The lights of theatres all over the West End of London will dim on Monday evening to honour the life of Stephen Sondheim, it has been announced.
The tribute, reserved for the passing of only the most significant talents, comes as many of the biggest names in entertainment joined international stars of musical theatre to mourn the composer’s death at the age of 91 this weekend.
In an outpouring of admiration and sorrow, American showbusiness figures such as singer Barbra Streisand and the Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, spoke of Sondheim’s innovative influence and of the many memorable songs he composed, including Send in the Clowns, from A Little Night Music, and I’m Still Here and Losing My Mind from Follies.
Steven Spielberg, whose new film version of the 1950s musical West Side Story, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics, is out in cinemas next month, revealed that although he only got to know the composer in his old age, they became close. “Stephen Sondheim was a gigantic figure in American culture – one of our country’s greatest songwriters, a lyricist and composer of real genius, and a creator of some of the most glorious musical dramas ever written.”
A statement from Spielberg continued: “When we spoke, I couldn’t wait to listen, awestruck by the originality of his perceptions of art, politics and people – all delivered brilliantly by his mischievous wit and dazzling words. I will miss him very much, but he left a body of work that has taught us, and will keep teaching us, how hard and how absolutely necessary it is to love.”
Posting on Twitter, Streisand said: “Thank the Lord that Sondheim lived to be 91 years old so he had time to write such wonderful music and GREAT lyrics,” while Miranda shared a recent Twitter exchange with Sondheim in which he had thanked the Broadway legend for mentoring other younger talent.
In reply Sondheim told Miranda he was especially proud of this part of his life and that it had been driven partly by his desire to repay the great musical creator Oscar Hammerstein, of Rogers and Hammerstein, for all his early advice. “Steve: you repaid your debt to Oscar 1,000 times over,” Manuel had privately replied. This weekend he added a public tribute to Sondheim’s talent: “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.”
In Britain, Andrew Lloyd Webber, the world’s best known and most successful musical theatre name, saluted Sondheim’s towering skill as a lyricist in particular, calling him “the musical theatre giant of our times, an inspiration not just to two but to three generations”. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Lord Lloyd-Webber, composer of Phantom of the Opera and Evita, revealed that the two men once planned to work on a stage show together on the subject of rivalry.
Singer Elaine Paige, the original stage Evita and later exponent of Sondheim’s music, wrote on social media of her devastation at hearing of the death while the prominent British theatrical producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh said: “The theatre has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers.” He added that Sondheim will “still be here as his legendary songs and shows will be performed for ever more.”
Among leading musical performers to pay tribute were Hugh Jackman, who hailed Sondheim for having been someone “that fundamentally shifts an entire art form.”
In Spain, the film star Antonio Banderas said he had learned the news shortly after performing in a production of Sondheim’s acclaimed show Company, recently revived. “Just about 1h ago I was singing Being Alive, the final musical number,” he wrote on Twitter. “Now I am home, still with rests [sic] of make-up on my face crying the death of our maestro.”
Actor Vanessa Williams, who played the Wicked Witch on Broadway in the 1994 revival of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, tweeted: “What a privilege to have soaked up the incredible aura of legendary Stephen Sondheim in person many times in my life. I only ever got a few musical notes from him which were about diction but immediately incorporated and cherished every word.”
Speaking only a week ago at his home in Connecticut, and apparently in good health, the man now being celebrated as the late great dominant voice in American musicals for the last 50 years offered a typically humble and drily detached commentary, from the perspective of an aged theatrical sage. He told the New York Times that he avoided taking grand overviews. “Whither Broadway? I don’t answer the question,” Sondheim said. “Who knows. I don’t really care. That’s the future. Whatever happens will happen.”
The lights across London’s theatreland will go down for two minutes at 7pm on Monday, said Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre. “The theatre world is a smaller place tonight after the passing of Stephen Sondheim,” he said. “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.”