Stephen Sondheim, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American lyricist and Broadway icon behind iconic musicals like “West Side Story”
and “A Little Night Music,” has died at 91.
Stephen Sondheim, a towering musical theater master and Oscar-winning composer for “West Side Story,” died at the age of 91.
(AP) — NEW YORK (AP) — Stephen Sondheim, the lyricist whose brilliant, elaborately rhymed lyrics, use of evocative melodies, and willingness to tackle odd themes transformed American musical theater in the second part of the twentieth century, has died. He was 91 years old when he died.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JUNE 19: Stephen Sondheim visits the Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ 2019 American Songbook Gala on June 19, 2019 in New York City. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Roy Rochlin)
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Rick Miramontez, president of DKC/O&M, reported Sondheim’s death, and Sondheim’s Texas-based attorney, Rick Pappas, informed The New York Times that the composer died Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.
With such classic musicals as “Company,” “Follies,” and “Sweeney Todd,” which are regarded among his greatest work, Sondheim impacted numerous generations of theater composers. “Send in the Clowns,” his most renowned song, has been recorded hundreds of times, notably by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins.
The artist refused to repeat himself, drawing inspiration for his shows from a film by Ingmar Bergman (“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 assassins of American presidents (“Assassins”).
As actors and writers alike paid tribute to a theatrical icon, tributes filled social media. “We will sing your songs forever,” Lea Salonga wrote. “We are very blessed to have what you’ve given the world,” Aaron Tveit wrote.
“The world has lost one of its finest and most creative authors, and the theater has lost one of its greatest geniuses.” In commemoration, producer Cameron Mackintosh stated, “Unfortunately, there is now a behemoth in the sky.”
Sondheim got a Pulitzer Prize (“Sunday in the Park”), an Academy Award (for the song “Sooner or Later” from the film “Dick Tracy”), five Olivier Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Honor in addition to six Tony Awards for outstanding score. He was honored with a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2008.
Sondheim’s music and lyrics give his shows a dark, tragic edge, while musicals had a bubbly, comedic tone before him. Sondheim was sometimes chastised for writing unhummable tunes, but he didn’t mind. “He might make me a lot happy if he’d compose more songs for saloon singers like me,” said Frank Sinatra, who scored a success with Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.”
Sondheim’s subtlety and creativity made him a legend among theatergoers. His name was given to a Broadway theater. “Is Sondheim God?” a New York magazine cover wondered. “Is Stephen Sondheim the Shakespeare of musical theater?” wondered the Guardian at one point.
Sondheim’s love of language shined through as a master wordsmith and enthusiastic word game player. In “Everyone Can Whistle,” he wrote, “The opposite of left is right/The opposite of right is wrong/So anyone who is left is wrong, right?” “Good things become better/Bad things grow worse/Wait — I guess I meant it in reverse,” he wrote in “Company.”
NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 15: Stephen Colbert hosts The Late Show with Stephen Sondheim on Wednesday, September 15, 2021. (Photo courtesy of CBS/Scott Kowalchyk via Getty Images) )
In his first collection of collected lyrics, he outlined the three guiding principles for songwriters: Content Dictates Form, Less Is More, and God Is in the Details. “All of these truisms are in service of Clarity, without which nothing else matters,” he wrote. “It’s a pretty short route from the pinch and the punch to the paunch, the pouch, and the pension,” they wrote together.
Sondheim, who was taught by none other than Oscar Hammerstein II, took the musical into a darker, deeper, and more cerebral territory. “If you conceive of a theater lyric as a short tale, as I do, then every line has the weight of a paragraph,” he said in the first volume of his collection of songs and remarks, “Finishing the Hat,” published in 2010.
Sondheim composed the lyrics for two works that are regarded American theatrical classics: “West Side Story” (1957) and “Gypsy” (1958). (1959). Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” was transferred to the streets and gangs of modern-day New York in “West Side Story,” with music by Leonard Bernstein. With Jule Styne’s music, “Gypsy” recounted the backstage tale of the ultimate stage mother and her daughter, Gypsy Rose Lee.
Sondheim didn’t write both music and lyrics for a Broadway production until 1962, and it was a hit – the raunchy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” starring Zero Mostel as a cunning slave in ancient Rome pining for freedom.
However, his following production, “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964), was a disappointment, running just nine times but attaining cult status once the cast album was published. “Do I Hear a Waltz?” a 1965 lyric collaboration between Sondheim and composer Richard Rodgers proved to be difficult as well. The musical, which was based on the play “The Time of the Cuckoo,” played for six months but was a tumultuous experience for both men.
Sondheim’s fame was confirmed with the Broadway premiere of “Company” in April 1970. The serial exploits of a bachelor (played by Dean Jones) who can’t commit to a relationship were praised for perfectly expressing the compulsive attitude of ambitious, self-centered New Yorkers. Hal Prince produced and directed the musical, which earned Sondheim his first Tony Award for outstanding score. Elaine Stritch’s song “The Ladies Who Lunch” became a classic.
The next year, Sondheim composed the music for “Follies,” a musical about the broken aspirations and shattered ambitions of ladies who had participated in opulent Ziegfeld revues. The music and lyrics pay tribute to former great composers like Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and the Gershwins.
“A Little Night Music,” starring Glynis Johns and Len Cariou, was released in 1973. This wistful romance of middle-aged lovers, based on Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night,” includes the song “Send in the Clowns,” which went on to become a hit outside of the play. In 2009, a revival starring Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Revival.
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In 1976, “Pacific Overtures” was released, with a book by John Weidman. The musical, which was also produced and directed by Prince, was a commercial failure, but it displayed Sondheim’s devotion to unconventional material by telling the story of Japan’s westernization via a hybrid American-Kabuki style.
