Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who helped American musical theatre evolve beyond pure entertainment and reach new artistic heights with such works as West Side Story, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd, died early Friday (Nov 26) at the age of 91, his publicist said.
The musical great died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, spokesperson Kathryn Zuckerman told Reuters by email, saying she had little additional information. The news was reported earlier by the New York Times.
Sondheim’s eight Tony Awards for his lyrics and music surpassed the total of any other composer. In 2008 he also won a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.
He started early, learning the art of musical theatre when he was a teenager from his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, the legendary lyricist behind The Sound of Music.
Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was in turn mentored by Sondheim, has called him musical theatre’s greatest lyricist.
Sondheim’s most successful works included Into the Woods, which opened on Broadway in 1987 and used children’s fairy tales to untangle adult obsessions; the 1979 thriller Sweeney Todd, about a murderous barber in London whose victims are served as meat pies; and 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a vaudeville-style comedy set in ancient Rome.
He also wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story, inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and collaborated with fellow composer Jule Styne as lyricist for Gypsy, loosely based on the memoirs of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee.
“I love the theater as much as music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh, making them cry – just making them feel – is paramount to me,” Sondheim said in a 2013 interview with National Public Radio.
Several of Sondheim’s hit musicals were turned into movies, including the 2014 film Into the Woods, starring Meryl Streep, and the 2007 Sweeney Todd with Johnny Depp. A new film version of West Side Story, directed by Stephen Spielberg from a screenplay by Tony Kushner, opens next month.
During a guest appearance in September on the CBS Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Sondheim said he visited the set of Spielberg’s adaptation, and endorsed the film “as really first-rate.”
Sondheim’s songs were celebrated for their sharp wit and insight into modern life and for giving voice to complex characters, but few of them made the pop charts.
He scored a hit, however, and one of three Grammys of his career, with Send in the Clowns from his 1973 musical A Little Night Music. It was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Judy Collins, among others. Sondheim also earned a best-song Academy Award in 1991 for Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man), sung by Madonna in the Dick Tracy movie.
In 2015, President Barack Obama presented the lyricist the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony.
One of Sondheim’s greatest triumphs was the Pulitzer Prize he shared with composure James Lapine for the 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George, about 19th-century French Neo-Impressionist artist Georges Seurat. The two also collaborated on Into the Woods.
Actress Bernadette Peters, who played the roles of Dot and Marie in Sunday in the Park and the witch of Into the Woods, expressed sadness at the loss of a friend, tweeting, Sondheim “gave me so much to sing about.”
I am so so sad to lose my friend Steve Sondheim He gave me so much to sing about ♥️♥️I loved him dearly and will miss him so much Thank you for all the gifts you gave the world Steve♥️
— Bernadette Peters (@OfficialBPeters) November 26, 2021
Fellow actress Anna Kendrick, who starred as Cinderella in the film version of Into the Woods, called Sondheim’s death “a devastating loss.”
“Performing his work has been among the greatest privileges of my career,” she added on Twitter.
I was just talking to someone a few nights ago about how much fun (and fucking difficult) it is to sing Stephen Sondheim. Performing his work has been among the greatest privileges of my career. A devastating loss.
— Anna Kendrick (@AnnaKendrick47) November 26, 2021
As Sondheim collected accolades, New York City’s Broadway theater industry underwent many changes. It had a key role in American culture through the 1950s, with many Broadway songs making the pop charts, but lost significance as rock music gained a hold on the public starting in the 1960s.
Increasingly, musicals borrowed material from television and movies, instead of the other way around, composer Mark N. Grant wrote in his book The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical.
Sondheim shared the view that Broadway had experienced decline, expressing it repeatedly in interviews.
“There are so many forms of entertainment, theatre is becoming more marginalised,” he told British newspaper The Times in 2012.
But Broadway musicals also became more artistic, and Sondheim played a key role in their evolution, critics said. He explored such weighty topics as political violence in Assassins, the human need for family and the pull of dysfunctional relationships in Into the Woods, social inequality in Sweeney Todd, and Western imperialism in Pacific Overtures.
He developed new methods for presenting a play as well. Instead of telling a story from beginning to end, he would jump backward and forward in time to explore a single theme. It was called the “concept musical.”
Broadway audiences were introduced to Sondheim with West Side Story in 1957. The story about a love affair between a Puerto Rican girl, Maria, and a white boy, Tony, in working-class Manhattan was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 1961. The central characters expressed their infatuation in the songs Maria, Somewhere and Tonight.
Conflict with mother
Sondheim was born March 22, 1930, in New York City to affluent Jewish parents who worked in fashion. He described his early childhood as a lonely one, with servants as his main company.
After his parents split up when he was 10 years old, Sondheim moved with his mother to rural Pennsylvania, where she bought a farm. He later said his mother took out her wrath over the divorce on him. He found a surrogate family in the nearby household of Hammerstein and his wife, Dorothy.
Hammerstein, who along with composing partner Richard Rodgers created the classic musicals Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The Sound of Music, taught the teenage Sondheim how to write musical theater.
After Sondheim became famous, he mentored others on Broadway. When Miranda began work on a rap musical about American founding father Alexander Hamilton, Sondheim encouraged and critiqued him. The play became a smash hit on Broadway in 2015.
In box office success, Sondheim fell short of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer behind The Phantom of the Opera and Cats with whom Sondheim shared a birthday.
Sondheim pushed audiences, which sometimes resulted in box office flops.
Some of his least commercially successful plays were lauded by critics. Those included the 1976 Pacific Overtures, which depicted Japan during an age of Western colonialism, and his 1990 off-Broadway production Assassins about real-life figures who each set out to kill an American president.
Sondheim had many fans in the academic world. In 1994, a quarterly magazine called the Sondheim Review was founded to examine his work, five years after Oxford University in England named him a visiting professor of drama.
His devotees celebrated the acerbic irony of his lyrics, which they described as commenting on everything from the limits of America’s melting pot to the downside of marriage.
These lines from The Ladies Who Lunch in his 1970 musical Company contained a typical slice of Sondheim’s wit: “Here’s to the girls who play wife/Aren’t they too much?/Keeping house but clutching a copy of LIFE/Just to keep in touch.”