Being AliveHow Sondheim Made Space for Queer and Trans People

A black and white portrait of Stephen Sondheim overlaying a collage of his playbills, including “Company,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park with George” and more

(Photo by Juana Arias/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

For many a theater kid, Stephen Sondheim’s music is foundational. In particular, theater kids who were closeted and struggling through the cruelties of adolescence, like me, have found solace and safety in his work. One of my strongest memories from childhood is listening to Company’s “Being Alive” on repeat, shouting along with it at the top of my lungs, and allowing myself to experience a kaleidoscope of emotions. Though I was often shamed for showing that intensity of emotion, and others labeled it “too much,” Sondheim encouraged us to truly be inside our feelings. Through lyrics and characters who found personal fulfillment by processing their sorrows and letting them out, he helped many of us believe that authentic emotional processing was not only worthy of celebration, but love. Like many of Sondheim’s works, “Being Alive” is one of those songs that fills you with the vibrancy of what it means to feel human. 

For queer and trans people specifically, whether we grew up able to express our true selves or not, it’s often hard to feel human—not because we aren’t, but because the world constantly tells us otherwise and offers few spaces where we are accepted and celebrated rather than disdained and ostracized. But Sondheim dedicated his life to paying tribute to the ways each person’s complexities make us more human, and more worthy of being treated as such. With Company, a concept musical that broke nearly every rule in the Broadway-show rulebook, Sondheim sought to confront audiences with the beauty and ugliness of humanity, instead of giving us an escape. He believed in “content over form”—stripping a creation of its superficial fluff to give us something real. He wanted to hand us a mirror we could look into and find compassion and empathy for what we see, even when we didn’t always like it. 

“I do feel that I grew up with Sondheim,” says Juliette Goglia, a 26-year-old professional actor and musician. “For every major moment in my life, there has been a Sondheim song to perfectly capture the emotions. I love how [he] always dissected the less appealing parts of the human psyche.” Sondheim left a robust legacy that includes a Pulitzer prize and eight Tony awards (more than any other composer), but his greatest gift will always be that he helped us to be less alone. “He taught me that no feeling I had was too much,” adds Goglia. “All the feelings or worries I’ve had? Other people have had them too.”  

Though Sondheim didn’t come out to the theater community until the age of 40, seeing a gay man not only live to an old age but also spend much of his life creating music that comforted other gay and queer people, was majorly impactful. For many members of the LGBTQ+ community—who have often not been able to imagine ourselves living out full, long lives—Sondheim gave us a blueprint for owning who we are and knowing that it contributes to our successes.

Seeing a gay man not only live to an old age but also spend much of his life creating music that comforted other gay and queer people, was majorly impactful.

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Jzl Jmz, a 29-year-old Black trans artist and sociologist from Los Angeles, has been a theater queer since early childhood. According to Jmz, “The first piece of Sondheim that struck me was the swinging, romantic men melodies of West Side Story.” But it was Anna Kendrick’s performance of “Ladies Who Lunch” in the 2003 film Camp that inspired her to seek out Company. “Meditating [on] the show’s themes, I found so many parallels with my own desires and contradictions of self, of love, of friendship—all of which have increased in salience as I near my thirties,” Jmz says. 

Sondheim wrote characters who were stuck in their own heads and fighting to make their way in the world, isolated but striving to connect. This is made plain in “Someone in a Tree” from 1976’s Pacific Overtures, in which three people argue over history from their different perspectives. As a Black trans woman, Jmz has witnessed many public narratives about the loneliness and isolation that so many trans people experience. “Bobby’s journey through Company navigates a version [of fierce] independence [that] this life seems to demand and a personal desire for connection. Even more than other Sondheim works, ‘Being Alive’ is a meditation that grounds me,” she says. In the refrain from the ensemble during Bobby’s lament, a friend demands that Bobby “want something” for himself. “The desire to want something has indefinitely kept me alive.”

Most of Jmz’s favorite Sondheim characters are “romantics that desire some kind of recognition or meaning that is reliant on those around them,” she explains. In 1979’s Sweeney Todd, she found sympathy for the titular main character. Yes, he’s a demonic barber who murders people—but he is motivated by a need to avenge the love of his life after she is sexually assaulted (“Poor Thing”). In 1959’s Gypsy, Mama Rose’s determination to push her daughters into stardom is detrimental but never explicitly vilified. Instead, her stubborn desires are portrayed as deeply human, and any pain she causes her loved ones is framed as unintentional. Though Sondheim doesn’t attempt to justify the actions of his villainous characters, he does humanize their motivations and desires—as Jmz puts it, he “gives broken men music and wrong women anthems.” 

Where other creators might lean into pathologizing his characters or stigmatizing their flaws, Sondheim made room for the complexity of existence. He reminded us that nothing is black and white—above all, reminding queer and trans people that we can be complicated and messy, but still worthy of love. And while Jmz doesn’t think Sondheim should be looked to for racial insights, especially given the tensions surrounding his works, she argues that “his dynamic gender commentary leaves room for so much humanity.”

