Stephen Sondheim — the musical theater scribe’s musical theater scribe, the wordsmith who loved an impossible challenge, the composer of some of the genre’s densest and most difficult (and, let’s not forget, some of the most melodically gorgeous) songs — is dead. He was 91, which may mean that the news was due at some point, perhaps soon. But that doesn’t mean the news didn’t leave countless people, from colleagues and contemporaries to the audiences that made sure his career lasted seven decades, feel floored.
Sondheim had major crossover hits. His breakthrough was writing the lyrics for West Side Story, to Leonard Bernstein’s music. He next collaborated with Jule Styne for Gypsy, another monster hit, also turned into a hit movie. He broke out own his own with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a lighthearted — but very, very busy — Roman romp that, too, was turned into a movie.
From 1964’s Anyone Can Whistle, though, he found his voice: musical based on subjects that didn’t seem very musical-friendly, with lonely, often broken people whose hopes and desires kept them away from others, singing songs that might as well have been arias about why they may never find happiness.
Their premises were hard sells. Company, first staged in 1970, was a genre game-changer: an adult-themed show about damaged people, with no set story, with psychological songs that weren’t in any noticeable chronological order. Follies looked at the alumni of an old, turn-of-the-century Broadway revue. A Little Night Music was inspired by an Ingmar Bergman movie — a Bergman rom-com, not one of his lacerating art films, but still. Merry We Roll Along told its story backwards, following its characters from old and miserable to young and bright. Sunday in the Park with George was about Georges Seurat. Assassins was about presidential assassins, some would-be; in it, John Hinckley Jr. sings a love song about Jodie Foster.
Hard sells, they may be, but Sondheim could sell them. Even the shows that seemed trickier than most found audiences. Some even found movies. Tim Burton had the macabre heart to turn Sweeney Todd, about a grisly murderer, into a holiday gorefest. Into the Woods became another end-of-year hit, though he didn’t keep quiet about some of the more alarming changes. Richard Linklater is in the midst of filming the decades-spanning Merrily We Roll Along, though he won’t be done till around the year 2040. Then there’s Original Cast Recording: Company, D.A. Pennebaker’s direct cinema great showing the marathon recording session of Company, which even defeats Elaine Stritch. (The movie made for an extra excellent episode of Documentary Now!, with John Mulaney as the Sondheim stand-in.)
Sondheim, as many will be quick to note, wasn’t known for his karaoke-friendly hits. He wasn’t Andrew Lloyd Webber. His melodies could, like his characters, be tricky to nail down, demanding you meet them halfway, or even farther than that. But untold people were willing to do that. Assassins is currently being staged in New York City, with Company about to open. Meanwhile, West Side Story movie, directed by no less than Steven Spielberg, is opening in a fortnight. His work will live on because they were demanding, not vice versa. After all, demanding more of your audience is what brings them back for more.
Upon news of Sondheim’s death, the internet was flooded with tributes. They included performers, many of whom were lucky enough to stage his work, often for the first time.
I am so 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 gave the world Steve
— Bernadette Peters (@OfficialBPeters) November 26, 2021
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 pic.twitter.com/vshNSdkvpQ
— Barbra Streisand (@BarbraStreisand) November 26, 2021
i was so blessed to sing for him.
i am so blessed to have known him.
how lucky we all remain.
thank you, steve.
— rachel zegler (she/her/hers) (@rachelzegler) November 26, 2021
Thank you Steve. Thank you.
