FEATURE: Stephen Sondheim – A personal tribute

Brian Butler November 27, 2021

My first recollection of the musical theatre genius Stephen Sondheim, who has just died at 91, was in the early 1980’s. A group of us from the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham journeyed regularly to the Forum Theatre, near Manchester Airport and to the city’s Library Theatre, both of whom staged a number of ground-breaking Sondheim productions. They included Follies, Pacific Overtures and Company. They were all stupendous.

Fired up by these shows I was lucky enough to sing in a songs-from-the-shows concoction a few years later both Our Time and Opening Doors from Merrily We Roll Along.

Fast forward to 1990. And the opening of his fairy-tale musical Into TheWoods at London’s Phoenix Theatre. Venturing into the bowels underneath and to the side of the theatre, I popped into the wonderful world of the Phoenix Arts Club to find a solitary figure hunched on a bar stool. He looked round as I walked down the Hello Dolly staircase. It was maestro Sondheim. He bought me a drink and then another and I have no other recollection of our conversation.

My second encounter was in a Q and A session with Steve at a musical theatre conference in Cardiff. I had the temerity to ask why he had altered the ending of his show Follies, making it less dark and I assumed more commercial. There was a sharp intake of breath from let’s call them “ the Sondheimites” in the audience . I remember almost verbatim his reply.

It goes: “ Well, Brian, when your are mounting a Broadway show the composer has one vote; if you’re also the lyricist you have a second vote; the director-one vote; the musical director-one vote; the designer- one vote; the 6 or 7 producers – a vote each. You have to decide do you want to get your way or do you want your show to go on”. It’s a good if disappointing answer about compromise and artistic integrity.

My third encounter was by letter. In 2000 I had the idea of  writing an original storyline about a twisted romance, but using the songs of both Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim. I wrote to SS, seeking his permission. Amazingly in July I got a carefully typed but signed letter back, stating my plan “ is simply not possible. I have a number of compilation revues in circulation and my licensing company doesn’t want to allow any others. I know this will disappoint you, but I can only ask you to understand my position”. He signed it “ Yours regretfully, Stephen Sondheim”. And irony of ironies, the letter had got wet in transit and when I opened it, his signature was slightly smudged.  My show was never written.

So what’s his legacy ? – simply he is the most important musical theatre figure of the last 60 years, picking up the reins of Porter, the Gershwins and Hammerstein who was the young man’s mentor. He re-defined what a musical could be. He pushed the boundaries of story-telling and was a pioneer in so many ways, always challenging his own ability.

Every show is different – in the words of one of his own songs “ I never do anything twice”. And his consciously clever lyrics, difficult harmonies and time sequences makes his work a challenge for any singer/actor who approaches it. Interestingly Sondheim regarded himself as a playwright who wrote songs, and indeed Sunday in The Park With George won him a Pulitzer.

He lived to see the November opening of a revival of his masterpiece of dysfunctional marriage Company – this time with a gender-reversed lead and as a by-product a Queer groom and groom in “ Getting Married Today”.

He was an intensely shy, reserved man and rarely photographed with his partner Jeff Romley, who survives him. To quote Jack in Into The Woods:” there are giants in the sky”, and Stephen Sondheim has gone to join them . Rest In Peace.