Ask any Broadway fan to rattle off a few musicals and you're bound to hear Into the Woods, West Side Story, Sweeny Todd and Company among the top of the list. These productions are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the breadth of work penned by the late Stephen Sondheim. The UofSC School of Music wanted to mark the passing of this legendary composer-lyricist in a special way. Violin faculty member, Bill Terwilliger wrote this personal memorial to our faculty and staff and we wanted to share it with you.
I wanted to express my personal feelings about the passing of one of the most iconic composers and lyricists of the American musical stage, Stephen Sondheim, at the age of 91. What made his passing particularly timely and poignant is that my partner, Andrew Cooperstock, and I just played a concert celebrating the theater music of Bernstein and Sondheim on November 23 at 54Below, the informal supper club on West 54th St. which mostly presents Broadway performers. Our concert featured arrangements for violin and piano from Bernstein’s Candide and Sondheim’s A Little Night Music by veteran Broadway arranger and conductor Eric Stern, who has consummate knowledge of and experience with the repertoire and had a friendly professional relationship with Sondheim. Broadway singer Elena Shaddow joined us on two Bernstein songs and one more of Sondheim’s, "I Remember” from his 1966 TV musical Evening Primrose.
This concert was originally scheduled for March 2020 to celebrate Sondheim’s 90th birthday, but of course the pandemic required us to postpone it three times. We were happy to finally present the concert when we felt safe to travel again and after Broadway opened again with fully vaccinated and masked audiences.
Just don’t change the harmonies.
In securing permission from Sondheim to arrange the Night Music suite for us, Eric sent us the e-mail from Sondheim graciously granting him permission, with one request: “Just don’t change the harmonies.” Eric was conscientiously true to the score and when we finally recorded it and Eric sent it to Sondheim this past summer, he mentioned he was pleased with the arrangement but only wanted us to change the notes in six bars. Perhaps we were a bit star-struck, but we were honored that he heard our recording and he seemed happy that his beautiful melodies stood so well on their own even without his unparalleled lyrics.
Andrew and I have long been fans of Broadway, seeing countless shows together over the past 30 years, and we share a special fascination with Sondheim, whose distinctly original, sophisticated and expressive lyrics and music bring such complex characters, raw emotions and complicated plot lines to life.
Sondheim’s musicals have enjoyed countless revivals, as well as concert versions of his songs marking every decade of his life, and on this trip we were fortunate to see the pandemically-postponed revival of Sondheim’s groundbreaking 1970 show Company. Sondheim was pleased with this updated revival where the male lead Bobby who has three girlfriends but can’t commit to marriage, is turned into the female Bobbie with three boyfriends. Katrina Lenk was incredible in the lead role, and the legendary Patti Lupone’s performance of "The Ladies Who Lunch” as Joanne is now seared into my brain for the rest of my life. I can only imagine the loving tribute the cast must be giving the creator of the utterly fantastic show they are bringing to the adoring public at tonight’s performance.
We have long been fans of Broadway and share a special fascination with Sondheim.
Also worth noting is that Sondheim’s first big break that really put him on the theater map is as lyricist for one of the most famous shows of all time, Bernstein’s 1957 musical West Side Story, which was also just remade in movie form by Stephen Spielberg, nearly 60 years after the original we all grew up with.
Most of all I wanted to celebrate Sondheim’s lifelong achievements that are beautifully listed by the article in the New York Times.
We might have lost a beloved national treasure, but his legacy lives on, and on, and on.
Thanks for reading,
Dr. William Terwilliger
Professor of Violin
University of South Carolina