— Audra McDonald (@AudraEqualityMc) November 26, 2021
An extraordinary artist is gone. He gifted the world with so many incredible songs, & many performers’ careers were catapulted by the signature, iconic material he wrote for them. May he Rest In Peace. #Sondheim pic.twitter.com/6bB6tOLsRM
— Anthony Rapp SAG-AFTRA National & NY Board Member (@albinokid) November 26, 2021
Goodbye dear sir. We will spend our lives trying to make you proud. #stephensondheim
— Idina Menzel (@idinamenzel) November 26, 2021
— Kristin Chenoweth (@KChenoweth) November 26, 2021
Just posted this last night as I walked into my friend’s house for Thanksgiving. Fuck. pic.twitter.com/q08WntIwXS
— billy eichner (@billyeichner) November 26, 2021
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. pic.twitter.com/4KlnJJJipq
— Hugh Jackman (@RealHughJackman) November 26, 2021
— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) November 26, 2021
I was just talking to someone a few nights ago about how much fun (and fucking difficult) it is to sing Stephen Sondheim. Performing his work has been among the greatest privileges of my career. A devastating loss.
— Anna Kendrick (@AnnaKendrick47) November 26, 2021
I met him once for 30 seconds backstage after a production of Merrily We Roll Along. I have never been more tongue tied or star struck. His writing is the singular reason I wanted to be a musical theater actor. No one will ever come close to his genius. RIP Stephen Sondheim.
— Jesse Tyler Ferguson (he/him/his) (@jessetyler) November 26, 2021
Rest In Peace, Stephen Sondheim, and thank you for your vast contributions to musical theater. We shall be singing your songs forever. Oh, my heart hurts…
— Lea Salonga (@MsLeaSalonga) November 26, 2021
Thank you. (And for the hat.) pic.twitter.com/7Km7g8uQJh
— Julie Klausner (@julieklausner) November 26, 2021
Perhaps not since April 23rd of 1616 has theater lost such a revolutionary voice. Thank you Mr. Sondheim for your Demon Barber, some Night Music, a Sunday in the Park, Company, fun at a Forum, a trip Into the Woods and telling us a West Side Story. RIP. https://t.co/jHX7ob9JWv
— Josh Gad (@joshgad) November 26, 2021
Sondheim was singular. I was lucky to sing his music for West Side Story. Though he’s gone now, his music will live on through the ages. There is and was no one in th world like him. #StephenSondheim
— Russ Tamblyn (@RussTamblyn) November 27, 2021
Andrew Lloyd Webber was quick to pay honor to one of his contemporaries.
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. – ALW
— Andrew Lloyd Webber (@OfficialALW) November 26, 2021
And others, from fellow creatives to the sitting mayor of the town that staged so much of his work, chimed in as well.
He only wrote one screenplay, but it’s an absolute gem of a whodunnit. Why not pay tribute to the great Stephen Sondheim by watching his parlor game cult classic ‘The Last Of Sheila’. (Co-written with Anthony Perkins, no less). RIP x pic.twitter.com/Cqd2FpUgtw
— edgarwright (@edgarwright) November 26, 2021
He wrote me a wonderful permission letter to use “Old Friends” in American Gods. I avoided meeting him (failed only once) and refused dinner because I didn’t have many heroes. Now I’ve got one less. Thank you Stephen Sondheim so much. pic.twitter.com/soRo4G2ZFU
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) November 26, 2021
— Paul Feig (@paulfeig) November 26, 2021
RIP Stephen Sondheim. Not just a genius but a truly wonderful person. He’d go see everything and encourage young artists (like so many, I received a personal note which thrills me to this day.) He loved the theater; he was and will always be the theater. There will be trumpets pic.twitter.com/byiJaZ580H
— Paul Rudnick (@PaulRudnickNY) November 26, 2021
“I’ll always be there / As frightened as you / To help us survive / Being alive.” Goodnight to the renowned and truly matchless composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who forever changed the landscape of American theater. pic.twitter.com/Njv0ZekdEU
— Criterion Collection (@Criterion) November 26, 2021
— Carole King (@Carole_King) November 27, 2021
“Thanks for everything we did /Everything that’s past /Everything’s that’s over/Too fast. /None of it was wasted. /All of it will last:/ Everything that’s here and now and us together!”https://t.co/mr6KbrgJKp
— Frank Rich (@frankrichny) November 26, 2021
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. https://t.co/VRgDEw9Dvc
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) November 26, 2021
RIP Stephen Sondheim. The world won’t be the same without you, just as it wasn’t the same with you.