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Emerson Remembers Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim leans against a wall while smoking a cigarette
A fan photo of Stephen Sondheim c. 1976 from wikipedia.

Legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim passed away at the age of 91 on November 26. His influence on musical theater cannot be overstated.

He began his career writing the lyrics for West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959), and went on to write music and lyrics for many beloved musicals, including  A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1987). Into the Woods also happens to be Emerson Stage’s final show for its spring musical season.

Many members of the Emerson College community have been sharing what Sondheim meant to them:

Sondheim Visited Emerson

Stephen Sondheim speaks at Emerson in 1975. (Photo courtesy Jim Webber)

In 1975, Emerson Professor Leonidas A. Nickole presented Stephen Sondheim with the Musical Theatre Society award. MTS had presented Anyone Can Whistle that spring. Mr. Sondheim asked if he could receive the honor in the fall when Pacific Overtures would be in Boston for its out-of-town tryout. So, Stephen Sondheim, along with Mark Syers ’74, who appeared in the new musical, and later in the original cast of Evita, came to 150 Beacon Street for the reception in which he addressed the students and attended a reception on a very memorable November day.

Jim Webber

‘Just Never Gets Old’

In 1991, during my senior year at Emerson, I was thrilled to play the role of Jack in my favorite Sondheim show, Into the Woods. His clever wit and ambitious, multifaceted, intertwining of several well known fairytales just never gets old, and to this day, it continues to make my heart sing whenever I hear those initial percussive chords of the opening number and score. Thankfully, we can enjoy and appreciate his work for generations but, there will never be another like him.

Jeff Lagace ’91

Subversive and Expansive

As a child who was hooked on theatre from a very early age, I was pretty quickly introduced to the golden age of the American musical as the standard and remember feeling so put off by what I heard: The heteronormativity, the ridiculous happy endings, etc. Even as a kid, it felt so excluding. But when I was about 10, I was privileged  to get to see Into the Woods during its first Broadway run. And here began my great love for Sondheim.

Into the Woods poked giant holes in the musical tropes of those musicals I had been introduced to earlier, and then some. His work both subverted and expanded the form, making room for someone like me.

As I grew up and remained a theatre person, becoming a theatre maker, Sondheim continued to create worlds where I felt strangely at home. By embracing the power of language and word play and creating complicated and nuanced characters, he gave so many of us portraits of our own struggles. His creations were all the more triumphant and magical because they dealt with the reality of the human condition, included the protagonist’s isolation, heartbreak and loss.

While there will never be another Sondheim, knowing all the ways that Sondheim helped mentor the next generation of theatre makers (both musical and not) is a powerful legacy to leave behind.

Annie Levy
Artistic Director, Emerson Stage

Generous with Students

As a young grad student at NYU, I was writing a paper on Sweeney Todd.  I had heard that Sondheim was very generous with students, so I decided to try for an interview with him.  For some naive reason, I thought I would drop off a letter at his Turtle Bay townhouse.  Somehow I found his address and boldly went to his home, rang the bell (expecting someone other than Sondheim to answer), and Sondheim answered the door!  I was very flustered, but was able to regain my composure and explain the reason for my visit.  He took the letter, called me a couple of weeks later, and spent 45 minutes on the phone with me talking about Sweeney!  

Sariva Goetz
Assistant Professor, Musical Theatre

A Surprise Tribute

Miguel Cervantes ’99, who’s currently playing Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton on Broadway, shared a tribute to Sondheim after a recent performance.

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