Sondheim and Prince worked on “Sweeney Todd,” a gory yet sometimes darkly hilarious musical that many consider to be Sondheim’s greatest, in 1979. Cariou appeared as a killer barber whose clients end up in meat pies prepared by Todd’s eager collaborator, Angela Lansbury, in this elaborate film.
After “Merrily We Roll Along,” a musical that tracked a relationship backward from its protagonists’ compromised middle age to their idealistic youth, the Sondheim-Prince collaboration fell up two years later. The Broadway production, which was based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, barely lasted two weeks. Like “Anyone Can Whistle,” the original cast recording helped “Merrily We Roll Along” become a classic among musical theater fans.
Sondheim’s most personal play is “Sunday in the Park,” which he co-wrote with James Lapine. It portrayed the life of artist Georges Seurat, played by Mandy Patinkin, and his rigorous aesthetic production. For his painting, the painter submerges his whole life, including his connection with his model (Bernadette Peters.) In 2017, Jake Gyllenhaal starred in a Broadway revival of the play.)
Sondheim and Lapine teamed again three years after the premiere of “Sunday,” this time on the fairy-tale musical “Into the Woods.” The play featured Peters as a gorgeous witch and focused on the tumultuous relationships between parents and children, incorporating figures from popular fairy tales such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. It was most recently staged in Central Park by The Public Theater in the summer of 2012.
From John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, “Assassins” began off-Broadway in 1991 and focused on the men and women who intended to assassinate presidents. The production garnered generally unfavorable reviews in its first run, but when it was revived on Broadway 13 years later and won a Tony Award for best musical revival, many of those reviewers changed their minds.
“Passion” was another dark look at infatuation, this time starring Donna Murphy as a desperate lady in love with a gorgeous soldier. Despite winning the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1994, the production only lasted six months.
During the summer of 2004, a new version of “The Frogs” was performed at Lincoln Center, featuring additional songs by Sondheim and a reworked script by Nathan Lane (who also appeared in the performance). The production, which is based on Aristophanes’ comedy, was first performed at the Yale University swimming pool 20 years ago.
“Road Show,” which reunited Sondheim and Weidman and took years to develop, was one of his most difficult productions. After passing through numerous different titles, directors, and casts, this story of the Mizner brothers’ get-rich schemes in the early twentieth century eventually got way to the Public Theater in 2008.
He’d been working on a new musical with David Ives, the author of “Venus in Fur,” who praised him as a genius. In 2013, Ives stated, “Not only are his musicals amazing, but I can’t think of any theater practitioner who has so eloquently captured an entire era.” “In some ways, he is the spirit of the times.”
Sondheim was born into a rich family on March 22, 1930, as the only son of dressmaker Herbert Sondheim and Helen Fox Sondheim. Sondheim’s parents split when he was 10, and his mother acquired a home in Doylestown, Pa., where they lived next door to writer Oscar Hammerstein II, whose son, James, was Sondheim’s boarding school roommate. Oscar Hammerstein became a professional mentor and a dear friend to the young guy.
He had an isolated upbringing, which included verbal abuse from his cold mother at one point. In his forties, he got a letter from her in which she expressed remorse for having given birth to him. He continued to financially support her and visit her on occasion, but he did not attend her burial.
Sondheim received his bachelor’s degree in music from Williams College in Massachusetts. He was awarded a two-year scholarship to study with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt after graduation.
One of Sondheim’s earliest gigs was writing scripts for the two-year-running television program “Topper” (1953-1955). Simultaneously, Sondheim was working on his first musical, “Saturday Night,” about a group of young people in Brooklyn in the 1920s. It was supposed to launch on Broadway in 1955, but the musical’s producer died just as it was ready to go into production, and the play was canceled. In 1997, a modest off-Broadway production of “Saturday Night” opened in New York.
Sondheim seldom wrote for the cinema. He co-wrote the narrative for the 1973 murder mystery “The Last of Sheila” with actor Anthony Perkins, and in addition to his work on “Dick Tracy” (1990), he composed music for films including Alain Resnais’ “Stavisky” (1974) and Warren Beatty’s “Reds” (1981).
Many Broadway revivals of Sondheim plays have taken place throughout the years, including “Gypsy,” which has starred Angela Lansbury (1974), Tyne Daly (1989), and Peters (2003). But there were also productions of “A Funny Thing,” one with Phil Silvers in 1972 and another with Nathan Lane in 1996; “Into the Woods,” with Vanessa Williams in 2002; and even “Assassins” and “Pacific Overtures,” both in 2004. The opera “Sweeney Todd” has been performed in theaters all around the globe. In 2020, a reinvented “West Side Story” debuted on Broadway, while in 2021, a scrambled “Company” debuted on Broadway with the performers’ genders reversed.
“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, are two of the most well-known revues including Sondheim’s songs. In 2011, the New York Philharmonic staged a star-studded production of “Company,” with Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert. Songs from his musicals have recently been heard on shows like “Marriage Story” and “The Morning Show.”
“Six by Sondheim,” an HBO documentary produced by Lapine, broadcast in 2013 and showed that he preferred to create while laying down and sometimes drank a drink to relax when writing. He also said that he didn’t fall in love until he was 60, first with playwright Peter Jones and then with Jeff Romley in his latter years.
The Henry Miller Theatre was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in September 2010. “I’m humiliated to say the least. As the sun set over scores of cheering fans in Times Square, he added, “I’m happy, but horribly humiliated.” “I’ve always despised my last name,” he said, revealing his perfectionist nature. It just does not sing.”
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Stephen Sondheim, a towering musical theater master who wrote such classics as “West Side Story,” “Gypsy” and “Company,” died on Sunday at the age of 91. Reference: follies musical.
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