Stephen Sondheim, aka God (seriously, his actual nickname), aka the greatest musical-theatre composer of all time, died last Friday, aged 91.
While he was, of course, American through and through, he had a deep association with UK theatre that went way beyond ‘Sweeney Todd’ being set in Victorian London. He had a long-standing relationship with the National Theatre – many of his classics had their UK premieres there – plus the Menier Chocolate Factory, the Donmar Warehouse and West End producer Cameron Mackintosh, who in a very literal sense named one of his theatres after Sondheim (that would be the Sondheim Theatre, current home to ‘Les Mis’). And the nature of his progressive, questing work was such that many shows that were modest successes (at best) in the US were finally cracked over here – from ‘Todd’ to ‘Merrily We Roll Along’.
But even if London didn’t have a special place in his heart, he’d still rightly be revered in the UK: there are plenty who would argue he’s the most significant figure in theatre since Shakespeare, and if that’s a bit rich for your blood, there’s no denying that he is responsible for a large number of the greatest musicals of the twentieth century, from ‘West Side Story’ to ‘Into the Woods’.
So it is absolutely no surprise that he’ll be bestowed Theatreland’s highest mark of respect: at 7pm tonight, just before showtime, the lights of the West End’s theatres will be dimmed in his honour. Whether you’re out in the West End at 7pm tonight or not, maybe take a little pause and think of Stephen Sondheim – we’ll not see his like again, but his music will live on as long as there are musicals.