Hours after Stephen Sondheim’s death, the director of the Broadway revival of “Company” walked onstage before the curtain rose on Friday to acknowledge the news that many in the audience already knew but that some — judging by the murmurs that followed — had not yet heard.
“Stephen Sondheim, so sadly, passed away in the early hours of this morning,” said the director, Marianne Elliott. “He was truly the greatest artist that we, in our lifetime, possibly will ever know.”
Around the same time, 32 blocks downtown, the director of the Off Broadway musical, “Assassins,” walked onstage before the show with a similar mournful speech.
“Today is a sad day for the American theater,” said the director, John Doyle. “Stephen Sondheim changed the face of the American musical, and we feel very blessed to be in this space at this time.”
It was evidence of Sondheim’s long-lasting popularity that, on the day of his death, audience members lined up to see revivals for two of his musicals: “Company,” a Broadway production starring Patti LuPone and Katrina Lenk, and “Assassins,” about the people who killed or tried to kill American presidents. Both had been delayed by the pandemic.
With the cast of “Company” standing onstage behind her at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, arms around one another’s shoulders, Elliott said that Sondheim’s death had been a shock to the production, whose members had gotten to know the composer and lyricist during the preparation for the revival. Even at 91 years old and with more than six decades of writing music and lyrics for Broadway behind him, Sondheim had taken an active role in the new run of the musical, which first premiered in 1970 and won six Tony Awards. The current production was a hit with critics when it debuted in London in 2019.
“He didn’t need to do that,” Elliott said. “But he became the greatest enthusiast for it, and every single line of George Furth’s and every single lyric we talked about, we debated, we argued, we chatted, we laughed,” Elliott added, referring to the playwright.
In this version, the central character, a bachelor with commitment issues, is played by a woman (Lenk). He had been supportive of the changes to the musical, Elliott said. “He really understood about art,” she said, “and he really understood about the now and why art should speak to the now.”
Right up until his death, Sondheim was both a fairly active writer and theatergoer. Earlier this month, Sondheim had traveled to Manhattan from his home in Connecticut to see these productions himself, attending the opening night of “Assassins” at the Classic Stage Company on Nov. 14 and a preview of “Company” the next day. This week, Sondheim discussed his current project — his final musical — with The New York Times, saying, “What else would I do with my time but write?”
Speaking to the audience at “Assassins,” Doyle urged the theatergoers to celebrate Sondheim’s work rather than grieve.
“He would be curious if you sat here sadly tonight,” he said. “I would ask you to sit back, to luxuriate in his extraordinary words and music.”
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