Stephen Sondheim dies aged 91: Tributes for influential composer-lyricist behind legendary Broadway shows

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Early in his career, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for two shows considered to be classics of the American stage, West Side Story and Gypsy

Stephen Sondheim dies aged 91: Tributes for influential composer-lyricist behind legendary Broadway shows
Stephen Sondheim in California in 2007
Stephen Sondheim in California in 2007

Stephen Sondheim, the songwriter who reshaped the American musical theatre 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. He was 91.

Sondheim has been hailed as one of theatre’s “greatest geniuses”.

His death was announced by his Texas-based attorney and friend, Richard Pappas, who told The New York Times the composer died suddenly on Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. 

Sondheim influenced several generations of theatre 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.

Six of Sondheim’s musicals won Tony Awards for best score and he received a Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park.Advertisement

The composer also won an Academy Award for the song Sooner or Later from the film Dick Tracy plus five Olivier Awards and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honour.

President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to composer Stephen Sondheim during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in 2015
President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to composer Stephen Sondheim during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in 2015 CREDIT: Evan Vucci/AP

Tributes pour in

Phantom of the Opera creator Andrew Lloyd Webber was among those who paid tribute, writing: “Farewell Steve, the musical theatre giant of our times, an inspiration not just to two but to three generations.

“Your contribution to theatre will never be equalled.”

British theatrical producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who named a venue after Sondheim in late 2019, said: “The theatre has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers.

“Sadly, there is now a giant in the sky.

“But the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim will still be here as his legendary songs and shows will be performed for ever more.

“Goodbye old friend and thank you from all of us.”

Will & Grace star Eric McCormack said Sondheim was a genius:

English Singer Elaine Paige wrote: “Devastated to hear one of the most important musical theatre giants of our generation, Stephen Sondheim, has died.

“I was lucky enough to have performed in two of his shows, Follies in Broadway and Sweeney Todd, and also have a song co-written by him for my 50th anniversary.

“RIP dear man.”

American actress Sandra Bernhard tweeted her thanks for Sondheim’s brilliance:

‘Is Stephen Sondheim the Shakespeare of musical theatre?’

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 criticised 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 theatre fans, Sondheim’s sophistication and brilliance made him an icon. A Broadway theatre was named after him. A 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.”

Taught by no less a genius than Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim pushed the musical into a darker, richer and more intellectual place. “If you think of a theatre lyric as a short story, as I do, then every line has the weight of a paragraph,” he wrote in his 2010 book, Finishing the Hat, the 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.

Solitary childhood led to Hammerstein as mentor and friend

Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, into a wealthy family, the only son of dress manufacturer Herbert Sondheim and Helen Fox Sondheim. At 10, his parents divorced and Sondheim’s mother bought a house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where one of their Bucks County neighbours 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.

He had a solitary childhood, one in which involved verbal abuse from his chilly mother. He received a letter in his 40s from her telling him that she regretted giving birth to him. He continued to support her financially and to see her occasionally but didn’t attend her funeral.

Sondheim attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where he majored in music. After graduation, he received a two-year fellowship to study with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt.

One of Sondheim’s first jobs was writing scripts for the television show Topper, which ran for two years (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. It was to have opened on Broadway in 1955, but its producer died just as the musical was about to go into production, and the show was scrapped. Saturday Night finally arrived in New York in 1997 in a small, off-Broadway production.

Sondheim wrote infrequently for the movies. He collaborated with actor Anthony Perkins on the script for the 1973 murder mystery The Last of Sheila, and besides his work on Dick Tracy (1990), wrote scores for such movies as Alain Resnais’ Stavisky (1974) and Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981).

Sondheim shows continue to shine on Broadway

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.

A HBO documentary directed by Lapine, Six by Sondheim, aired in 2013 and revealed that he liked to compose lying down and sometimes enjoyed a cocktail to loosen up as he wrote. He even revealed that he really only fell in love after reaching 60, first with the dramatist Peter Jones and then in his last years with Jeff Romley.

In September 2010, the Henry Miller Theatre was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. “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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