Members of the New York theatre community reflect on the impact the work of the legendary composer and lyricist had on their artistry.
Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Sondheim, the most influential Broadway composer and lyricist of the last half-century, passed away November 26 at the age of 91. A host of theatre artists associated with Mr. Sondheim's musicals recently shared their thoughts with Playbill about the impact the composer of Sweeney Todd, Company, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park With George, Assassins, Passion, Merrily We Roll Along, Follies, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and more had on their lives.
We heard from some of Mr. Sondheim's foremost interpreters, performers from the current New York stagings of Company and Assassins, and other artists associated with his treasured, groundbreaking work. Read their beautiful, thoughtful, often-moving remarks below.
I was so sorry to hear about Stephen. I am so infinitely grateful because, as he liked to jokingly remind me, he was really responsible for launching my career in the theatre. The first show we did together was Anyone Can Whistle. Then, we did Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, and A Little Night Music. He was so brilliant and talented, and not only did he have a great impact on my life, but also on the lives and careers of so many others that had the good fortune to work with him, while bringing joy to the countless number of people all over the world who saw his shows and listened to his wonderful music and lyric. I will miss his friendship and presence in my life.
To sum up the impact the work of Steve has had on me as an artist is an impossible task. I wouldn't have the words. Steve had the words. His impact was profound and life-altering. Yes, his work not only thrilled but moved audiences. Yes, he taught performers how to listen; how to trust the composer; how to sing not only for the sake of singing but because there is something that is needing to be revealed and discovered; how to get out of one's own way as an artist, and on and on... But, perhaps the most powerful and profound impact of his work is that he taught artists to trust that the uniqueness of oneself and one's work is something to be revered, encouraged, and celebrated not only by others but most importantly by one's own self. In my opinion there is no greater gift to an artist that he could have possibly given than that. I will miss him terribly.
The body of my Broadway career has been interpreting his words and music. What a beautiful gift. He brought me remarkable experiences as a character, as an artist, and as a person. Steve was my mentor and my friend.
We are all feeling a communal loss of the great Stephen Sondheim. What I know is that I have always loved him very deeply. It never occurred to me that Sondheim would leave us. James Lapine said to me in a recent email, “This will take time to process for all of us. We will always have his music. Mike Nichols used to say Steve was our Mozart. I hope you are well.” I so appreciated Lapine’s kindness, and, in all honesty, I am not feeling so well. The knot in my chest is very similar to the pain I felt when my father passed away all those years ago. Stephen Sondheim’s music makes me dream and provokes that heart of my longing. When I was younger, it was everything. That music let me pour my whole self into the flight of sound and live so authentically in his exquisite, articulate storytelling.
I knew Stephen long before he was the Stephen Sondheim…the handsome young man behind the piano in our West Side Story rehearsals. He wrote these amazing lyrics, and I was trying to learn them. He, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins taught me how to breathe. Working with great people like Stephen Sondheim has helped shape who I am today.
He believed in me more than I believed in myself. I think a lot of people felt that way about him. He loved authenticity and new ideas; specificity and ingenuity. He pushed hard for excellence in performance as he considered it, but didn’t really care what anybody else thought about it. One time after a performance he said to me, “Tonight you had confidence, and that’s really all that matters.” I’m still not sure if it was a compliment, but he said it with a smile. He made you want to be a better performer.
Everything that Stephen Sondheim ever told me, every direction he ever gave me, every suggestion, every exchange we had, lives in a special file in my brain, to be taken out and reviewed from time to time. He influenced every part of my life. His music made me a better singer, and his lyrics made me a better actor. The kindness he showed me made me feel seen and gave me the confidence I needed, at times, to overcome my fears. I am a better person, I know, because of his artistry and all that he generously gave us, and I am so grateful to have lived in his time.
Steve was and is the most important person in my life as an artist. He changed my life before I ever met him. In the listening and the watching, in all it taught me about being human. I saw SundayintheParkwithGeorge at a difficult time when I was questioning whether I should continue pursuing a life in the theatre. That masterpiece cracked my heart open and gave me my answer, becoming a lifelong touchstone. The gift of creating Fosca in Passion with him and James Lapine was beyond anything I could have dreamed. Playing Phyllis, Cora, the Witch while he was on this planet and in the rehearsal room and backstage were joyful privileges. Every word and note his genius created resonate deeply within. His generosity and care. My grief is deep. My gratitude and love boundless.
Sondheim’s work is something I have always strived—and continue to strive—to be worthy of working on. The opportunity to delve into the complexity, the strangeness, the powerful intellect, and profound humanity of his music, his lyrics, his storytelling, is a grand feast of an opportunity indeed. And, getting to meet and work with him a few glorious times, seeing first-hand how he kept striving himself, kept moving forward, kept collaborating, ever interested in how to improve, in how better to get at the truth of a thing—and seeing his joy in that striving—that is inspiration to treasure for life. I am deeply grateful for his work, and for my chance to know him, even a little.
I fell in love with Sondheim music when I was 10 years old, when my parents took me to see my first Broadway show, Company. I brought home the cast album and memorized every song. Little did I know that his music would become part of my DNA. I’ll always be grateful to Steve for taking a chance on me, for his guidance, and for giving me “so much stuff to sing!”
Steve’s impact on my work is beyond measure—it’s simply everywhere. He defined my aesthetic. He showed me how high the bar was, what to aim for, never to settle. And to take it all seriously, even the fun shows. He reminded me how Oscar Hammerstein was astonished to learn that the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty insisted on carving the back of the head as meticulously as the rest, even though he couldn’t possibly have anticipated air travel. You do your work to the best of your ability, every aspect of it, no matter if anyone sees or notices it or not. That’s what being an artist is.
