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Why we love Stephen Sondheim

29 November 2021 by Gillian Russo
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Stephen Sondheim, who died November 26, 2021 at the age of 91, left behind an incomparable legacy as a composer and lyricist. His tremendous contributions to musical theatre are affirmed by eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, a Pulitzer Prize, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, two Lifetime Achievement Awards, and a place in the Theater Hall of Fame, to name a few. His canon is 19 musicals strong. He has a theatre named for him both on Broadway and in the West End. To borrow a phrase from his musical Into the Woods, he’s now a “giant in the sky.”

But it’s more than awards that made the theatre community love him — it was his support of emerging artists, his versatility and innovation, his humility amid fame, his perseverance, his friendship with his collaborators and his mentees, and more.

He had a versatile talent.

Sondheim wasn’t called the most influential 20th century composer for nothing. He is credited with “reinventing the American musical,” tackling unconventional and often dark subjects when, up to that point, most famous musicals were comic and romantic. Sondheim wrote shows about everything from the Brothers Grimm fairytales (Into the Woods) to the westernization of Japan (Pacific Overtures) to pointillist painter Georges Seurat (Sunday in the Park with George) to being single amid married friends (Company) to U.S. political criminals (Assassins), and more.

He didn’t let failure stop him.

Not all of Sondheim’s musicals were smash hits, but he always continued to create. After the Broadway premiere of Merrily We Roll Along received negative reviews, for example, he was discouraged at first, but he put his talent toward the Off-Broadway scene. There he met James Lapine and went on to create the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, the three-time Tony Award-winning Into the Woods, and the Tony-winning Best Musical Passion.

Not to mention, the theatre community has found plenty to love even in his “flops.” Sondheim’s score for Merrily We Roll Along is so masterful that the musical continues to receive plenty of productions beyond Broadway, and it’s even being made into a movie with Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein. And we have Anyone Can Whistle, another Broadway flop, to thank for a lot of catchy tunes (like the title track and “Everybody Says Don’t”) and for giving the legendary Angela Lansbury her musical theatre debut.

He was beloved by his collaborators.

It would take a lifetime to name them all — suffice it to say, the entire Broadway community celebrated Sondheim. In 2010, a host of stars came together for a concert to celebrate his 80th birthday, which coincided with the renaming of Henry Miller’s Theatre to the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Though the pandemic prevented an in-person celebration for his 90th birthday, that didn’t stop more than 40 stars from performing in the virtual event Take Me To the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration, which has more than 2 million views on YouTube. And on November 28, actors from every current Broadway show gathered with hundreds of fans in Times Square to sing “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George in Sondheim’s memory.

Sandi Bachom via YouTube

But to name a few stars who loved him, there’s Bernadette Peters, who has been a longtime friend of Sondheim’s after starring in Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and Gypsy. She shared Company on Broadway, had a heartfelt one-on-one conversation with Sondheim that aired on CBS Sunday Morning the day of the “Sunday” singalong.

CBS Sunday Morning via YouTube

He supported up-and-coming talent.

Oscar Hammerstein II (yes, of Rodgers and Hammerstein) mentored Sondheim before he became famous, and Sondheim did the same for a new generation of composers. His mentorship of Rent composer Jonathan Larson is lovingly immortalized in Larson’s musical tick, tick… BOOM!, and a message from Sondheim encouraging Larson’s talent is even included in the 2021 film adaptation directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Speaking of which, Hamilton wouldn’t be where it is without Sondheim, as he gave Miranda notes on a fledgling draft of the project. Who better to edit a hip-hop musical than the man who wrote the Witch’s Rap?

Sondheim also reminds us that it’s never too late to become successful. Even he wrote some of his most popular shows, like Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, and Sunday in the Park, in his 40s and 50s.

He was humble.

Sondheim encouraged his friends to call him “Steve” (as many of his Broadway friends famously do) and he replied to letters — from celebrities and fans alike — with hand-signed letters of his own, even on mundane topics. Despite all his successes, Sondheim got a reputation for modesty because of this. Following Sondheim’s death, Tony-nominated actor Richard Kind tweeted that Sondheim once told him, “I am not my songs. I’m just a nice Jewish boy from the Upper West Side.”

His shows introduced countless people to the beauty of musical theatre.

Into the Woods is often called a “gateway musical,” a show that made people fall in love with Sondheim’s work and musicals in general, whether they watched the show live on Broadway or the broadcast on PBS. As is West Side Story, between the original film adaptation, the Broadway productions, and the countless regional and school productions many people see at a young age. These are just two famous examples, but combine the fans of all his musicals, and you’re left with a sizable chunk of people that are theatre fans because of Sondheim.

His work still has a long life ahead of it.

Two Sondheim musicals — Company on Broadway and Assassins off Broadway — are currently playing in New York. West Side Story is getting a new film adaptation, to be released December 10. He was developing a new musical, Square One, before he died. It’s clear that Sondheim’s work is alive and well and cherished — not that there was any doubt — and there’s no end in sight to productions of his work. And every time a new Broadway show goes up at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, we’ll think of him and the monumental legacy he left.

His musicals have timeless messages.

Aside from the intricate, beautiful music and endlessly clever wordplay, perhaps one of the reasons Sondheim’s musicals have such longevity is because they teach timeless lessons about the whole of the human experience, in all its imperfection. “Nice is different than good.” “Careful the things you say; children will listen.” “Anything you do, let it come from you, and it will be new.” “Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”

These are just some quotable messages from Sondheim’s musicals, which deal with history, family, fame, love, and loss. That last one is more important than ever right now. Sondheim’s shows teach us how to grieve — and celebrate our love for the gifts people leave us.

“Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Do not let it grieve you. No one leaves for good.”

— Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods