Farewell to Stephen Sondheim

His legacy is one that will be debated and argued over as long as people care about musical theatre.

By Adam GopnikNovember 27, 2021

Stephen Sondheim
No artist since George Balanchine has so entirely dominated an art form as Sondheim has his. Photograph from Hulton Archive / Corbis / Getty

Stephen Sondheim made his last public appearance at the first preview of the revival of “Company,” his 1970 classic, last Monday night, the fifteenth of November. Ninety-one, and a little slowed but not visibly ailing, Sondheim was greeted by the Broadway audience, as he took his seat, in the left orchestra, with an emotional intensity that was tidal in its ferocity and duration. The emotion was doubled, perhaps tripled, by the relief at Broadway’s returning to life at all—it was, without exception, the most overwhelming tribute that I have ever experienced in the theatre. Now that moment is sealed as history, since Sondheim would die less than two weeks later, on Friday the twenty-sixth, at his house in Connecticut.

No artist since George Balanchine had so entirely dominated an art form as Sondheim had his. It was a truth of which he was ruefully aware, writing, in a song called, caustically, “God,” “Still you have to have something to believe in / Some things you appropriate / Emulate / Overrate / Might as well be Stephen.” A generation of musical-theatre artists were defined by their relationship to him—some to a point almost self-destructive, measuring themselves against the Druid of Turtle Bay in ways that he didn’t exactly welcome but couldn’t exactly prevent. Adam Guettel, the brilliant composer of “The Light in the Piazza”—and, as Richard Rodgers’s grandson, hardly innocent of dominant theatrical figures—recalls having Sondheim come to see an early performance of the show in 2007, and how everyone’s eyes fixated on the back of Sondheim’s head, just to try to discern, by its movements, the oracular verdict. (It was, Guettel recalls, a happy and nimble neck, until a second-act violation of the fourth wall offended Sondheim’s sense of story decorum, and all hell broke loose around the collar.)

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Adam Gopnik, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1986. He is the author of, most recently, “A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism.”More:ObituariesStephen SondheimBroadwayTheatreMusicals

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