The Steve I knew had a certain rhythm—attentiveness, and disapproval, and a kind of sly affection. Those were the color and light of his personality. I learned a lot when he disapproved of my album title SondheimSublime, which I couldn’t convince him to like, even with complex references and elaborate emails about Wordsworth’s own use of the term sublime. He would shoot back, “I still find it camp.” He knew I had a deep feeling about his art as music and enchantment first, virtuosity in words and smarts second. That was what I meant by the word “sublime.” He valued strong choices and conviction. And to love words!! He would even advise me on what exotic drinks to try on a trip to the rain forest: “If you’re given the choice of a capybara or a caipirinha, choose the latter.” How he must have relished those names!
It’s impossible to overstate the impact Steve had on me as an artist. And, just as impossible to distill all that he means to me in 100 words. Performing his writing for him was the greatest honor and thrill of my career. To call him colleague and friend was an impossible gift. He demanded the best of us, as artists and audience. He demanded our humanity, dark, funny, frail, and fine. He let you know you were not alone, struggling through the awful beauty of life. Essentially, I think every song I’ve ever sung onstage has somehow been for Steve.
The great Stephen Sondheim has been an influence in my life since I was a child, starting with the original film version of WestSideStory all the way into my adulthood of being in his shows such as Company, Sweeney Todd, and Sondheim on Sondheim. To me, he will forever be the Shakespeare of musical theatre. My favorite line of his is "art isn't easy." He sure made it look that way.
It took 25 years to achieve a dream, to be in a Sondheim musical. Interpreting any great artist elevates a performer. We stand taller, we become more serious, precise, and disciplined, and Steve was the master.
Thinking about Steve, I see that he touches nearly everything I have attempted to create and everyone I have most loved. Until I have sung his melodies or attempted to coin his words, I have not truly seen that aspect of the world. And once I have done so? He makes the most ordinary experiences extraordinary; a company of New Yorkers navigating modern life or a gallimaufry of Parisians walking in a suburban park take on a wonder I did not suspect was there. To have been his colleague was miraculous. To have been his friend, well…I will miss him for the rest of my life.
It’s a tough question to answer because it doesn’t involve education. It involves passion, curiosity, and examination. One could ask, “What would Stephen Sondheim do (or write or say)"? But the answer will never materialize because he’s gone. So, as always, I will continue to get lost in all he has left us: his words and ideas, melodies and delicious rhymes, and I will always, always use these as the “bar," especially when working with talented actors and singers when choosing and mining material to interpret with their own skills. Remember… Stephen didn’t write the characters… he wrote the songs they sang. As a result, there is a little bit of each of us to be revealed in each and every song. Therein lies the gift and the lessons left to us.
Ruthie Ann Miles
His first lyric I remember "capital-H" hearing was from “Send in the Clowns.” I paused—it made no sense to me. I was 15, newly introduced to Shakespeare and learning how to excavate, so I dug. I found the process daunting yet welcoming. Thoughtful, thought-provoking, confusing, challenging one to keep digging—it thrilled me. It empowered me. And I was hungry, so hungry for more; I changed majors.
Sondheim’s genius is the first time I can remember art moving me. Sunday/Sweeney/Assassins/Night Music/Company—all masterworks. I can remember the first time feeling destroyed by something, in all the right ways. How can a person with his mastery of language, a one-in-a-billion skill, also be the person with his gift for music and melody, and which notes to play to evoke the exact right thing, also a one-in-a-billion skill. How can those two qualities exist in the same person? It cannot. It isn’t possible. And yet there he was. We will never have another Steve. His work hit me as an aimless young man, and it literally gave me purpose. Gave me voice. To say to the world, this is why I live.
There’s a generation of us that first “met” Sondheim obsessively memorizing Into the Woods on PBS. I officially met him during the 2004 Pacific Overtures, when I sang "Someone in a Tree" (apparently, a personal favorite). I shared this moment with Alvin Ing, who was an original from 1976. We lost them both in 2021—and as I look back at my younger self (at age 8 and 24), that last lyric hits me profoundly hard: “Only cups of tea. And history. And someone in a tree.” How did Sondheim know how to perfectly capture both the ephemeral and eternal simultaneously in a lyric?
The impact is personal and far-reaching. At Yale, I directed Side by Side by Sondheim and Merrily We Roll Along. Stephen was the hero for all of us, the thinking person’s theatre artist. Inscrutable and uncompromising. I had the great pleasure of working with him six times from my first Broadway show, Sunday in the Park with George, through the Encores! production of Assassins in 2017. Other people have talked about his super-human powers, and those are quite obvious and apparent. What I saw and believed in was his incisive, scrupulous craft and skill and his humanity. His courage to look at the parts of himself and of all of us that had never come to light before. That bravery, that willingness to be vulnerable and honest and then to create characters through which to explore the human condition—this will keep him alive forever.
Sondheim’s work improves every aspect of our craft. Performing his songs reminds me of, like... training for the decathlon at the Olympics. The various musical hurdles and long jumps and sprints and pole vaults all seem like an impossible creative gauntlet one must run in order to learn a Sondheim show. The ultimate challenge. It’s walking and chewing gum and rubbing your belly and patting your head while singing and inhabiting a character and stressing about singing those often preposterously difficult notes correctly. And once you’re through the decathlon-Sondheim gauntlet, you emerge... Musical theatre gold medal around your neck... better, stronger, more confident, more still, and infinitely more grateful that you had the privilege of tackling some of the greatest material ever written for our art form.