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Although many white and non-white queer people feel seen by Sondheim’s works, it’s important to acknowledge that most of his works primarily showcase other white people, and that there are valid critiques of his shows—for example, how West Side Story stereotyped Puerto Ricans in harmful ways (though Sondheim was not responsible for the storytelling done by Arthur Laurents). “I would be remiss to ignore that part of my love of the Stephen Sondheim canon comes from my privileges as a white theater maker,” says Maddie McClousky, a 30-year-old performer and writer. Even Sondheim himself viewed his past works with a critical eye, which is why McClousky says they’d like to think that “this type of complexity in mourning is the type of emotional nuance that can be appreciated by fellow Sondheim lovers.” Because he held space for the messiness of humanity, many of his fans choose to do the same.

Em Hernandez, a 30-year-old writer, was first introduced to Sondheim by their brother in high school. Hernandez’s appreciation for Sondheim wasn’t just about finding comfort in his words, but about the artistic standard he held himself to. “I was a young musician and the quality of his music, especially in comparison to many other shows I was listening to at the time, drew me in significantly,” Hernandez says. As they got more invested in theater, they were able to appreciate Sondheim’s introspective lyrics and complicated themes. His musicals, they recall, “were a constant place I turned to.” 

To Hernandez, Sondheim himself and the complex characters he created were a reminder that thoughtful, empathetic people existed in the world. Through his lyrics and intentionally-crafted productions, Sondheim showed Hernandez and many other queer and trans people that the entire world is not flippantly cruel. There will always be people who want to both navigate their flaws and stay beside you as you face your own. In Sondheim’s words from No One Is Alone, “Witches can be right / Giants can be good / You decide what’s right / You decide what’s good / Just remember / Someone is on your side.” 

A trademark of Sondheim’s productions was the care with which he handled characters grappling with big life decisions and realizations. Shows such as Company and Sunday in the Park with George, in grappling with companionship, love, and the struggle to create, helped Hernandez find comfort—as well as answers—about their life as a trans person. They found in both musicals a rich vein of material about people facing seemingly impossible decisions and conflicts. These characters always found a way to come out on the other side—not unscathed, but alive and okay. “There’s a certain power in showing that kind of human struggle with life that makes it seem possible and worthwhile,” Hernandez says.

“He taught me that no feeling I had was too much.”

Through their experience growing up in the entertainment industry, Goglia learned the lesson that, as Sondheim says in Into the Woods, “Nice is different than good.” When she was a kid, she loved belting out Little Red’s song (“I Know Things Now”), but as she grew up she realized what the song was really about—and felt emotional, even nauseated, by the song’s resonance with her own experiences. “I was so moved by Sondheim’s ability to take a fairytale and directly relate it to the experience of being taken advantage of: sexual mistreatment, sexual harassment, the nuance of a sexual awakening within these horrifying situations. All of it.”

Through songs such as “Being Alive,” which includes the lyrics “Somebody hold me too close, somebody know me too well,” Sondheim paid homage to the human desire to be seen—a deep-seated craving for someone to know the most difficult parts of ourselves and still want us. “This whole song just encapsulates something I think a lot of artists, particularly queer artists, go through in their search for love, connection, excitement,” says Goglia. As it’s done for many LGBTQ+ people, “Being Alive” serves as a reminder for Goglia that it’s always worth it to put herself out there and find the bravery to love someone. 

For many of us who felt shut out in less-accepting spaces, Sondheim’s canon served as a sort of religion, or at least an awakening. McClousky, who grew up isolated from a conservative community that didn’t accept them, McClousky didn’t necessarily believe in “prayer as a practice.” However, they told Bitch, “I meditated on most of the text of Into the Woods for so long that I often quote it without realizing I’m doing it.” Although the experience of being isolated from their communities was understandably confusing and hurtful to them as a young person, McClousky was eventually able to find a sense of belonging. As a teen and young adult, McClousky says they developed many pivotal friendships from a shared love of Sondheim that helped them find themselves and each other through the examination of his work.

Stephen Sondheim’s work itself is undoubtedly magical, but his true magic went beyond brilliant lyrics, concepts, and characters. His art united us. He made us pay attention to the details of other people that reflected the things we couldn’t bear to look at in the mirror. He made us pay attention to ourselves—and taught us to have self-compassion. He reminded us that someone is on our side, and someone will understand us even when it doesn’t feel like it. And that will continue to be true, even beyond his death, because he helped us find each other.

 

by Elly Belle
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Elly Belle is a writer and digital media strategist who lives and works in Brooklyn. They’re passionate about advocacy, culture, media, and bringing stories about restorative justice and healing to the spotlight. Their words can be found in Teen Vogue, Thrillist, InStyle, Playboy, Publisher’s Weekly, BUST magazine, and other outlets. Follow them on Twitter @literelly.