Digested week: Words mattered to Stephen Sondheim, as I found to my cost

·5 min read

Monday

There aren’t many public figures whose deaths, when announced, can trigger audible anguish, but Stephen Sondheim was one of them. At the end of last week, the alert popped up on my phone. Alone in my living room, I said loudly: “Oh no.”

It wasn’t just the music. Without growing dated, Sondheim himself seemed like a figure from a long ago and possibly mythical era, in which people neither tap-danced for favour nor fawned. In 2008, the late Elaine Stritch, one of his great leading ladies, recalled doing a Sondheim benefit and bringing the house down with Broadway Baby and The Ladies Who Lunch. “I really nailed it – standing ovation – and I came off stage and Steve Sondheim squeezed my hand.” This was, she said, an unprecedented level of praise from someone not given to hyperbole. He encouraged and mentored the best of Broadway, with an economy that kept the focus on them.

I interviewed Sondheim in 2010. Six years later – six years! – I saw him again and he was still angry about a word I’d used to describe the behaviour of his poodles; they had, I had written, “fussed”. The image summoned, he said, was of small, silly dogs, when his two were large and handsome. I must have looked nonplussed. The word “fussed” – he paused, ominously – struck him as particularly unfriendly to him as a gay man, an interpretation I was so taken aback by, and more generally by the experience of being told off by Sondheim, that I practically had a heart attack on his sofa, remaining so stricken and destabilised that for the rest of the encounter, he was excessively, extravagantly kind. Every word mattered.

Tuesday

The debate around Omicron and how worried we should be – “cause for concern, not a cause for panic”, said President Biden this week, a distinction not fully recognised by the markets – comes in second to the question of how to pronounce it. As a friend points out, who among us knows the Greek letters much beyond epsilon? And why aren’t the variants going in strict alphabetical order? (The answer, clarified by the World Health Organization, is that they jumped to the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet because some of the skipped letters sound like common surnames – a needless-sounding precaution until one recalls that a mob attacked the home of a paediatrician in Wales, thinking her job title meant paedophile.) The New York Times, meanwhile, offers a handy guide to pronouncing omicron, that for speakers of British English only serves to confuse. Is “AH-muh-kraan”, as the paper has it, intended as phonetic spelling for all of us, or only for those who already turn “hot” into “haht” and “from” into “frahm”?

Wednesday

Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of Theranos who is on trial for fraud, made a schedule on hotel notepaper more than 10 years ago that has come up once again in court papers this week. If Holmes and her company had succeeded, this note would now be enshrined in every MBA syllabus as the roadmap to becoming a guru. As it is, her commitment to rising at 4am and reminding herself to thank God, before deciding 12 hours in advance what kind of dressing she’ll be wanting with dinner (“garlic/balsamic”), only serves to make her downfall seem inevitable.

The first half of the memo is a timetable, which while odd – she describes one 50-minute period with the words, “change, shower, shave, perfect” – is less odd than the second half, in which Holmes jots down guidelines on how to behave. Her defence attorney claims the advice came from her former business partner Sunny Balwani, who Holmes is accusing of abuse and coercion. He denies the allegations. The tone is reminiscent of a mirthless teen diary in which one exhorts oneself to be an entirely new person. “I do not react,” she writes. “I do not hesitate.” “I give immediate feedback, non-emotionally.” “I speak rarely. When I do, crisp and concise.” “My hands are always in my pockets or gesturing.” If this is Holmes as she wanted to be, it raises a curious shadow image of how she possibly once was: voluble, nervy, erratic, unsure, chewing her fingernails or picking at scabs.

Thursday

Defenders of Holmes make the case she is the victim of sexism, so that when male CEOs deploy fake-it-til-you-make-it strategies and fail, they aren’t vilified as she was. This may be true. I was aware this week, while watching the supreme court inch closer to gutting abortion law, that I was harder on one judge than the rest.

Mid-week, oral arguments were heard in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, an abortion case from Mississippi that if upheld, would effectively overturn Roe v Wade. Here was Justice Samuel Alito, saying with all the wisdom of a large stone that “the foetus has an interest in having a life” – an interest apparently not shared by adult women. Here was Chief Justice John G Roberts Jr, who suggested that by imposing a limit of 15 weeks on abortion, the state of Mississippi gave women plenty of time to make up their minds.

It was, however, Amy Coney Barrett, the supreme court justice and devout mother of seven, who moved me to another level of rage. The burden of parental rights, a key tenet of Roe v Wade, might, she argued, be made obsolete by the possibility of adoption. No abortion? No biggie. Carry the baby to term, give it up, move on. Coney Barrett’s logic was no worse than that of the other conservative judges, but oh, how much more appalling she seemed.

Friday

If I could’ve put it off for another week, I would have, but people in my house were harassing me. And so out of the closet comes the fake Christmas tree and for an hour everyone decorates. The home-made angel, fashioned from toilet roll and covered in scribbles, always drags at my heart, but beyond that, the experience is agony. In the background, Sondheim plays on the sound system, as it has done all week. Order, design, tension, balance, harmony; the composer, I would hazard, never had to watch two six-year-olds decorate a tree and put all the tinsel and baubles on one side.

“Just to clarify, they’re not all of them mine.”
‘Just to clarify, they’re not all of them mine.’ Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock
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