see what can happen if you fully try to engage, and how to deal with those out there who are waiting to smack you down. I have learned from you what I thought I wanted, and equally what I really wanted. And that’s for people to get what they want. What I most needed from you – as I need from all artists – was for you to stay true to your vision, to keep doing the heavy lifting, and to continue showing me what was next. I may not always have understood where you were going, but I learned to trust that you’d take me somewhere I just might be better off for having gone. Speaking of somewhere, thanks for writing the greatest articulation of faith in the American tradition: “There’s a place for us, somewhere.” For me, that’s in a theatre, watching a Sondheim show. Thank you, sir, for giving me what I want.

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