Today, Monday 22 March 2010, American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim turns 80. Around the world and throughout this year, numerous productions, concerts, retrospectives and other events are taking place to celebrate the milestone (See Countdown Feature, 16 Mar 2010).

And this week on Whatsonstage.com – in case you haven’t noticed - we’ve rebranded the website for our own “Happy birthday, Stephen!” week of celebrations, as well as bringing you heartfelt tributes from various top-name actors, directors and other commentators who have worked on and/or been influenced by the man behind such classics as Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Company, Follies, Assassins, West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Into the Woods and many others.


Tune in to our special, three-part podcast

Our brand-new, three-part podcast from writer, broadcaster, Sondheim aficionado and regular Whatsonstage.com Radio contributor Edward Seckerson is now live. Commissioned by Josef Weinberger Ltd, IN GOOD COMPANY is a unique collage of intimate conversations between Seckerson and some of Sondheim’s closest colleagues and collaborators, who share their experiences, their recollections, and their often very personal insights into what makes this man such a colossus in the world of musical theatre.

The IN GOOD COMPANY interviewees are: Michael Cerveris, Ted Chapin, Barbara Cook, Daniel Evans, Maria Friedman, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Cameron Mackintosh, Julia McKenzie, Hal Prince, Jonathan Tunick and John Weidman. For more information on how Edward Seckerson put together the programme, click here. And for full recording thanks and acknowledgements, click here.

Recording Acknowledgements for IN GOOD COMPANY: Josef Weinberger Ltd and Edward Seckerson are grateful to the following record companies for the use of extracts from their recordings of Stephen Sondheim's works: Angel Records (EMI), Columbia Broadway Masterworks (Sony/Columbia/Legacy), DRG Records, First Night Records, New York Philharmonic, Nonesuch Records (Warner), RCA Victor / Legacy (Sony BMG). For a full list of song credits and links, click here.


Still more birthday tributes

In his career to date, Sondheim has been recognised with myriad awards including numerous Tonys, Oliviers, Grammys, a Pulitzer, an Oscar and a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. The following tributes, in addition to those on the podcasts above, are of the more personal variety...

“Stephen Sondheim is a genius and one of the very few great theatre writers of the age. On this matter, I can brook no argument, though it’s delightful to see him squirm with embarrassment when things like that are said in his presence.

“TS Eliot defining great writers, says they ‘change the expression’. That’s exactly Stephen’s astonishing accomplishment. From the lyrics of West Side Story onwards, he showed us the possibility that musicals could be complex, layered, multi-faceted, involving wit of the greatest sophistication and the constantly recognisable detail of real human behaviour. Many writers now aspire to emulate Sondheim, just as playwrights for generations imitated Shakespeare. The body of work Steve has achieved deserves to get exactly the same review as Ben Jonson gave to the complex plays of Shakespeare. He is not just for now, he wrote of his rival and friend, ‘but for all time’. For as long as there is music theatre, Sondheim will be performed, generation after generation.

“On his birthday, all I want to say to him is, ‘Don’t stop … more, more’.”
- Trevor Nunn made his Sondheim debut last year at the Menier Chocolate Factory with A Little Night Music, which transferred to the West End. The production is now on Broadway with a US cast led by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury

"The Donmar's long association with Stephen Sondheim has meant we have had the privilege of working with the greatest living composer of musicals for nearly twenty years. Apart from being an extraordinary artist, he is also a great collaborator and a wonderful supporter of emerging talent. Many people have been influenced by Sondheim's style over the years but he is an original - an artist of true genius whose 80th birthday is a moment of important celebration.

“His innovative style has created a legacy that will resonate well into the future and continue to influence anyone who works in the genre. We have put together a programme of work that involves analysis and discussion as well as presentations of three of his most significant works. In addition to all of this, Sondheim himself will join us in order to reflect on the unique association he has forged with the Donmar over many years and to look to the future as we wish him a very happy birthday in this monumental year."
- Michael Grandage is the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse where a Sondheim festival will take place later this year

“I am so thrilled to be directing Passion as a part of our Sondheim celebration at the Donmar. It is a great honour to be entrusted with this wonderful piece and to work so closely with the man himself. I am struck by his excitement about new ideas. He sees the piece as a living thing, rather than something that has to be preserved and repeated in its original form. His encouragement to re-examine his work means that each of his pieces goes on evolving and finding new resonances with different audiences. He is a practical man of the theatre, who takes great delight in assisting your vision. A great privilege.”
- Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Passion opens at the Donmar Warehouse in September

“Sondheim is significant for so many reasons. Few musical theatre composers write their own lyrics, to start with. But Sondheim took the formal innovation of the generation before him (Rodgers, Hammerstein, Hart, Kern) and revolutionised the genre. Every word and note is entirely appropriate to situation and character, whether it's a boy who's just seen a giant, a woman who hatches a plan to bake dead people or an actor justifying his assassination of President Lincoln.

