Pop Culture

Steven Spielberg Toasts the “Immortal” Stephen Sondheim at West Side Story Premiere

Sondheim created “a body of work that, beyond any doubt, is as immortal as anything made by a mortal can be,” Spielberg said during the Jazz at Lincoln Center event. 

Steven Spielberg was there. So were Rita Moreno, Ansel Elgort, and Rachel Zegler. But one towering presence was missing from Monday’s West Side Story premiere at the New York City theater Jazz at Lincoln Center: Stephen Sondheim, the Broadway icon whose first major job in the theater was writing the musical’s lyrics. 

Sondheim died Friday at the age of 91, sending shockwaves through the tight-knit theatrical community and inspiring scores of tributes from his friends and collaborators. One of those tributes came from Spielberg, who released a brief statement about Sondheim’s passing to Variety. But Spielberg greatly expanded on those remarks at Monday’s premiere, giving a moving toast to Sondheim that celebrated the composer and lyricist as a virtuoso and as a close friend.

After an introduction from Disney chair Bob Iger, Spielberg took the stage. His full remarks about Sondheim are transcribed below.

Thank you all for being here tonight. It cannot be the night we’ve long anticipated because of the absence of Stephen Sondheim. His amazing lyrics for West Side Story first put him on the map, and launched a career that would completely redraw that map, re-invent the musical and theater, and create a body of work that, beyond any doubt, is as immortal as anything made by a mortal can be.

To borrow what Ben Johnson said about Shakespeare, Stephen Sondheim was not of an age, but for all time. And Stephen was a big part of the making of our film, West Side Story, from the earliest screenplay drafts to every recording session, which Steve attended without fail. Listening with his eyes closed, he’d sway, he’d swoon—or he’d grimace and flinch. I caught myself watching Steve’s expression sometimes more than the actors, because they perfectly reflected what everyone was doing. 

He always deferred to our musical director, Jeanine Tesori. Jeanine directed all the vocal performances. But his insistence, like Jeanine’s, was on telling emotional truths based on an understanding of character. You can get through any challenges presented by the complicated score, Steve said, as long as you know who you are and what you’re feeling. 

And he and I became good friends. He was SS One, and I was SS Two. And I insisted on that ranking! 

Our friendship formed around our work on West Side Story. It grew when I realized that Steve possessed an infinite store of movie knowledge and trivia. He told me things about his fondness for actress with smoky voices, like Ida Lupino and Glynis Johns, and how many different ways Margaret Sullavan had died in her films—imagining that her contract with MGM stipulated that she could never be killed the same way twice. 

Those were the details that never escaped Steve’s notice, either on the boards or on a movie screen. And like everyone else on the planet who cares about words and music, I’m heartbroken at this sudden loss. But Steve is here, with us tonight, in the form of his great abiding genius and the glorious musical he helped bring into the world 64 years ago. And he’s also here in our gratitude for all the art and culture he left behind. Thank you, Steve. 

Spielberg went on to celebrate many members of his cast, crew, and creative team by name, and to applaud the handful of performers from the 1961 film of West Side Story who were in the audience that night as well—including Russ Tamblyn, who played Riff. But he wrapped up, naturally, by segueing back to Sondheim.

“Thank you all for coming and being with us,” he said, just before the lights dimmed. “And thank you, Steve, for the hat. We all miss you.”

More Great Stories From Vanity Fair

Jennifer Lawrence Exclusive: “I Didn’t Have a Life. I Thought I Should Go Get One”
— What’s the Deal With Seinfeld?
— “It Was as If Her Breast Exposed Itself”: The People v. Janet Jackson
Succession Stars Sarah Snook and Matthew Macfadyen on Episode Five
— After The Morning Show, Julianna Margulies Can’t Go Back to Network TV
— Lady Gaga Shines in the Curiously Drab House of Gucci
— The Day Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Ernie Hudson Became Ghostbusters Again
— In Season Four, Selling Sunset Gets Real
— Understanding the Real Richard Williams, Father and Coach to Venus and Serena
— From the Archive: The Comeback Kid
— Sign up for the “HWD Daily” newsletter for must-read industry and awards coverage—plus a special weekly edition of “Awards Insider.”

Products You May Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *