By Michela Arlia
The world was shocked on Friday, Nov. 26, with the news that Stephen Sondheim, musical theater legend, had passed away. Sondheim died at 91 in his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. His cause of death is still unknown.
One of the most influential composers and lyricists of the 20th century, Sondheim wrote scores to classics such as “Into the Woods” (1987), “West Side Story” (1957), “Company” (1970), “Gypsy” (1959), and many more. From the 1950s to 1990s, Sondheim produced hit after hit that debuted onto the great white way.
The first Broadway show featuring Sondheim’s music and lyrics was the 1962 farce, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which won a Tony award for best musical that year. From there, during what is known as his most productive period in the 1970s and 1980s, Sondheim created eight original and varied works, including “Company” (1970), “Follies” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973), “Pacific Overtures” (1976), “Sweeney Todd” (1979), “Merrily We Roll Along” (1981), “Sunday in the Park With George” (1984) and “Into the Woods.”
Following the news of his passing, a quick scroll through Twitter would have you understanding just how influential Sondheim was to the six decades worth of generations who followed and were influenced by his work.
“I am so so sad to lose my friend Steve Sondheim,” said Bernadette Peters, Broadway legend and close friend to Sondheim, on her Twitter account. “He gave me so much to sing about.”
For the BC community, the death of the musical theater icon holds great importance, including for the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies (PRLS). Throughout the semester, PRLS has been hosting a lecture series based on the anticipated release of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” film, which will feature Sondheim’s music.
The series, which studies the musical’s social impact and controversies, has invited special guests who worked on the upcoming film version. Despite Sondheim’s passing, PRLS is committed to speaking on his works and the barriers they broke.
“‘West Side Story’ is among Sondheim’s top works, which includes lyrics that the Puerto Rican community found offensive, such as in the song ‘America,’ and, on the flip side, there is little doubt that lyrics in ‘Officer Krupke’ were offensive to the white community as well,” said PRLS Associate Professor & Deputy Chairperson Dr. María E. Pérez y González. “He also wrote some of the most beautiful words with profound meaning during a time when interracial relations were problematic and intermarriage was illegal in so many states, such as in ‘Somewhere.’”
Reflecting on Sondheim’s music and accomplishment of the musical’s “Maria” being the first English song with a Spanish title, Pérez y González described how it resonated with her as a teenager when she first heard her name in a song. Many in the Latinx community also felt heard and represented on a big stage for the first time through Sondheim’s music.
“I was astonished that my name was the centerpiece of such a beautiful love song,” Pérez y González said. “I had never heard my name in a song before or anywhere else on television except Sesame Street.”
This past Sunday, the Broadway community gathered together for what they called “Sunday for Sondheim,” where the Broadway League, the Times Square Alliance, and actor/producer Erich Bergen organized a performance of “Sunday” from Sondheim’s famous musical “Sunday in the Park with George.”
The event occurred in Duffy Square, the heart of Times Square, on the steps of the TKTS booth. Conducted by Grammy nominee Michael J. Moritz and led by Lin-Manuel Miranda, artists shared their love for the composer the best way they knew how: through song.
Cast members of current Broadway shows “Ain’t Too Proud,” “Wicked,” and others showed up to sing and pay their respects.
“Maestro Stephen Sondheim is indeed among the most prolific composers/lyricists of our time with influences not only on Broadway and film, but also in arts programs throughout the U.S. and abroad,” added Pérez y González. “Undoubtedly, Sondheim’s music will continue to live on for generations.”