Stephen Sondheim reinvented the American musical by creating something deeper, darker, richer and more artistically daring. In “Company,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods,” he pushed the boundaries of the form and left a legacy of hits. Sondheim died on Nov. 26 at the age of 91. To honor his life and work, Variety reached out to three of the composer’s collaborators and biggest fans — Nathan Lane, who starred in Sondheim shows like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”; Marianne Elliott, the director of the Broadway revival of “Company”; and Beanie Feldstein, who is filming an adaptation of “Merrily We Roll Along.”
Even before I ever got to work with him, Steve was a huge hero to me. As a kid I owned the cast albums of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Follies” and “A Little Night Music” and wore them out playing them over and over, singing along to them and memorizing all those gorgeous lyrics. I remember having lived in New York for a little over a year when I saw “Sweeney Todd” in previews in 1979 and was totally blown away.
Cut to 1989: I had auditioned for Jerry Zaks several times, but never got a job working for him. Then in 1989 he was directing the workshop of “Assassins,” the new Sondheim musical, and I was asked to play Samuel Byck, the tire salesman who wanted to kill Nixon. On the first day, Steve sat down at the piano and played the score for us. Whenever we got to the song during the read-through, he would play it and sing it for us — it was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe this private concert was happening before our very eyes. I loved the score and how dark and funny the whole show was, but ultimately, I wound up not being able to do the production at Playwrights Horizons because I went to L.A. to do “The Lisbon Traviata” for Terrence McNally instead. Steve would always tease me about that and always said that workshop was my finest moment as an actor and his favorite performance of mine and what a shame it was never seen.
What you got from him immediately was that it was all about the work. He was such a wonderful collaborator, so supportive, encouraging, compassionately honest and wickedly funny. And kind, always kind. There are tragic geniuses and self-destructive geniuses and evil geniuses, but he was a kind genius. Very rare indeed.
His material was challenging and complex to learn and perform but once you got it into your head, it never left you because it was just so brilliantly written. I can’t say we became close friends, I was too in awe of him to pursue that kind of friendship, but it was a very friendly and warm working relationship that went on for thirty years. I was always in awe of him until the very end – that recent reading we did for “Square One,” the last musical he wrote with David Ives. Every time I’d see him I’d still say to myself, ‘Oh my God, it’s Stephen Sondheim.’
I’m not on social media, but when you see all of the beautiful tributes and this tremendous outpouring of love and admiration for his incomparable legacy, and believe me, we will never see its like again, you can’t help but feel it’s all been said. But it feels good to remind ourselves how great and important he was to the world and that we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to work with that kind of legend. I assure you I’ve kept every one of his notes and letters and emails and I will treasure them.
I remember recording a demo for him once of a song for a movie musical that Rob Reiner was going to direct. The song was called ‘Lunch,’ about a waiter, a star and a star’s agent – of course, I played the agent, what else? They’re having this conversation and the waiter is greeting them and telling them the specials, but you also hear their inner thoughts at the same time. And then later you would start to hear all the thoughts in this Hollywood restaurant. It was the most astonishing Sondheim number that was never heard. Someone should do that movie. I could still play the agent. Call my agent.
As you know I did the 1996 revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” a joyous experience, and because I was looking back on all these things that we had done together and realized that, aside from Forum, I tended to work with him on many of the more problematic pieces. “Assassins”, “Wise Guys”, “The Frogs”, oh my!
“Assassins” was way ahead of its time. I thought it was so daring and ambitious, a remarkable musical with a gorgeous score, but it took a while for people to catch up to it. It came out during the Gulf War, and I think at the time, people were feeling very patriotic and weren’t ready for it. Then, of course, they revived it and it’s now considered one of the greatest musicals ever. I remember he told me after “The Frogs” had closed, “Don’t worry, Nathan, when they revive it in ten years everyone will think it’s wonderful.”
Yes, I also had the thrill of revising the book for “The Frogs”. Maybe thrill is too strong a word. I guess I would call it a noble experiment to do something political in a very divided time in our country (when is there not a divided time in our country?). But we tried. And we failed. BUT we got six fabulous new Sondheim songs. You’re welcome. Seriously, it was thrilling to be on the other side of things and see how a scene or a speech you wrote would become a song by the master. It was worth it all just for that.
The last time I would see him was at the reading for “Square One”. It was supposed to be done a few years ago at The Public, but was postponed and then cancelled. I thought it was gone forever, but after the pandemic the director Joe Mantello felt a surreal musical based on two Bunuel films might be just what the doctor ordered and encouraged Steve and David Ives to resurrect the piece and take another crack at it. He named it on “The Colbert Show,” by the way. It didn’t have a title until that moment. Bless his heart, but it’s actually a good title.
Anyway, I was excited to see him at the reading, but was concerned when I saw him walking in slowly with a cane. He was recovering from a bad fall, but once we sat down and talked, he was as sharp and as funny as he’d ever been. It was a phenomenal group of actors and Bernadette Peters and I got to be a married couple and it doesn’t get any better than that. Steve said he was encouraged by the reading, which was great fun, and hoped we might get it on next season. It would certainly be a terrific way to honor the greatest composer/lyricist the American theater has ever known. A lovely way to say goodbye and thank you.
In the meantime allow me to say thank you for everything, Steve, from the bottom of my heart.
His work is hugely entertaining. His shows are funny and have beautiful music, but there are lots of shows like that out there. What Stephen had was not just the ability to move people with music or to make people laugh, but he also had something to say. It was profound what he was saying a lot of the time. Line by line, lyric by lyric, melody by melody, it had a meaning.
He was very involved in the revival of “Company.” He initially wasn’t sure about changing the gender of the lead character to a woman, but he said, “Let’s give it a go,” and we did a workshop in London. We’d have lots of debates about things, and many times he would back down and concede. One time he said to me, “Look, Marianne, I’m not a 35-year-old woman, so you’re going to have to tell me about this.” I thought, “Wow, how broad-minded to renovate and update one of your most loved works in a unique way, but also to acknowledge, ‘Look, I’m a man in my 90s, and I don’t really know this perspective, so can you tell me a bit more.’”
He came to see the first preview in New York, and I went to see him last weekend in Connecticut. He was so agile and warm and with it. He had a bit of trouble walking because he had sprained his ankle, but he was so full of life, and I honestly thought there would be another 10 years. I was thinking that I needed to talk to him about getting the rights for another show of his, but I thought there would be loads of time.
Every time I hear “Being Alive,” I’m going to be an absolute wreck. He wrote this beautiful tribute to being alive and what it means to be alive, and we have to sing that every night. It’s extraordinary.
He was one of the greats. He was one of the greatest of the greats, and they don’t come around very often. If you’re lucky, they come once in your lifetime, and it’s a miracle if you get to work with them.
I never had the great privilege of meeting or knowing Sondheim. Yet he taught me the world. He explained humanity to me. He taught me how to see. Sondheim explained to me my own heart. With each lyric that crossed my eyes and each melody that caught my ear, I learned the ways of my own heart. His work created and still continues to create the map of my own understanding.
Oy, what a gift he has given all of us. I wept all weekend, more than I ever have over someone I never actually knew. And yet, of course I knew him. We all knew him. And we all will forever know him. Because he saw us more than we could ever see ourselves. He gave us ourselves: whole and human and raw and beautiful.
Thank you for your hat and your witch and your another hundred people and your old friends, Mr. Sondheim. Thank you for it all.