courtesy patti lupone
Stephen Sondheim left an indelible mark on musical theater and on those who were fortunate enough to have collaborated with him.
The late Broadway legend died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, on Nov. 26. Despite living till he was 91 years old, many in the theater community took the news as quite a shock.
"After the matinee, our producers gathered us on stage, which is never good news," Claybourne Elder, who stars in the current revival of Sondheim's Company, tells PEOPLE. "We gathered in a circle, many of us holding hands or with our arms around each other. Our director Marianne Elliott told us that Steve had passed, that it had been easy and that his loved ones were with him."
It was the company's tenth performance of the show — and they thought they had hit a milestone. Before the pandemic shut down live theater, the production only made it to performance number nine. "We were celebrating, we had crossed that barrier," says Elder, "and then this news came."
Sondheim was in attendance at Company's first preview back on Broadway post-shutdown. By the next week, he was gone.
At the show last month, "Patti LuPone stepped forward and dedicated our performance to Steve Sondheim. They threw a spotlight on him, and he stood up, the light was so bright," Elder recalls. "I hesitate to say that he looked like an angel, he would have hated that. But he did."
Though Sondheim was a Broadway institution — winning a total of eight Tony Awards, including one for lifetime achievement, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama — those who worked with him said that he welcomed change, as his art was always evolving.
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"After I finished the opening number, Stephen raised his hand and asked if we could hold the final note longer," she remembers. "It was the great reminder to us that for Stephen, these pieces of art could change and evolve. They were not set in stone, but more like living, breathing things he created that we were living in each night. You are never too old or too wise to make the painting better. I'm so honored I got be a Dot in his painting."
Matt Doyle, another cast member in the Broadway revival of Company, says Sondheim "wasn't precious." In fact, "He strongly encouraged the evolution of his work and was delighted by it," says Doyle. "He relished in originality."
Following Sondheim's death on Friday, tributes to the composer-lyricist poured in. Fans and fellow artists quoted lines from Into the Woods, West Side Story, Follies and Sweeney Todd, among others. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Josh Groban and hundreds more gathered in Times Square over the weekend to sing "Sunday" on the Sunday following his death.
"I think a lot of us feel lost in the wood without him right now," says Michael Cerveris, who played the titular Demon Barber of Fleet Street in the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd. "But, of course, he will never really leave us, because every bit of his heart and wit is with us in his work."
Despite his influence, Sondheim was just like other artists, says fellow Tony Award-winning songwriter Jason Robert Brown.
Just over two years ago, "I asked Steve to do a concert with me. Two pianos on stage, and we would play and sing together," he tells PEOPLE. "I knew Steve did not relish performing in public even when he was younger, but he was now 89 years old, had difficulty keeping his balance, and his piano playing was, by his own definition, 'frail,' so I had no expectation whatsoever that he would say yes. But he said yes."
During the show, he adds, "I looked over at my hero and my idol, who was clearly nervous and vulnerable, staring intently at the sheet music in front of him, and what I saw radiating from him was joy. The joy of making music, the joy of hearing his own songs, the joy of connecting directly with an audience."
Into the Woods star Laura Benanti describes his music as "utterly human and completely transcendent."
"His music manages to be utterly singular and completely universal. Light, and dark. Funny and tragic," she says. "There will never be another like him."
Broadway great Patti LuPone tells PEOPLE that she lost a friend when the world lost Sondheim. "I've sung seven Sondheim roles. He was a taskmaster, and his notes could be delivered harshly, but his approval was the ultimate affirmation of legitimacy in interpreting his work, which is peerless. There were times when I had to swallow my pride, harness my ego, endeavor to hear the note and apply it. He came backstage after one performance where he had given me an admonishing note the evening before. 'Night and day,' he said. The highest compliment," she says.
"We both live in a small county in Connecticut, and we were sometimes in the same social situations. One summer night Mia Farrow gave a Full Moon party, and I tipsily invited Steve to go for a paddle boat ride on her lake. Shocked that he accepted, I became so nervous that my conversation would bore or annoy him, but I found, impossibly, that we communicated in a way that made me understand we could have a sweet connection independent of our work together. We paddled the lake, or we sat floating in silence and we both saw the moon chattering away. At least that's how we described it. It was so lovely to see Steve in these moments. Away from work," she adds.
"But being in a rehearsal room with Steve, trying to achieve the complexities that he was striving for in his lyrics and music was a Master Class in technique, focus, discipline, accuracy. One must stand taller. I've lost a friend, but I've lost a great teacher as well. Who now will make me better?"