Stephen Sondheim memories: leading musicians and composers share their reflections on the Broadway legend

Few composers mastered the balance of music and lyrics as expertly as Stephen Sondheim, and his influence on musical theatre has been felt by many across the world. We asked classical music's top composers and musicians to reflect on the legacy of Stephen Sondheim

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 07:  Stephen Sondheim during the Dramatists Guild Fund Gala 'Great Writers Thank Their Lucky Stars : The Presidential Edition' presentation at Gotham Hall on November 7, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Walter McBride/Getty Images)

Following the sad news of the death of musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim, we asked a few leading composers and musicians to reflect on the legacy of the great composer and lyricist – and why his music meant so much to them. 

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Memories of Stephen Sondheim

Soprano Renée Fleming on Stephen Sondheim

I have loved Stephen Sondheim’s music since I was a teenager, when ‘Losing my Mind’ from Follies was my song of choice. The sheer breadth of his imagination was staggering, and he took musical theatre to an entirely new level. Sondheim gave voice to characters no one had ever shown us, and he shed new light on marriage, romance, obsession, violence, our shared myths, and even American and world history. He was regularly lauded for the dazzling sophistication of his lyrics, but I have always been amazed by the quality of his music as well. His musical voice was hugely varied, yet always distinctive. I can think of no other composer of this level who was also a brilliant lyricist. Even Verdi didn’t write his own libretti.

Stephen Sondheim was also a remarkable person. I was fortunate to attend a dinner party in company with him and actor Barbara Cook, theatre critic Frank Rich and actor Frank Langella. Sondheim’s erudition, along with the real affection and esteem everyone felt for him, made an unforgettable impression. It was no accident that I turned to a song from Sondheim’s first Broadway show West Side Story when I sang on the balcony of Buckingham Palace at the Diamond Jubilee Concert for HM Queen Elizabeth II. I am certain that, like the greatest operas and plays, Sondheim’s musicals will be performed and cherished long after we are gone.

Composer Jake Heggie on Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim was a mentor, guide, friend, inspiration and hero of mine, and I am overcome with gratitude for all he gave us during his time on the planet. Consider the range of what he gave us, and how his creative voice has become ubiquitous in the theatre and throughout Western culture. His influence on me was so profound that I dedicated the score of my opera Moby-Dick to him.

Sondheim was a truth teller. He wasn’t interested in fads or what might be popular in the moment because he was busy telling the truth in his own voice. He was eager to take risks and wasn’t interested in playing it safe. The words inform the music – and the music the words. They are inseparable. Each gives us clues as to what a character wants and why the story must unfold as it does. He had the gift of creating work that feels inevitable and surprising at the same time. It’s always achieved in his distinctive creative voice and always in service to the story.

He was a generous collaborator, eager to be inspired by performers and his creative colleagues. There is brilliant architecture in his work. There are complex and deceptively simple melodies and harmonic foundations. There are ensembles and inventions Mozart would have envied. There are few composers who have such a unique sound that within a few notes, you can tell who it is. Poulenc and Britten are two of those. Sondheim is in that same category. He changed what it meant to be a theatre composer in our time. There are very few giants in any generation. Stephen Sondheim was a giant among giants.

Composer Paul Mealor on Stephen Sondheim

The death of Stephen Sondheim quite rightly send out a resounding gong throughout the musical and theatrical world, with tributes to the genius of his words and music pouring in. It is right that we reflect on this extraordinary life and remarkable man. From his first show, when he penned the lyrics for West Side Story (words, incidentally, he later believed to be flawed), he was destined for success. He has that incredibly rare ability to be able to marry words and music perfectly and create in musicals a symphonic structural arch, akin almost to opera. It’s something so difficult to accomplish in musical theatre, because, unlike in opera, there is dialogue which breaks up the musical flow. Sondheim knew this. He lived it and breathed it. That is why, for me, he is such a genius. He was able to create the most remarkable musical structures both on the macro and micro levels by twisting, refracting and turning melodies – and, just as importantly, he was able to do this to the flow of lyrics too.

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Every word mattered to Sondheim. Every sentence was a mini play with structure. He knew which rhymes worked and also when to not use rhyme. He took his audience on a true journey of intellectual, aural and emotional wonders with always a truly human heart. Rest in peace Steve… ‘Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood…’