No one in musical theatre is more loved and respected than Stephen Sondheim. The news of his passing at 91 on Friday was sad to hear, but what a rich, full life!

I wish he could have hung around to see the opening of Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of the classic “West Side Story,” for which Mr. Sondheim wrote the lyrics back in 1957.

I happen to think it’s the greatest fusion of music, dance, and drama ever put on film. If you’re lucky enough to see a brilliant stage version (as I have been), need I say it works its magic there also. And I’m aware that Mr. Sondheim said that he was not thrilled by some of his lyrics. But what a foursome! Leonard Bernstein, music; Sondheim, lyrics; Arthur Laurents, book; and Jerome Robbins, choreography. Astounding.

And lest we forget, this is the show that really put Stephen Sondheim at the forefront of American theatre – where he stayed until the end of his life. Along with “West Side Story,” Mr. Sondheim penned the lyrics to “Gypsy,” while also composing his own indelible work such as “Company,” “Into the Woods,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Sunday in the Park with George,” among many others.

His list of awards is endless: Tony Awards, Grammy Awards, Academy Awards, Olivier Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve always felt that New York City was one of his characters, at least subliminally, in many of his works.

For example, in “Company,” one of central character Bobby’s friends, determined that Bobby get married, says with wistful exasperation, “He was born in New York so nothing really interests him.”

Not that nothing really interests Sondheim; far from it. He’s fascinated by the quirks and ironies and frustrations of his species, and delights in revealing them in both subtle and broad strokes. He’s like Faulkner, who said the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.

Finally, it occurs to me that in Shakespeare’s time, most people really didn’t recognize the supreme genius who walked among them (and I’m not saying Sondheim is Shakespeare’s equal; no one is). Happily, in Mr. Sondheim’s time, I daresay there’s not a theatre aficionado alive who doesn’t recognize the genius of Stephen Sondheim, and that he has no peer.

More Sondheim

Read Manning’s reviews of some Sondheim shows that wowed Atlanta over the years, including “Company” at Actor’s Express, “Into the Woods” at Alliance Theatre, “West Side Story” at Atlanta Lyric Theatre, and “Assassins” at Fabrefaction Theatre. If you have the time, check out the the glorious filmed version of “Sunday in the Park with George” starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters on YouTube.

Manning Harris

Manning Harris is the theatre critic for Atlanta Intown.