Is it The Who, The When, or the What That Gets You into the Woods?

The time-old question of whether it is what you know or who you know that gets you where you are came to mind after reading about the life of Stephen Sondheim after he passed away in November.

It amazed me that no one in my social media feed made any reference to his passing, although there is always some kind of mention to almost everyone else when their famous lives come to an end. I was the only one who posted a song in his memory. Then alone at home I watched the tribute that the Broadway community paid him while singing Sunday”, the only song he wrote as one long line, kind of like the way we view art in a gallery, with one long stare at unique brushstrokes of emotion that will last forever. And then I began to watch some of his interviews and remember how his songs played a part in my own life.

See, I used to hate Sundays. I used to feel alone, I used to think a romantic partner would make all my Sundays magical and wonderful and full of all that jazz that makes life sing. That is until I left everything behind and ventured out alone. Sounds like an oxymoron? Feeling alone has nothing to do with being alone. The place around me made me feel alone in a house with a family and a social life with enough people to tell my troubles to. But when I ventured out alone, I was really able to get to know the things I was very good at and the things that made my soul flutter, and one of these was musical theatre. Sunday at the Park with George was new to me then. As George finished his hat, I finished poem after poem after poem.

But back to Sondheim and how my research into his life got me thinking about the road we all travel, and whether we are pushed down it by powerful hands that know many other hands on the way, or whether we pave our own roads. Perhaps it is a bit of both, perhaps not. Yes, it all depends, as always, on almost everything. How did he get to be such an influential figure, how did he go from West Side Story to Sweeny Todd? From “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” to “Send in the Clowns”?

It started with ‘the right place at the right time’ kind of thing. He was mentored by lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein. Sondheim said he just wanted to do what he did. “He was a songwriter for the theatre, so I became a songwriter for the theatre. If he was a geologist, I would have been a geologist.” It is who you know. The mentor was there with all the right contacts and the means to teach Sondheim the theatrical ropes. Contacts are everything, right? After all, why are there so many networking events happening all the time? Know people in high places and they will take you along with them, right?

How about timing? Perhaps timing played a central role in Sondheim’s unfolding as a master of his craft. Besides, a remake of West Side Story just came out and it has proven to be a flop — and I quote the New York Times ‘Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake is worse than the original.’ True, Sondheim had criticised some parts of the work, mostly to do with some of the words some of the characters used, but he did also say it was the first of its kind as it seemed to seamlessly blend music and movement into part of a whole movement — not just pieces of music but a non-stop piece of musical theatre. Timing. Something that has never really been done before can be scary for the creator, it is like a first child being brought up with a lot of doubt but a lot of love. But a novel idea in a world where almost everything has already been done is like a snowflake in the Sahara Desert.

When La La Land came out everyone was saying how Hollywood is in love with itself, and when Disney decided to remake some of its classics like Pete’s Dragon (a big part of my childhood) with real live characters, some critics said that Hollywood has nothing original to say. Now with a more colourful, modern take on West Side Story, I would say the musical had its time in the spotlight. You can’t go back, you can’t have gone through the Black Lives matters movement and still see Romeo and Juliet in the musical, now you just see raw racism at its core and all the music has been replaced with “I can’t breathe”. It was of its time, we have moved forward, we have seen and felt more, and musical theatre has moved into different realms. Timing. If you are out of time, or if you show up at the wrong time chances are it just won’t work.

So, only one thing really remains. The what you know. Crafts and skills can be learned they say. Sure, learn accounting and you can be an accountant, learn how to make a table and you can be a carpenter. If that is what we might say is your calling, you will do it well and enjoy it. Go on a writing course, learn how to write for a certain audience, how to sharpen sentences to catch the reader, how to grab the reader from the get-go to sell that product or service and you know what you need to know to do the job. But sometimes the what you know comes with what you were born to do or what you have in you to do. Not everyone who loves writing or musical theatre gets to make their passion into a profession, not all of us will get a whole bunch of famous people singing about us when we are gone, but we do it anyway.

We write poetry that gets rejected from magazines and real publishing houses that do not ask you for money. We write musical theatre plays that we talk to a few professionals in the field about in the hope that they will help but they don’t, who wants to take on an unknown anyway even if they are at the right place at the right time with the right material when it needs to be said? We write blogs about writing; we write small pieces on LinkedIn in the hope that one of our connections will reach out — this one works — and we write longer pieces on Medium because the words rage within us, they pull at our insides and won’t leave us alone until they fill a blank page. And the mind? The mind is never free. I watch an interview and a phrase will set my mind into five directions at once. I listen to my son talk about the seasons and give each one a special name and fantasy creates bubbles of opportunity in my mind. I listen to him talk about going back to white, a time before he was born and that is it, my mind is off, pushed along by my bossy muse who is just as stubborn and in love with words as I am.

Is what you know what got Sondheim so much success? It must have been part of it. He must have known about how humans react to certain situations to put the right words in their mouths at the right time. He must have known how the theatre works and what it was still lacking to make a difference. Was a sense of wonder part of it? For sure, you can’t write without it.

I started writing this to ask some questions, to understand — for me — how I will take my next steps along my own road. Is it who I know that will determine my next steps? I have been known to get a few writing gigs because of referrals. Is it timing? During the summer when I was somewhat at a loss, I was contacted by an old friend to help his company out with content. Right at the time when I needed a boost of confidence. Is it what I know? Go back to the start of this and you tell me. Is it my drive, my love of words, my passion, my heart’s flutter when a piece of writing just comes together as I write? Yes, that part we have, pens down.

Copywriter, poet, content manager, journalist.