On the set of Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, there was an SS1 and an SS2. As Spielberg explained during a speech at the film’s premiere on Monday night, he was actually the latter of the two, because he insisted that Stephen Sondheim would have to be the first one. The Broadway legend, who died on November 26, wrote the lyrics for the original musical and returned to consult on its latest film adaptation. Along the way, he sat in on everything from discussions about the screenplay to recording sessions, and became good friends with Spielberg himself. Below, in full, are Spielberg’s remarks about Sondheim from the premiere. After praising Sondheim, Spielberg went on to thank various other collaborators on the film, but it’s worth noting that, at the end of his speech, he closed with, “Thank you, Steve, for the hat.”
It cannot be the night we’ve long anticipated, because of the absence of Stephen Sondheim. His amazing work for West Side Story first put him on the map, and launched a career that would completely redraw that map, reinvent 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 wrote about Shakespeare, Stephen Sondheim was not of an age but for all time.
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. So I caught myself watching Steve’s expressions, sometimes more than the actors, because they perfectly reflected what everyone was doing.
He always deferred to our musical director, Jeanine Tesori. She 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 a 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 SS1 and I was SS2, and I insisted on that ranking. Our friendship formed around the work on West Side Story. It grew when I realized that Steve possessed an infinite storehouse of movie knowledge and trivia. He told me things like about his fondness for actresses with smoky voices like Ida Lupino and Glynis Johns, and how many different ways that Margaret Sullavan had died in her films, imagining that her contract with MGM stipulated that you could never be killed the same way twice. Those were the details that never escaped Steve’s notice, either on the boards or on the movie screen. And like everyone else on the planet that 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.