Sondheim’s death felt like an ending, but it was really a beginning

It’s been two years since Sondheim died in 2021

Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff and Daniel Radcliffe, © Matthew Murphy

Today marks two years since the death of Stephen Sondheim. 

Coming during the surge in omicron cases during the final chapters of Covid lockdowns, it was a gut-punch for a theatrical community only just finding its feet. An ending, but, as it turned out, a moment that has arguably catapulted the composer further into the mainstream than he achieved during his lifetime.  

The productions started coming – a blockbuster Sweeney Todd on Broadway, a technical extravaganza version of Into the Woods in Bath, and a rich revue West End celebration titled Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends, later broadcast across the world and returning to the West End.  Maria Friedman’s version of Merrily We Roll Along broke box office records on the Great White Way – a huge achievement for a show that had an original Broadway run swaddled in ignominy – while we had chamber stagings of Passion, off-West End takes on Anyone Can Whistle and helpings of Gypsy across the UK. 

Then, despite the fact that the full score wasn’t completely finished (according to Cameron Mackintosh), a miracle – a brand, new puzzle-box of a musical, Here We Are – Sondheim’s posthumous offering to the canon. Watching the critics react to the show, seeing them tentatively interrogate a strange coda to a body of work that could be written about for a lifetime. 

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The company of Here We Are, © Emilio Madrid

But where next? Polly Findlay’s expansive take on Assassins aside (and hopefully we’ll see more of that production at some point), the large majority of Sondheim productions since 2021 have been reverential rather than revisionist – playing it safe rather than shaking things up. Hopefully this new drive to stage Sondheim’s work will lead to radical re-shapings, and fresh twists – in the same way Rodgers and Hammerstein are duly interrogated these days. It does feel as though some of this is being promised in the new production of Pacific Overtures, opening next month, at the Menier Chocolate Factory (a consistent bastion of Sondheim quality). 

For now, however, sitting back and basking in the lyrical, musical genius of one of the creative greats of the last century – maybe even any century – is more than enough. Art isn’t easy, but Sondheim made it feel effortless. 

PS – please could someone make the Covid-disrupted Sunday in the Park with George with Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford in the West End finally happen?

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Old Friends

Closed: 06 January 2024