The End of the Road for Two of My Heroes

Two of my musical heroes passed away this fall.  First, my conducting mentor at Arizona State University, conductor of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, and former Principal Trombonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Henry Charles Smith; and most recently, the estimable lyricist and composer, Stephen Sondheim. Both were American intellectual and musical giants who significantly inspired me, both Renaissance men, and both nonagenarians at the time of their passing.   

If you don’t know who Stephen Sondheim was, you will at least know of someone of his Broadway shows: among them, West Side Story (collaborating with Leonard Bernstein – another of my heroes whom I once had the opportunity to provide room service to — coffee and cinnamon toast), Company, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize), and of course, his popular hit song: Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music.  

This morning, I watched a short interview with Sondheim by the New York Times from 2008. One of the things that struck me – so much so that I chortled aloud, was the negative self-critique of some of his lyrics, especially in West Side Story, his first big break.   

Now, for me, WSS is a profoundly inspirational show.  A nearly perfect work of the Broadway musical genre. Sondheim, on the other hand, seems patently embarrassed by many of his word choices, for which he, in part, blames Bernstein.   

Just ponder that for a moment.  

He seemed genuinely agonized by the fact that those lyrics are indelible fixtures in his repertoire; even pointing out some of the phrases he felt should have been replaced to make it clear that he, too – along with his decidedly cerebral audience, knew that they were sub-standard.  

Except we didn’t know!  

We hung on to, and sang, every word. Maria, Maria, I just met a girl named Maria… 

Imagine Bach, Beethoven or Mozart making a similar claim.  Oh, I can’t believe I continued in c-minor for so long in that Sonata; what was I thinking! And yet, it’s not unthinkable that even those geniuses looked back on a few of their less than awe inspiring phrases in their earlier works and winced.   

Ultimately, it seems, there is no way to prevent enlightenment from unveiling past ignorance – even for geniuses, or maybe even more for them because they see levels of perfection inaccessible to us mere mortals.  



A couple of days ago, I was invited to participate in a webinar.  My performance, this time, wasn’t total crap.  Some parts were actually fairly decent.  But quite frankly, I’m a much better coach (listener/facilitator), than a webinar participant. So, when I heard Sondheim criticize himself in the Times interview, I immediately connected with his sense of culpability.  I thought to myself, if King Sondheim could feel embarrassed about some of his output, why wouldn’t I feel mortified about so much of mine?  In fact, not feeling miserable (at times) would mean that I was living in Dunning-Krugerville, or worse, a giant bubble of complacency.   

In that moment, literally looking myself in the mirror (shaving while listening to the interview), Sondheim gave me license to feel inadequate about parts of myself without having to feel incompetent for most of the rest. Afterall, we cannot claim to be experts in all areas where we are required to perform. Even if you are lucky enough to pursue your hedgehog,  you will no doubt find instances of “lyrics” in your “repertoire” that cause you to shudder. If not, chances are that more self-reflection could be to your benefit. 

Indeed, seeking out and acknowledging one’s mediocrity is essential for an authentic life for which creating clear lines between accomplishments and failures is an unquestionable necessity. Having the courage to admit that I articulated an idea poorly in a webinar – or even in a coaching session, gives me a way to compartmentalize my defect so that it doesn’t tear at my psyche.  I can at once cringe about the parts I know I can improve and still allow myself to celebrate the portions that were spot on.  To do that successfully, however, requires me to both acknowledge my failures and immediately – or as quickly as possible, remove judgment from them; a skill that requires a great deal of practice no matter how astutely you comprehend the theory. 

Evaluating your actions and simultaneously rescinding judgement is not an easy task because it requires one to pull back from the experience and view it from the standpoint of different paths taken with one being preferable yet not labeling the other as wrong or bad. Perhaps that is what another great American writer, Robert Frost, meant when he characterizes his other choice as being on par with the one he makes:  

                                                                                        Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, 

                                                                                       I doubted if I should ever come back. 

Frost’s traveler seems to almost admire the “first” way (even calling it the first) in an attempt to disarm any potentially negative criticism of it.  

Earlier in the poem, Frost describes the other way, as just as fair. Again, not negatively critiquing his choice; instead, admiring its characteristics of being grassy and wanting wear. A lesser person traveling down that metaphorical highway might have bellowed, How the heck could I have missed that (explicative) exit! 

What if we took that same approach in how we record our past decisions?  Instead of regretfully musing, “I should have kept my previous job”, we might instead recall, “Leaving my previous employment taught me a lot about what I want from life.” While both statements could be true, the former is viewed remorsefully from a victim’s perspective while the latter is positive and growth oriented.   

Which path do you think has the better claim for you? Are you normally predisposed to either? Is that something you would want to change or double-down on? 

When we acknowledge our failures in a healthy way, we draw a line in the sand in order to take a preferred path in the future, but we should also take care as to not lament the choice we made – or didn’t make, at least not for more than a brief moment.  Afterall, why should any insightful and helpful contributions I make be tarnished in any way by my previously less preferred paths taken? It is indeed vital that those characteristics remain separate as their union creates nothing but self-loathing and indulgent feelings of mediocrity, which serves no one.   

Paradoxically, Sondheim was quite familiar with Frost’s poem and even included a reference to it in Follies, but his take on The Road Less Traveled is, in stark contrast to Frost’s, dark and cynical; perhaps a reflection of NY City during the 70’s.  (Here is how he describes it.) 




Returning to the Times’ interview, Sondheim also points out examples, albeit with more subdued emotion, where he felt he shined as a lyricist. So, I don’t mean to imbue that he wasn’t aware of his immense contribution to the arts. He most certainly had a sweeping perspective of what perfection is, but it was balanced by a comprehension of his mortal limits. The ability to swoop down to tiny details from the lofty rafters of perspective Sondheim him to be one of the greatest American artists of our time.    

Looking at his pained expression when he admitted to those regretful lyrics, (his sentiment, not mine), I couldn’t help but wonder how Sondheim’s life might have been different had he taken Frost’s more (Eastern) observational, rather than (Western) critical, attitude towards divergent decision making.  Perhaps when he gave the interview at the ripe age of 78, he wouldn’t have felt the urge to issue a mea culpa to relieve feelings of inadequacy, as shocking as that may sound – but what else could it be!   

Those days hence, when I identify with Sondheim’s immortal lyrics from Send in the Clown, 


                                                                       Isn’t it rich, isn’t it queer
                                                                      Losing my timing this late in my career
                                                                     And where are the clowns
                                                                    Quick send in the clowns
                                                                   Don’t bother, they’re here 


I will remind myself that Sondheim, himself, could on occasion, feel a twinge of (most unfortunate and needless) regret, and that he might have lived an even richer life (not that it wasn’t extraordinary) had he taken the road less traveled – one just as meaningful albeit less reproachful.   

Who knows, it might have made all the difference. 


Michael Hoffman

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top