Over the course of a career spanning almost seventy years, the American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim unquestionably established himself as one of the most significant figures in 20th-century theatre. His works include some of the most beloved and renowned musicals of our time, which continue to be produced worldwide, and he has theatres named after him both on Broadway and London’s West End. He won multiple Tony, Grammy and Olivier Awards, an Academy Award, a Kennedy Center Honour and a Pulitzer Prize. When President Barack Obama presented Sondheim with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the US’s highest civilian honour – in 2015, he praised him for ‘reinvent[ing] the American musical.’
Nick Hern Books has been proud to publish the book and lyrics to Stephen Sondheim’s work for over thirty years. Here, to mark the sad occasion of Sondheim’s passing this week, NHB’s founder, Nick Hern, pays tribute to one of the great artists of our time, and remembers his relationship with Sondheim and his work.
The peerless British premiere of Sunday in the Park with George at the National Theatre in 1990 was the spark. Until then, Sondheim’s work had not been published in book form. I had heard the recording of the Broadway production with Mandy Patinkin, which to my unsophisticated ear sounded pretty avant-garde, but thought, “Well, if the NT is doing it, I’ll do it”, and so the first of our many Sondheims came into being alongside the production.
After that we moved back in time to Forum (which I’d seen at its London premiere in 1963), A Little Night Music (also alongside the NT production) and Sweeney Todd (which we published with an engaging piece by Chris Bond, whose original play had been the inspiration for the musical, something always scrupulously acknowledged by Sondheim), as well as keeping pace with this extraordinary talent, right up to the ‘re-gendered’ Company, devised and first presented here in the UK a couple of years ago. All in all, we’ve published thirteen glorious musicals and one stage play.
It goes without saying how proud I am to be Steve’s UK publisher. One particular memory stands out. Sometime in the nineties, I went to meet him in his home in upstate New York. I arrived late and flustered, but Steve was the acme of warm hospitality. By way of calming me down, he showed me his newly acquired eighteenth-century crystallophone, a perfect embodiment of his musicianly curiosity. The purpose of the trip – my purpose, that is – was to persuade him to allow us to conduct and publish a sequence of interviews on the lyrics of the major shows. I remember saying – and I blush now at the memory – that the chief advantage for him was that the hard work of finding the ‘mots justes’ (yes, I was that pretentious!) would fall on the interviewer rather than on him. “Yes,” he replied with a light irony, “but I’d have to find the ‘mot juste’ myself first”. Of course he would! And just such a book finally came out in 2010…
As someone has already said, there is unlikely ever again to be a single figure who has wrought such a ground-breaking revolution in musical theatre. What a golden legacy he has left us!
Stephen Sondheim died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, on Friday 26 November 2021, at the age of 91.
From all of us at NHB: thank you, Stephen, for allowing us to publish your incredible work, and for the indelible mark you leave behind on theatre, music and our lives.
Photograph of Stephen Sondheim by Richard Avedon.