Musical Theater Legend Stephen Sondheim Dies at 91

(NEW YORK) — Stephen Sondheim, the songwriter who reshaped the American musical theater in the second half of the 20th century with his intelligent, intricately rhymed lyrics, his use of evocative melodies and his willingness to tackle unusual subjects, has died. His age was 91.

Sondheim’s death was announced by his Texas-based attorney, Rick Pappas, who told The New York Times The composer, who was a Roxbury resident, Connecticut native, died on Friday. Pappas did no return phone calls or messages. The Associated Press.

Sondheim influenced several generations of theater songwriters, particularly with such landmark musicals as “Company,” “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd,” which are considered among his best work. His most famous ballad, “Send in the Clowns,” has been recorded hundreds of times, including by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins.
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The artist refused to repeat himself, finding inspiration for his shows in such diverse subjects as an Ingmar Bergman movie (“A Little Night Music”), the opening of Japan to the West (“Pacific Overtures”), French painter Georges Seurat (“Sunday in the Park With George”), Grimm’s fairy tales (“Into the Woods”) and even the killers of American presidents (“Assassins”), among others.

“The theater has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers. Unfortunately, there’s a new giant in the air. But the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim will still be here as his legendary songs and shows will be performed for evermore,” producer Cameron Mackintosh wrote in tribute.

President Obama Presents The Presidential Medal Of Freedom Awards
Chip Somodevilla—Getty ImagesStephen Sondheim is presented by the Presidential Medal of Freedom to President Barack Obama during an event at the White House, Nov. 24, 2015.

Six of Sondheim’s musicals won Tony Awards for best score, and he also received a Pulitzer Prize (“Sunday in the Park”), an Academy Award (for the song “Sooner or Later” from the film Dick TracyHe was awarded five Olivier Awards as well as the Presidential Medal of Honor. For his lifetime accomplishment, he was presented with the Tony Award in 2008.

Sondheim’s music and lyrics gave his shows a dark, dramatic edge, whereas before him, the dominant tone of musicals was frothy and comic. He was sometimes criticized as a composer of unhummable songs, a badge that didn’t bother Sondheim. Frank Sinatra, who had a hit with Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” once complained: “He could make me a lot happier if he’d write more songs for saloon singers like me.”

To theater fans, Sondheim’s sophistication and brilliance made him an icon. He was also the name of a Broadway theatre. His name was given to a Broadway theater. New York magazine cover asked “Is Sondheim God?” The Guardian newspaper once offered this question: “Is Stephen Sondheim the Shakespeare of musical theatre?”

A supreme wordsmith—and an avid player of word games—Sondheim’s joy of language shone through. “The opposite of left is right/The opposite of right is wrong/So anyone who’s left is wrong, right?” he wrote in “Anyone Can Whistle.” In “Company,” he penned the lines: “Good things get better/Bad gets worse/Wait—I think I meant that in reverse.”

Sondheim was taught by Oscar Hammerstein who is no less than a genius. He made the musical darker, more complex, and richer. “If you think of a theater lyric as a short story, as I do, then every line has the weight of a paragraph,” he wrote in his 2010 book Complete the HatThe First Volume of His Collection of Lyrics and Comments.

Early in his career, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for two shows considered to be classics of the American stage, “West Side Story” (1957) and “Gypsy” (1959). “West Side Story,” with music by Leonard Bernstein, transplanted Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to the streets and gangs of modern-day New York. “Gypsy,” with music by Jule Styne, told the backstage story of the ultimate stage mother and the daughter who grew up to be Gypsy Rose Lee.

It was not until 1962 that Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics for a Broadway show, and it turned out to be a smash—the bawdy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” starring Zero Mostel as a wily slave in ancient Rome yearning to be free.

Yet his next show, “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964), flopped, running only nine performances but achieving cult status after its cast recording was released. Sondheim’s 1965 lyric collaboration with composer Richard Rodgers—“Do I Hear a Waltz?”—also turned out to be problematic. The musical, based on the play “The Time of the Cuckoo,” ran for six months but was an unhappy experience for both men, who did not get along.

It was “Company,” which opened on Broadway in April 1970, that cemented Sondheim’s reputation. It was the story of Dean Jones’s bachelor character, who is unable to find a partner and struggles to stay single. The show captured New Yorkers striving for self-centeredness through its episodic stories. Sondheim was awarded his first Tony in the Best Score category for this production and its direction by Hal Prince. “The Ladies Who Lunch” became a standard for Elaine Stritch.

The following year, Sondheim wrote the score for “Follies,” a look at the shattered hopes and disappointed dreams of women who had appeared in lavish Ziegfeld-style revues. Music and lyrics were a tribute to the great composers of the past like Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and the Gershwins.

In 1973, “A Little Night Music,” starring Glynis Johns and Len Cariou, opened. Based on Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night,” this rueful romance of middle-age lovers contains the song “Send in the Clowns,” which gained popularity outside the show. An revival of the show in 2009 featured Angela Lansbury, and Catherine Zeta Jones was nominated to a Best Revival Tony.

“Pacific Overtures,” with a book by John Weidman, followed in 1976. The musical, also produced and directed by Prince, was not a financial success, but it demonstrated Sondheim’s commitment to offbeat material, filtering its tale of the westernization of Japan through a hybrid American-Kabuki style.

In 1979, Sondheim and Prince collaborated on what many believe to be Sondheim’s masterpiece, the bloody yet often darkly funny “Sweeney Todd.” An ambitious work, it starred Cariou in the title role as a murderous barber whose customers end up in meat pies baked by Todd’s willing accomplice, played by Angela Lansbury.