“For me, Sondheim was a kind of revelation. I saw Sam Mendes' production of Assassins at the Donmar and was blown away by its combination of theatricality, politics and wit. In the following weeks, I remember buying the original Broadway cast albums and listening endlessly to his infinite variety.

“I've been very lucky to work on three pieces by Sondheim. Merrily We Roll Along, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George (Sondheim also wrote some lyrics for Candide) - all of which were scary, challenging but ultimately hugely satisfying experiences.”
- Daniel Evans won Olivier Awards for Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park with George. He is now artistic director of Sheffield Theatres

“To me, Sondheim is Chekhov and Ravel rolled into one. Sometimes, his poetry is as dense as TS Eliot and his juxtaposition of notes has occasionally made tears shoot from my eyes, bypassing thought and reason. He deserves all the praise he is receiving in his lifetime because his work is so far ahead of itself it will be perceived as modern and cutting edge for the next eighty years. He never patronises his audiences and makes us cleverer because of it. I wish I could have done more justice to the songs of his that I have sung, but I’ve always been thrilled by the challenge, of finding fresh thoughts in every note night after night.”
- Maureen Lipman is nominated for an Olivier for her performance in last year’s A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory and the Garrick Theatre

“Stephen Sondheim has taken musicals into a new realm. Anyone who says they are an inferior art form is silenced by the mention of any one of his shows. They are perfect. He is the Shakespeare of musical theatre. I was privileged to be in Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane. He was so wise and helpful with this very frightened, over-awed actor. He has shared his knowledge with countless students and people in the profession and thrilled audiences. How lucky we are to still have him defying the years, continuing to delight and challenge us. He is also a sweet, wise, gentle man.”
- Sheila Hancock played Mrs Lovett in the original West End production of Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

"One of the hardest things is bridging the gap between the sung and the spoken word, to be both a musician and an actress and understanding that both play vital roles in your performance for it to be genuine and truthful. I find that Sondheim makes this process easier and, like Shakespeare, it's all there in the text - you are being clearly directed and for me that's magic."
- Helena Blackman starred in Saturday Night at Jermyn Street and the Arts Theatres last year

“Sondheim is the composer who made me realise that music theatre can be about more than entertainment: that it can be an expression of ideas and the most complex nuances of emotion. Nobody has ever achieved a more perfect synthesis of music and lyrics.”
- Tom Littler is the director of Anyone Can Whistle currently playing at Jermyn Street and last year’s production of Saturday Night also at Jermyn Street and the Arts Theatre transfer

"Hi Steve, congratulations on spending over 50 years entertaining, educating and enlivening English-speaking musical theatre-goers all over the world. A remarkable and unique achievement. If you're near the Royal Albert Hall on 2 May, please come and join us for our tenth The Night of 1000 Voices as more massed forces sing your praises once again. It was a real thrill working with you on your 70th celebrations in New York and London. Your transatlantic By side… at the end of Sondheim Tonight at the Barbican remains a career high. Thank you for showing us the hows and the whys. Thank you for everything."
- Hugh Wooldridge is the producer and director of The Night of 1000 Voices at the Royal Albert Hall in May

“Stephen Sondheim is inimitable, although that hasn’t stopped too many people trying; his influence, on the whole, has been baleful. I love his work much more than I love the people who love it even more than I do. He’s the greatest all-round musical theatre composer since Cole Porter and his musicianly skills are as great as his literary ones, ensuring a dramatic homogeneity in his work that is unique.

“His name on at least six Broadway shows – West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, Company, A Little Night Music and Follies – guarantees him immortality, though my own personal favourites are Pacific Overtures and Into the Woods. He’s a wonderful man and supreme artist of our times, and I can even forgive him for making musical theatre achieve unprecedented levels of critical respectability.”
- Michael Coveney is chief critic at Whatsonstage.com

** We invite theatregoers to add their own birthday wishes and opinions via the
User Comments facility at the bottom of this page. **


Sondheim dates for your diary

Beyond Whatsonstage.com, the Sondheim birthday celebrations will carry on all year. Amongst the key productions so far announced for London in 2010 are: