Stephen Sondheim, who reinvented the modern musical and was one of the greatest musicals composers of the 20th century, has died in the US aged 91.
Sondheim died Friday 26 November 2022, at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, US.
West End Theatre and Broadway have led tributes to the Pulitzer, Tony and Olivier Award winning composer, who wrote many of the 20th century’s most important musicals including Company, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods. He also wrote the lyrics to West Side Story.
West End tributes to Sondheim
West End and global theatre impresario Cameron Mackintosh (Les Miserables), who was a close friend of the composer and perhaps more than any other producer championed Sondheim’s work, paid tribute to Sondheim in a statement: “The theatre has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers. Sadly, there is now a giant in the sky. But the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim will still be here as his legendary songs and shows will be performed for evermore. Goodbye old friend and thank you from all of us.” (Main picture: Cameron Mackintosh, right, with Stephen Sondheim and Angela Lansbury at the 2011 Olivier Awards).
Andrew Lloyd Webber (The Phantom of the Opera) said in a tweet: “Farewell Steve, the musical theatre giant of our times, an inspiration not just to two but to three generations. Your contribution to theatre will never be equalled.”
Tim Rice, award-winning lyricist, said on Twitter: “RIP Stephen Sondheim, master musical man. His words for West Side Story alone would have guaranteed him theatrical immortality but there was so much more. He bestrode songwriting like a Colossus.”
Jenna Russell, the British stage actress who has appeared in numerous Sondheim shows including Sunday in the Park with George for which she won an Olivier Award, quoted Follies to say: “I dim the lights and think about you, spend sleepless nights to think about you… Goodnight Steve”.
Award-winning West End director Marianne Elliot, who recently directed Company in the West End and which is current playing on Broadway, said: “We have lost the Shakespeare of musical theatre. He was the most generous collaborator with the greatest spirit. The joy of working with him was that he knew that theatre could and should evolve with time. He was always open to the new. We dedicate the production of ‘Company’ to his artistry and joy.”
Rosalie Craig, who starred in the recent London production of Company, said: “You were a gift to us all and I will never forget being your first female bobbie. It was a profound immense honour. Heartbroken.”
Elaine Paige, considered the first lady of West End musical theatre and who appeared in Sondheim’s Follies on Broadway in 2011, said: “Devastated to hear one of the most important musical theatre giants of our generation, Stephen Sondheim, has died. I was lucky enough to have performed in two of his shows, Follies and Sweeney Todd, and also have a song co-written by him for my 50th Anniversary. RIP dear man”.
Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, said in a statement: “The news that Stephen Sondheim has gone is a profound shock, and a huge loss to our theatrical world. He felt like an immortal giant of our culture, with his astute intelligence and keen observation undimmed by the decades in which he evolved the musical theatre form with astonishing craft, fearlessness and imagination. Productions of his peerless work at the National Theatre were numerous: Follies, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park, A Funny Thing Happened, Candide and A Little Night Music, each of them beloved and celebrated, each made with his brilliant eye and exacting ear nearby. The NT was in many ways his London home, but such was his prowess in the form that he had homes everywhere. His immortality, of course, is in the incredible work he leaves behind and the immeasurable influence he has had. In the form of the musical, the National Theatre has never known a greater artist, and it has been a privilege as a theatre-maker and audience member to grow up in the Sondheim era.”
And Dominic Cooke, who directed an acclaimed, award-winning production of Follies at the National Theatre in 2017, said: “After the first preview of Follies at the NT, Stephen Sondheim told me that this was the first time he had ever really understood the characters. I could have exploded with pride, but in truth, directing the show was unexpectedly easy. The relationship between form and content was so seamless that our task was simply to pay attention to what Steve had done and deliver it onstage. Every note, every pause, every musical shift told us precisely where the character was emotionally and psychologically in the scene. I realised working on the show that Sondheim was a dramatic storyteller at the level of Shakespeare or Mozart. He was also a determined investigator of what it means to be alive; restless, endlessly inquisitive and never satisfied. His unique spirit leaves a massive void in our theatre culture, but what a legacy he’s given us.”
Daniel Evans, Artistic Director of the Chichester Festival Theatre and who won Olivier Awards for his performances in Sondheim’sMerrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park with George, said in a statement: ‘Today, the theatre world is mourning the loss of a true giant – one whose legacy is monumental. At CFT, we remember with gladness those recent incredible productions of Gypsy and Sweeney Todd – both demonstrating why Stephen Sondheim is considered the greatest musical theatre lyricist and composer of the modern era. On a personal level, I consider it one of my career’s privileges to have worked with – and for – Sondheim, to have shared his work and genius with audiences. Today, the sense of sadness is great, but our gratitude is greater.”
Julian Bird, Chief Executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, said in a statement: “The theatre world is a smaller place tonight after the passing of Stephen Sondheim. His legacy of extraordinary shows and songs will live on for many generations to come – but now, we pay tribute to his outstanding contribution to our theatres and celebrate his talent.”
Broadway tributes to Sondheim
Broadway, Stephen Sondheim’s true home, also showed an outpouring of sadness and love for the composer. Some of Sondheim’s greats have sadly already gone, including Elaine Stritch and Barbara Cook. But many are “Still Here” and have paid tribute to the musicals legend.
On Broadway, actress Patti LaPone who is currently starring in Sondheim’s Company on Broadway, led the tributes, saying on Twitter that, “The last of the great Musical Comedy composers has died. Steve, I will never be able to properly thank you for the lessons learned. you are the Gold Standard”.
Broadway actress Bernadette Peters, who more than any other living performer is associated with Sondheim on Broadway, said: “I am so sad to lose my friend Steve Sondheim. He gave me so much to sing about. I loved him dearly and will miss him so much. Thank you for all the gifts you have given the world Steve”.
She said in an official statement that: “He was like Shakespeare, and what a privilege to be able to say, “Steve, what did you mean when you wrote that?” You could get it right from the horse’s mouth. I always say, he gave me so much to sing about.”
Actor Mandy Patinkin said: “Take a walk in the words and music that he left us. Walk in privacy, walk with a friend, put it on at different times in your life. Listen to it, sometimes listen more than once because the simplicity with which he expresses the most complicated human emotions — he’s able to do it in a way that once you hear it, it’s unforgettable. He was simply one of our greatest teachers.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer of Hamilton, said in a tweet: “Future historians: Stephen Sondheim was real. Yes, he wrote Tony & Maria AND Sweeney Todd AND Bobby AND George & Dot AND Fosca AND countless more. Some may theorize Shakespeare’s works were by committee but Steve was real & he was here & he laughed SO loud at shows & we loved him”.
Barbra Streisand said on Twitter: “Thank the Lord that Sondheim lived to be 91 years old so he had the time to write such wonderful music and GREAT lyrics! May he Rest In Peace”.
Acclaimed Broadway actress Audra McDonald, who has also played roles in a number of Sondheim shows and concerts, said: “I’m weirdly numb and super-emotional all at the same time. I can’t quite process what the world (especially the theatrical world) looks like without him. He was a giant, he was a genius, he was a legend, he was wickedly funny, he was wildly supportive but bluntly honest, and he was one of the wisest, toughest, most profound mentor/teachers I’ve ever known. I will miss him terribly.”
Alan Menken, follow composer and writer of musicals including Little Shop of Horrors and Sister Act, said: “There is such a void, knowing we now suddenly live in a world without Stephen Sondheim in it. And yet, he will always be with us in his brilliant and peerless music and lyrics; a legacy for the ages.”
Paul Williams, president of the American Society of Composers, wrote in a statement, “The magnitude of Stephen Sondheim’s contribution to American musical theater is immeasurable and matched only by his immense generosity in influencing and mentoring new generations. We are forever grateful for his groundbreaking work, which truly evolved the art form of the Broadway musical, and for his support to The ASCAP Foundation to expand the possibilities for young people to experience the magic of the Broadway musical.”
The Tony Awards, run by the American Theatre Wing, said on Twitter: “He left us with so many words, but none enough for this post. Goodbye, old pal. Thank you, Stephen Sondheim, for so much brilliance in the theatre and sharing your music with us all.” And the American Theatre Wing themselves said: “Thank you, thank you, thank you Stephen Sondheim. You paved the way for so many composers and theatre makers. We will never forget your generosity, your inspiration, and what you gave to the American Theatre and the world.”
Actress Betty Buckley said on Instagram: “I loved Sondheim with all my heart. I will always treasure every moment of experiencing his genius. Twice I sang at his pivotal Birthday concerts. At this one I was assigned to hand him the mic for his speech. (I was a last minute substitute for Bernadette.) I am literally bowing to him. The look in his eyes was “Oh, it’s you again.” Or so it seemed. And my thought was “I’ll always be here, damn it! I love you so much!” I longed for him to know that. I did my best to honor his music. Seems like I was always falling all over myself in his presence.”
Other tributes by non-Sondheim performers and the wider world include former first lady Hillary Clinton who said in a tweet: “A peerless composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim stirred our souls, broadened our imaginations, and reminded us that no one is alone. He changed the theatre—and our culture—with his craft, his humor, and his heart. Everybody rise!”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted: “Stephen Sondheim created fantastic worlds and characters, but at the heart of every story he told was a kid from New York City. And that kid was a legend. One of the brightest lights of Broadway is dark tonight. May he rest in peace.”
Actor Hugh Jackman saidon Twitter: Every so often someone comes along that fundamentally shifts an entire art form. Stephen Sondheim was one of those. As millions mourn his passing I also want to express my gratitude for all he has given to me and so many more. Sending my love to his nearest and dearest.”
Concert tributes to Sondheim have been numerous over the last 20 years, and we expect more to come following his death. One that stands out is “Hey, Old Friends”, the 2015 tribute at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to mark his 85th birthday.
The concert featured Millicent Martin, star of the original Side By Side by Sondheim in London and New York; Julia McKenzie, who won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical for the National’s 1993 revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. She also starred in the original London productions of Follies (1987) and Into the Woods (1990) and received a 1977 Tony Award nomination for her work in the Broadway production of Side by Side by Sondheim; and also Rosemary Ashe, Carl Au, Marianne Benedict, Tracie Bennett, Turlough Convery, Kim Criswell, Anton Du Beke, Lorna Dallas, Erin Doherty, Daniel Evans, Dominic Anthony Ferris, Tim Flavin, Anna Francolini, Tiffany Graves, Simon Green, Adrian Grove, Haydn Gwynne, Anita Harris, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Marilyn Hill Smith, Bonnie Langford, Rula Lenska, Jason Manford, James McConnel, Grant McConvey, Alistair McGowan, Robert Meadmore, Martin Milnes, Karl Moffatt, Kris Olsen, Charlotte Page, Nicholas Parsons, Michael Peavoy, Corinne Priest, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Sarah Redmond, Joseph Shovelton, Sally Ann Triplett, Michael Xavier and Arts Ed Musical Theatre.