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Tributes pour in for Sondheim, the greatest theater composer-lyricist of our time

The final performance of the Kennedy Center’s summer-long Sondheim Celebration in 2002. The arts center produced a $10 million festival with six shows by Sondheim, pictured center with beard, plus a visiting production from Japan of “Pacific Overtures.” (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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NEW YORK — “To Sondheim!” goes one of the toasts in “La Vie Bohème,” the Act 1 finale of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.” As those words were sung just hours after the announcement Friday of Stephen Sondheim’s death, an affectionate cheer rose at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., where “Rent” is being revived.

“I walked into the theater right as they were doing ‘La Vie Bohème,’ and you heard the burst of applause on that lyric,” said Matthew Gardiner, artistic director of Signature, long a champion of musicals — and Sondheim especially. “He’s the reason so many of us got into this line of work. It felt like we lost a loved one.”

Tributes spontaneous and more organized began springing up at the news of the death of the 91-year-old Sondheim, the greatest theater composer-lyricist of our time — and one of the most important and influential of all time. On Sunday at noon, dozens of Broadway performers gathered on the steps of the TKTS booth in Times Square to deliver an elegiac rendition of “Sunday,” the song from his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sunday in the Park With George.”

Producers, composers and singers — among them Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles — made up the chorus; Lin-Manuel Miranda, his voice breaking, read from Sondheim’s memoir about songwriting as well-wishers huddled in the cold. Erich Bergen, an actor who returned this fall to the Broadway musical “Waitress,” assembled the event, summoning in record time everyone he knew. “I felt this longing for people to sing this together,” he said. (A simultaneous singing memorial was staged at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.)

Actors and actresses from Broadway performed a tribute to composer Stephen Sondheim in New York on Nov. 28. (Video: Spectee)

There will never be another Stephen Sondheim

There will doubtless be other memorials in New York, Washington, London and other places where Sondheim’s words and music made such a profound impact, beginning in the 1950s with his lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” and continuing with his scores for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd” and on and on.

“He was sitting on my couch less than two weeks ago,” said Judy Kuhn, who plays Sara Jane Moore in the revival of Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins” at off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company. Kuhn threw a small cast party on opening night, in place of the bigger one that the pandemic precluded. “That was so special for all of us,” she added in a phone interview Saturday. “He was sitting there, holding court and telling tales and drinking wine. He looked so happy to be there.”

Fans standing outside of the Broadway theater named after Stephen Sondheim celebrated his contribution to American musical theater on Nov. 26. (Video: Reuters)

Given his active life and the ubiquity of his work — both “Assassins” and “Company” are playing in New York, the latter with Patti LuPone in a big Broadway revival — Sondheim did not strike anyone as close to the end. Some of his friends said through intermediaries that they were not ready to speak publicly about him, perhaps because his death took them so wrenchingly by surprise.

Others offered funny stories of Sondheim’s generosity (and prickliness). All seemed deeply stricken.

Nature silencing this creative behemoth seemed somehow preposterous. “My knees gave out [at the news],” said Raúl Esparza, who starred in major Broadway revivals of “Company” and “Assassins” and played leads in “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Sunday in the Park With George,” two of the productions that made up the Kennedy Center’s summer-long Sondheim Celebration in 2002.

“As he got older, he got softer,” Esparza observed, noting Sondheim’s propensity to cry openly and easily over moments in his own shows and in those of others. “I always loved his laugh, and I could always hear him when he was in the house,” he said. “It was like a homing beacon.”

Mark Eden Horowitz knew Sondheim for decades and, as a senior music specialist and a curator of the papers of Bernstein and many others for the Library of Congress, is an expert on the subject of Sondheim’s place in the pantheon. “I have no problem saying he’s the best. There’s no question that there’s never been a lyricist with that level of skill,” he said. “But also there is the fact that, as a dramatist, he understands how songs function, and he’s such a brilliant composer.”

Sondheim could be brusque, but his temperament shifted just as instinctively toward decency. Horowitz recalled working at Arena Stage during a revival of “Merrily We Roll Along” that Sondheim and book writer George Furth were revising in the late 1980s. A musician seeking to watch a run-through was dismissively shooed away by one of Arena’s leaders. The man’s highhanded treatment of the instrumentalist enraged the composer, Horowitz said.

“Steve whipped around and said, ‘How dare you? Don’t you know how thrilling it is that you have a musician who wants to see the whole show?’ ”

Donna Murphy, who won a Tony as best actress in a musical for her creation of a Sondheim role, that of Fosca in 1994’s “Passion,” counts developing a character alongside Sondheim and “Passion’s” book writer, James Lapine, as a pinnacle. “But the downside is,” she said, “what can ever be better than that?”

She saved all of her letters from Sondheim; the most beautiful one, though, pertains to a show she could not do, a Sondheim tribute she had to bow out of, because she had adopted her daughter. She says he wrote to tell her: “I can’t imagine that any concert or anything related to a performance could compare with what you have been experiencing.”

Washington played an outsize role in Sondheim’s career, first because of Signature and its co-founder, Eric Schaeffer, a Sondheim-ophile so smitten that he saw an ad once for the original Broadway set pieces for “Sunday in the Park With George” and bought them, storing them in his Northern Virginia garage.

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When Sondheim came back in the 1990s to see Schaeffer’s production of “Passion” in Signature’s old space, Schaeffer remembers him leaving in tears. “He said, ‘Eric, I absolutely loved it, but why did you change that note that Fosca sings in the finale?’ ” Schaeffer had no idea what Sondheim was talking about, so they went to his office and huddled over the score. “ ‘Aha!’ ” Sondheim had said. “ ‘They printed the wrong note! Can you contact [the publisher] and get them to reprint the score?’ He heard that one wrong note. That was amazing.”

Actors love him for the emotional depth with which he infused his characters. Donna Migliaccio, who has played more than 20 Sondheim roles, principally at Signature, says she admired him for the sophisticated ways in which he wrote his female characters. “He was the first composer who wrote smartly for women,” she said.

It was the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration that further fueled D.C.’s Sondheim mania: The arts center produced a $10 million festival with six of Sondheim’s shows, plus a visiting production from Japan of “Pacific Overtures.” Michael M. Kaiser, then the center’s president, had assumed the top job with the dream of this enterprise, and it would prove to be a triumph both for his leadership and for Sondheim.

In an interview, Kaiser remembered how happy the composer was, enveloped in the work he had made and surrounded by actors of the first rank, including Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Baranski, Lynn Redgrave, Melissa Errico, Michael Cerveris, Rebecca Luker, Kuhn and Esparza. (A child actress by the name of Kristen Bell played Fredrika in “A Little Night Music.”)

What stays with Kaiser all these years later is the sheer delight Sondheim took in watching and listening to them all. “They loved Steve,” Kaiser said, “and he loved them.”

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