Sports are, by their nature, argument creators. Territorially, New Yorkers can argue over which team is the best in the city in multiple sports. In Alberta, hockey fans can argue who owns the province: Edmonton or Calgary? For generational banter, fans can take sides on the timeless issue of which player was the greatest to ever do it.
The GOAT conversation: a heated debate about which player is the GOAT, or the Greatest Of All Time.
In football, Tom Brady appears to be a clear frontrunner. In basketball, the debate rages between Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Baseball? Completely open field from Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron, Mike Trout to Ichiro. And frankly, the conversation comes down to how much they changed the game and affected its trajectory. The core feature of a GOAT is that they altered the way we view the way their respective game, forever.
But in one specific game, outside of the pantheon of athletics, the GOAT has exited stage right.
Stephen Sondheim changed the way the American Theatre worked. Full stop. And on November 26, 2021, at the age of 91, Broadway’s GOAT took his final bow, leaving millions of fans without adequate words to describe the loss. That’s partly Sondheim’s fault, in a way.
Early on in my pre-professional life, when I was in high school training to get to Broadway, a teacher scolded me for putting a Sondheim song in my repertoire book. “You can’t sing Sondheim. Not until you’re 30. You haven’t had the necessary life experiences to perform it properly.” At the time, I thought it was a bit rough. Surely, my 17-year-old self could sing about what it means to be a father who just lost his wife, right? Surely I know what it’s like to beg for your soulmate, at the end of your rope in the dating pool. Right?
Of course not.
But what Sondheim did give me was a road map, an instruction manual for life. Through his words and music, Stephen Sondheim helped me understand the human experience in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Good art does that. Great theatre does that. But to have a career filled with work that magnifies grief, hope, love, and loss in such explicit terms? That’s what makes Stephen Sondheim the Greatest of All Time.
And while his passing has left the American Theatre industry reeling, in a way, it is his work that has been preparing us for this moment. No one has taught us more about love, loss, and the art of moving forward, than Sondheim himself.
And yet, he’s also prepared us with a statement about his own passing. A summation of what his career has meant and how to move forward in a world without him.
In Sunday in the Park with George, arguably Sondheim’s greatest work, the penultimate song “Move On” in which Dot, George Seurat’s muse, tries to help a descendant of the painter release himself from a creative block. It begins with a short scene. In that scene, the present-day George asks Dot what he gave her, and she responds:
“You taught me about concentration. At first, I thought that meant just being still, but I was to understand it meant much more. You meant to tell me to be where I was, not some place in the past or future. I worried too much about tomorrow.”
At the end of the song, Dot finishes their shared refrain, singing:
“Just keep moving on
Anything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see.”
You see, being a GOAT isn’t about what you’ve done during your career, it’s about what you’ve left behind when you’ve finished. It’s about changing the landscape of your respective medium. Being the GOAT isn’t about championships, MVPs, or Tony Awards. Being the GOAT is about showing those who come after you what’s possible. It’s about showing those who will follow in your footsteps, that greatness comes from within, all you need do, is open up and let go.
And so we raise a toast to a man who let all of us see the world in a different light, helped us navigate the complexities of the human experience, taught us that different rhythms are necessary, and finished many hats. To the greatest of all time…
Thank you, Mr. Sondheim.
- / 1 year ago
To me, Rachel Nichols is the personification of posting a black square on Instagram.