Stephen Sondheim was a genius – we shall not see his like again
I never thought Stephen Sondheim would die.
Oh, I know we all do eventually, but he carried with him such an aura of invincibility that if anyone could cheat the passage of time, I assumed it would be musical theatre’s God. (The New York Times even once ran a story on the phenomenon, asking if Sondheim and God had ever been seen in the same place).
Sondheim, the maestro who reinvented musical theatre has passed at his home in Connecticut suddenly at 91.
His attorney, F. Richard Pappas, also confirmed the composer’s death: “The day before, Mr. Sondheim had celebrated Thanksgiving with a dinner with friends in Roxbury,” Pappas said in a written statement. “And he spent all day Wednesday seeing the matinee and evening performances of Dana H and Is This a Room — doing what he most loved to do.”
West End theatres will dim their lights on Monday 29 November at 7.00pm for 2 minutes. This tradition is reserved for the industry’s most celebrated figures and last occurred over here in 2018, following the death of trailblazing choreographer Gillian Lynne.
In truth, what mattered to Sondheim, widely considered the most influential composer-lyricist in the American musical theatre of the 20th century, was his art, in all its guises. His legacy is eternal.
Six of Sondheim’s musicals won Tony Awards for best score, and he also received a Pulitzer Prize (Sunday in the Park), an Academy Award (for the song Sooner or Later from the film Dick Tracy), five Olivier Awards and the Presidential Medal of Honor. In 2008, he received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement.
He was born into a Jewish family in New York City, and his career began in the 1950s, a decade in which he wrote the lyrics for Broadway classics Gypsy and West Side Story. For his fans, his audience, this is a moment of infinite sorrow.
Looking back, I finally got Sondheim musicals– there’s cynicism, endless philosophy, and pure emotion in his work – when I turned thirty.
Seeing Dominic Cooke’s Follies and Marianne Elliott’s gender flipped Company within months of each other, it’s fair to say, hit me during a life affirming period of reflection and recalibration.
Think of modern musicals like Hamilton and even Fun Home and you’ll find the composers owe their style, as well as the roof over their head and the food on the table, to the genius of Stephen Sondheim.
All in all, losing Sondheim in 2021 is all the more surprising after he so joyously attended the current revival Company on Broadway earlier this month. A ripple of murmurs and a rapturous standing ovation greeted the masked nonagenarian as he emerged from a side entrance shortly before showtime, walking along the fifth row to his aisle seat.
He was a keen teacher and mentor and used his talent always to make a difference. Art isn’t easy.
I asked Robbie Rozelle, A&R Director at Broadway Records for a few words on Sondheim’s legacy and impact. He said: “Taking the foundation that Oscar Hammerstein laid for him, Sondheim proceeded to become the greatest architect of musicals. He was also an important teacher, who worked with people to stretch the form even further – Jonathan Larson, Jason Robert Brown, so many. He was the bridge between the Golden Age of musicals and the new form of musical, and what a beautiful bridge he was.”
Sondheim was also generous with his time, and with his encouragement, just very, very giving.
An unsurpassed musical theatre super-hero.
In short, he was an insightful, shrewd operator who could spot a contradiction at 50 paces. The irony of this, and the debt we all owe him, is not lost on me. He is survived by his husband, Jeffrey Scott Romley, whom he married in 2017.
“You have to work on something that makes you uncertain – something that makes you doubt yourself,”
“If you know where you’re going, you’ve gone, as the poet says. And that’s death,” Sondheim said in 2017.
I’d like to propose a toast. Stephen Joshua Sondheim, may peace be upon you.