The Sondheim-Prince partnership collapsed two years later, after “Merrily We Roll Along,” a musical that traced a friendship backward from its characters’ compromised middle age to their idealistic youth. It was based on George S. Kaufman’s play and Moss Hart’s musical. The Broadway show ran for only two weeks. But again, as with “Anyone Can Whistle,” its original cast recording helped “Merrily We Roll Along” to become a favorite among musical-theater buffs.

Sondheim And Lapine
Sara Krulwich—New York Times/Getty ImagesStephen Sondheim (left) and James Lapine (right), pose before the Booth Theatre’s marquee on April 24, 1985, in New York City. They won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for their musical, ‘Sunday In The Park With George,’ playing therein.

“Sunday in the Park,” written with James Lapine, may be Sondheim’s most personal show. It was a tale of artistic creativity and uncompromising art, telling the story of Georges Seurat (played by Mandy Patinkin). He submerges all of his personal and professional life to create his art. The Broadway revival of the play was last seen in 2017, with Jake Gyllenhaal.

Three years after “Sunday” debuted, Sondheim collaborated again with Lapine, this time on the fairy-tale musical “Into the Woods.” The show starred Peters as a glamorous witch and dealt primarily with the turbulent relationships between parents and children, using such famous fairy-tale characters as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. The Public Theater revived it in 2012, in Central Park.

“Assassins” opened off-Broadway in 1991 and it looked at the men and women who wanted to kill presidents, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. Although the original show got mostly negative reviews, many critics changed their minds 13 years later. The Broadway production won a Tony Award for Best Musical Revival.

“Passion” was another severe look at obsession, this time a desperate woman in love with a handsome soldier. Although the show won the Best-Musical Tony Award in 1994, it only lasted six months.

A new version of “The Frogs,” with additional songs by Sondheim and a revised book by Nathan Lane (who also starred in the production), played Lincoln Center during the summer of 2004. Based on Aristophanes’ comedy, the show was originally performed in Yale University’s swimming pool 20 years ago.

One of his more troubled shows was “Road Show,” which reunited Sondheim and Weidman and spent years being worked on. After many titles and directors, this tale about the Mizner brothers is finally at the Public Theater.

He had been working on a new musical with “Venus in Fur” playwright David Ives, who called his collaborator a genius. “Not only are his musicals brilliant, but I can’t think of another theater person who has so chronicled a whole age so eloquently,” Ives said in 2013. “He is the spirit of the age in a certain way.”

Sondheim was the youngest child born to Helen Fox Sondheim (dress manufacturer) and Herbert Sondheim. At 10, his parents divorced and Sondheim’s mother bought a house in Doylestown, Pa., where one of their Bucks County neighbors was lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, whose son, James, was Sondheim’s roommate at boarding school. It was Oscar Hammerstein who became the young man’s professional mentor and a good friend.

A lonely childhood saw him suffer verbal abuse at times from his cold mother. She wrote him a letter in her 40s expressing regret at giving birth. He continued to support her financially and to see her occasionally but didn’t attend her funeral.

Sondheim studied music at Williams College, Massachusetts. He was awarded a fellowship for two years to work with Milton Babbitt, an avant-garde composer.

One of Sondheim’s first jobs was writing scripts for the television show TopperThe show ran from 1953-1955. At the same time, Sondheim wrote his first musical, “Saturday Night,” the story of a group of young people in Brooklyn in 1920s. Although it was scheduled to premiere on Broadway in 2005, the producer of the musical died right as the musical was going into production. The show was then scrapped. “Saturday Night” finally arrived in New York in 1997 in a small, off-Broadway production.

Sondheim didn’t often write for films. Anthony Perkins, an actor who played the role of Sondheim in the 1973 Murder Mystery script. Sheila: The Last of SheilaHe is also known for his contributions to the arts. Dick Tracy (1990), wrote scores for such movies as Alain Resnais’ Stavisky (1974) and Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981).

Over the years, there have been many Broadway revivals of Sondheim shows, especially “Gypsy,” which had reincarnations starring Angela Lansbury (1974), Tyne Daly (1989) and Peters (2003). But there also were productions of “A Funny Thing,” one with Phil Silvers in 1972 and another starring Nathan Lane in 1996; “Into the Woods” with Vanessa Williams in 2002; and even of Sondheim’s less successful shows such as “Assassins” and “Pacific Overtures,” both in 2004. “Sweeney Todd” has been produced in opera houses around the world. A reimagined “West Side Story” opened on Broadway in 2020 and a scrambled “Company” opened on Broadway in 2021 with the genders of the actors switched.

Sondheim’s songs have been used extensively in revues, the best-known being “Side by Side by Sondheim” (1976) on Broadway and “Putting It Together,” off-Broadway with Julie Andrews in 1992 and on Broadway with Carol Burnett in 1999. The New York Philharmonic put on a star-studded “Company” in 2011 with Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert. Tunes from his musicals have lately popped up everywhere from “Marriage Story” to “The Morning Show.”

Lapine directs this HBO documentary. Six from SondheimThe 2013 episode, which aired on ABC in 2013, revealed that he enjoyed writing lying down. He also liked to drink a cocktail while writing. He also revealed that he only became in love with Jeff Romley after he turned 60. This was first with Peter Jones, then with Jeff Romley.

The Stephen Sondheim Theatre took over the Henry Miller Theatre in September 2010. “I’m deeply embarrassed. I’m thrilled, but deeply embarrassed,” he said as the sun fell over dozens of clapping admirers in Times Square. Then he revealed his perfectionist streak: “I’ve always hated my last name. It just doesn’t sing.”


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