‘One of the great joys of the past three decades’: why Stephen Sondheim is one of the last of the greats

From Harvey Fierstein to Jeremy Irons, some of the greats pay tribute to the musical genius who had 18 Tony nominations before his death at the age of 84 Tony Awards producer Glenn Weiss…

'One of the great joys of the past three decades': why Stephen Sondheim is one of the last of the greats

From Harvey Fierstein to Jeremy Irons, some of the greats pay tribute to the musical genius who had 18 Tony nominations before his death at the age of 84

Tony Awards producer Glenn Weiss has described Stephen Sondheim as the “most original, dynamic, unique and hugely inspiring individual”, speaking to Press Association.

Born in 1932 in Chicago, the musical and screen composer leaves behind a body of work that spans decades. Sondheim wrote in his tribute, on the occasion of his 87th birthday: “My most cherished possession is this work of art called a life. This is the pride I feel every day. This is the love I feel every day.”

He wrote music for at least eight musicals that received various awards including two Tonys, 12 Oscars, eight Grammys and four Emmys.

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After penning the lyrics to the beloved Sunday in the Park with George in 1962, Sondheim wrote a string of hits in the Broadway canon including Sweeney Todd (1979), Assassins (1980), West Side Story (1961), Company (1977), Gypsy (1969) and Company (1977). In between his opera output, including Sunday in the Park with George and Assassins, Sondheim is also remembered for writing the jazzy Long Day’s Journey into Night for director Mike Nichols in 1984.

During a four-decade showwriting career, Sondheim scored a staggering 18 Tony nominations. Over the course of more than 50 albums, he wrote almost 1,000 songs.

West Side Story Photograph: Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns

Several famous figures from the stage and screen have paid tribute to Sondheim. Harvey Fierstein, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and stage and screen actor, said: “Stephen Sondheim’s words and art resonated deeply in my life and career and have created a part of my professional life that I will treasure always.

“One of the great joys of the past three decades as a theatre editor, writer and manager has been his willingness to always help me improve a production of a Sondheim work I was trying to find a home for on Broadway.”

He called Sondheim “an American Renaissance man, an obsessive writer and composer with real talent and an almost childish enthusiasm.” He described the Broadway composer as an “overwhelmingly talented individual who cared deeply about music, people and the creative process. Stephen’s contribution to American theatre was immeasurable. I am very grateful that I came into his life”.

West Side Story Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Jeremy Irons, the Oscar-winning actor, revealed that he had a 30-minute-long scene with Sondheim for the film Dead Poets Society. “His voice in the subway when I’m going along is an amazing thing,” he said. “Most great actors are ego-driven … When I work with a terrific actor, you get the sense that it’s not just business, it’s about your common language … He’s someone who just has passion for the music, for the art, and for the life of a human being.”

He said that, when he met Sondheim in 2012, it “was an extraordinary coincidence. It was a thank you to him for telling me so many horrible things in Dead Poets Society. He helped me around every way,” Irons added.

There have been songs in screen and stage productions dedicated to Sondheim. The legendary songwriter, who was a part of the original Broadway production of West Side Story in 1957, has produced 19 and sold more than half a million recordings of his music.

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