I am a big fan of Stephen Sondheim. His musicals have always been an inspiration to me. I often sit back and listen to his lyrics in awe. The way he plays with words in ‘A Little Priest’ from Sweeny Todd is nothing short of delightful to listen too. And his characters and stories are so well developed in a place where big musical numbers and costumes and dynamic staging often take precedence.
‘Company’ is one of my favorite Sondheim musicals. A friend suggested I see D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about the making of the cast album, which is a fascinating look at the way an album is made. Though I’ve seen it years ago, one part of this documentary has always stuck with me: Elaine Stritch singing ‘Ladies Who Lunch’, a powerful song coming from a bitter, judgemental character struggling with alcoholism. Elaine Stritch had a lot of trouble singing the song for the album and the documentary captured her painstaking struggle almost…well…beautifully. It’s not easy to capture frustration beautifully. But this does.
In any case, the more takes she tried to sing the more frustrated she grew. Everyone around her dissected her vocals to an excruciating level of detail. The directors, the producers, Sondheim himself, all shook their heads. Take after take. It wasn’t right. It just wasn’t right. But, what struck me most was that, as hard as the rejection was on her, nothing was more apparent than how hard she was on herself. Literally, ringing her hair out, listening back to her recordings, take after take, shouting at herself, willing herself to get it perfect, settling for nothing less.
I thought about this moment in the documentary today. Because, this whole writing thing… it’s really hard. I don’t have to give you all the reasons it’s hard. You know all of them and you know them all too well.
And, as often as we experience rejection, more of the time we’re beating ourselves up. Our paragraphs are just not good enough. Our word choices are not quite right. Our characters are not yet perfect.
It’s hard. It’s not going to get any easier and, yet, WE’RE DOING IT ANYWAY. No one is rewarding us and we’re certainly not rewarding ourselves.
So since nobody else is going to say it, I will. Because I was lucky enough to hear it from a writer friend last night, it’s only fair to pass it along. All this work you’re doing. It’s pretty incredible. This is the hard work of legends, my friends. Just ask Elaine Stritch. And as she said so famously in the now-classic, completed, perhaps perfect rendition of ‘Ladies Who Lunch’: I’ll drink to that.