Sondheim — who wrote the lyrics for the original Broadway production of West Side Story, which accompanied the music written by Leonard Bernstein — died on Friday at the age of 91. With his death just days ahead of the new film’s release, there was no shortage of love, praise and appreciation at the star-studded event at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Director Steven Spielberg recalled the story of how Sondheim was convinced by his longtime mentor
Oscar Hammerstein to write the lyrics for West Side Story, which marked the early start of Sondheim’s incomparable theater career.
“It’s really amazing, when you have such a gift like Stephen had from childhood,” Spielberg told ET’s Nischelle Turner with reverence.
Rita Moreno — who earned an Oscar for her starring role in the original 1961 film adaptation and appears in Spielberg’s new take on the story — said of Sondheim, “I feel privileged to have been in the same generation as he.”
“To be there, to hear them in person, as they were written. That is a huge privilege,” she expressed. “I’m so glad he was able to attend our recording sessions when we were doing the movie.”
Ansel Elgort, who stars as Tony in this latest adaptation, told ET he is “so glad that we are celebrating him, and he should be at the tip of all our tongues.”
According to Elgort, Sondheim came out to speak with all the actors during production, and the young star asked him about his philosophy on writing lyrics and how he crafted his songs.
“He said, ‘I always want to make the most simple lyric that gets the message across,'” Elgort recalled, adding that Spielberg shared nearly the same advice when it came to performing. “Sometimes, its just about keeping it really simple to tell a story. You don’t have to do too much.”
One of the most lauded and central figures in 20th century American theater, Sondheim, who was born in New York City in 1930, was the composer and lyricist best known for Broadway hits A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), and Into the Woods (1987). He also wrote the lyrics for Gypsy (1959).
Sondheim was awarded nine Tony Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Tony in 2008), an Academy Award, eight GRAMMY Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a Laurence Olivier Award, and a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is survived by his husband, Jeffrey Romley, and a half brother, Walter Sondheim.
Spielberg’s West Side Story hits theaters Dec. 10.