Stephen Sondheim, musical theater master, dies aged 91
He died suddenly, the Times reported, citing his lawyer and friend F. Richard Pappas. Sondheim had just celebrated Thanksgiving with a dinner and friends the day before, Pappas told the Times.
Rick Miramontez, who advertises for Sondheim’s current Broadway Production Company, confirmed the death to the Washington Post.
As a lyricist, songwriter, concept artist, and creative force, Sondheim probably has no class in the modern American theater. His works cover an incredible range: the romance “Romeo and Juliet” updated in “Western Stories” (for which he wrote the lyrics), the journey of a group of friends and people modern love in “The Company,” even the scourge of presidential killers (and assassins) in “Assassins.”
In particular, the lyrics of his songs are the gold standard of theater art, whether challenging (“Rose’s Turn”), sad (“Send in the Clown”), ominous (“Children Will Listen”) or simply clever (“Ah, but below”).
They’re complicated at times – filled with clever rhymes and challenging measures, perhaps obvious to someone who used to call himself “a mathematician”. But they rarely fail to capture the character’s heart.
Sondheim is particularly adept at expressing romantic longing and loss. Songs like “Sent in Clowns” (from “A Little Night Music”), “Lost of Mind” (from “Follies”) and “Somewhere” (from “West Side Story”) are all highly emotional. surname.
Indeed, although his work is sometimes criticized for its sparkle, Sondheim said the joy of the theater moved audiences.
Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930 in New York, the son of a well-to-do dress maker and designer wife. His parents divorced when Sondheim was a teenager, and he moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.
Under the tutelage of a friend’s father – lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II of the renowned Rodgers and Hammerstein theater teams – Sondheim, already a musical prodigy, received an advanced class in playwriting.
“He taught me how to structure a song, what the characters are, what the setting is; he taught me how to tell a story, how not to tell a story, how to make the stage directions realistic.” , Sondheim told the Paris Review in 1997. “I soaked it all up, and I still practice the principles he taught me that afternoon.”
Sondheim attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where he won a scholarship for his music, allowing him to continue his education. After a brief stint in Los Angeles – where he wrote the script for the TV show “Topper”, led by Hammerstein – he returned to New York and embarked on a career in theatre.
His first success, at the age of 27, was writing lyrics for “West Side Story”, with music by Leonard Bernstein. Popular songs from the musical include “America,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Somewhere.” Although Sondheim later called the lyrics “embarrassing”, the show became a huge hit, spanning nearly 1,000 performances.
This was followed by 1959’s “Gypsy”, the story of Gypsy Rose Lee and her mother, Rose, with which Sondheim worked with composer Jule Styne, and 1962’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, which Sondheim wrote both the music and the lyrics.
A prolonged dry spell followed, eventually ending in 1970 with “Company,” which ran for more than a year and took home a Tony Award for best musical. It also marked the beginning of Sondheim’s 11-year collaboration with producer-director Hal Prince, which included hits such as “Follies” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973) and “Sweeney” Todd” (1979).
“A Little Night Music” produced perhaps Sondheim’s most famous song, “Send in the Clown.”
A daring work
As Sondheim matured, no idea was too far-fetched for his pen and his mind.
“Company” and “Follies” are notable for their near-plotless presentations; “Pacific Overtures” (1976), about the American incursion into Japan in the 19th century, is performed in kabuki style. “Sweeney Todd” is about a murderous barber who turns his victims into meat pies.
In the 80s and 90s, he wrote a musical about the French spearhead painter Georges Seurat, “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. “Into the Woods” (1987), perhaps his most performed work, is a retelling of Grimm’s fairy tales. “Assassins” (1990) is an unlikely tale of past and present presidential assassins.
His last new work was “Road Show” in 2008, about a pair of social rock climbing brothers. It never made it to Broadway.
Although his early works, such as “West Side Story” and “Gypsy”, were made into films, his post-1970 work was generally still resistant to conversion.
PBS and Showtime filmed “Sunday in the Park” for television, a version later released with commentary by Sondheim. “Sweeney Todd” was made into a 2007 Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp, and “Into the Woods”, with a cast that included Meryl Streep and future late-night host James Corden, was Filmed in 2014.
A new film adaptation of “West Side Story” will be directed by Steven Spielberg next month.
Sondheim won an Academy Award for the song he wrote for 1990’s “Dick Tracy”, “Sooner or Later”. As a New Yorker, he did not attend the ceremony.
Theater, however, is another matter. A 2010 review for his 80th birthday, “Sondheim on Sondheim,” received rave reviews and a rethink of his long career. The composer, who is tight-lipped when he doesn’t quibble about his Clement Wood rhyme dictionary or praise his collaborators, is often modest about his response.
He told Terry Gross of “Fresh Air’s”. “But the enthusiasm and the outpouring of love is worth it. It’s great to know that people like your stuff.”
Some of the many people who performed Sondheim’s work or were moved by it flooded social media with tributes after the news of his death.