Tribute to Stephen Sondheim 

Here’s the text of the intro speech I gave in tribute to Stephen Sondheim last week…

Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening and welcome to this first major screening of West Side Story here in London.

Following the premiere in New York last night, it’s only fitting that we should follow it up in London – after all, it’s where, in December 1958 on the back of a Broadway run the year before, George Chakiris and Chita Rivera were among the cast to inaugurate the stage musical at Her Majesty’s Theatre, where it ran for over 1000 performance.

I’m Jason Solomons and I’ve been asked and honoured tonight just to say a few words by way of introduction to this film – about a man who probably needs no introduction – Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics you’re about to hear, his first big Broadway job, working with Leonard Bernstein, at the age of 26.

Sondheim, as you’ll know, passed away last Friday, aged 91 and you don’t need me to remind you of the God of musical theatre he became, with productions here in London from Company, Sunday in the Park with George, Gypsy, Assassins, A Little Night Music and of course Sweeney Todd.

the Bard of Broadway was how many obituaries referred to him, so it feels apt tonight that we celebrate his own adaptation of Shakespeare with the lyrics of West Side Story’s Romeo and Juliet story.

You’ll notice that in this new version, Tony Kushner has written a refresh of the original script and dialogue and even the hallowed Jerome Robbins choreography has been tweaked by Justin Peck, but the Sondheim lyrics, they stay the same. 

They are the text; the classic source for all the character and the passion, the love and the anger and the brio and the tragedy – the wit of Officer Krupke is still charged with social comment – I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived – while America still crackles with relevance in its satire on race, immigration and social mobility; Something’s Coming and Somewhere ooze with longing and yearning, and I marvelled anew at the sheer dramatic tension contained in the lyrics of Cool, and A Boy Like That… 

65 or so years old and fresh as ever –  you don’t change a thing if the lyrics have got that swing.

You know, I played Chino in a school production of this once, so I know what I’m talking about.. never has the line He Killed Your Brother, been so… mauled.

I also had the joy of spending a day with Sondheim himself, a sunlit university day in 1990, when a few of us were lucky enough to attend a workshop with him, put on by Cameron Mackintosh and and we sang Send in the Clowns and Something’s Coming and he took us through his concepts of character, less is more, and clarity: God is in the details, he said.

Sondheim himself, as Steven Spielberg said in his introduction speech in New York last night, was all over this new adaptation, visiting the set and the recording sessions – maybe to make sure they didn’t change a damn word of his – but also nodding approval and grimacing, says Spielberg, when some things weren’t right. God is in the details.

And it’s almost as if the whole thing about this new version, were geared to setting the lyrics in the right frame, to make them shine with the enduring intelligence and humanity that’s contained within them, as well as the drama that makes them a gift for generations of performers to deliver and sing, from everyday dialogue – ‘something’s coming I don’t know what it is, but it is gonna be great’ or, “catch the moon, one handed catch’ – such a detail, of growing elation and confidence in that description, a one-handed catch; or ‘forget that boy and find another…”  and it goes to operatic poetry: “oh moon grow bright and make this endless day endless night….”

Immortal, was one of the many frequent words I’ve seen most associated with Stephen Sondheim these last few days – and what you’re about to see and hear simply underlines his genius and his status up there with the immortals, of theatre, of film, of words – there’ a place for us, somewhere a place for us, he wrote, hold my hand and I’ll take you there. 

So let’s go there, we’re gonna rock it tonight, and the stars will stop where they are while we have Stephen Sondheim in our hearts and his words humming in our heads. 

Enjoy West Side Story.