Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim dies at 91

By Alex Dobuzinskis | Reuters

Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who helped American musical theater evolve beyond pure entertainment and reach new artistic heights with works such as “West Side Story”, “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd”, died early Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, at the age of 91, the New York Times reported.

Sondheim, whose eight lifelong Tony Awards surpassed the sum of any other composer, started early learning musical theater art when he was only a teenager from “The Sound of Music” lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.

“Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was mentored by Sondheim, has called him the musical theater’s greatest lyricist.

Elizabeth Taylor is working with Stephen Sondheim to record the songs for the film “A Little Night Music” in London in 1976. Sondheim wrote the film’s music and lyrics. (Graham Morris / Evening Standard via Getty Images)

Sondheim’s most successful musicals included “Into the Woods”, which opened on Broadway in 1987 and used children’s adventures to unravel adult obsessions, the 1979 thriller “Sweeney Todd” about a murderous barber in London whose victims are served as meat pies, and 1962 ‘ “A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum,” a vaudeville-style comedy set in ancient Rome.

“I love the theater as much as music, and the whole idea of ​​getting out 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 films, including the 2014 film “Into the Woods” starring Meryl Streep and the 2007 “Sweeney Todd” starring Johnny Depp. A new film version of “West Side Story,” for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music, opens next month.

His songs were praised for their sharp wit and insight into modern life and for giving voice to complex characters, but few of them made it onto the pop charts.

‘Clowns’ a hit

However, he had a hit with the Grammy-winning “Send in the Clowns” from his musical “A Little Night Music” from 1973. It was recorded by, among others, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Judy Collins.

One of Sondheim’s greatest triumphs was his Pulitzer Prize for the musical “Sunday in the Park with George” from 1984, about the French neo-impressionist artist Georges Seurat from the 19th century.

While Sondheim garnered accolades, New York City’s Broadway theater industry underwent many changes. It played a key role in American culture through the 1950s, with many Broadway songs appearing on pop charts, but lost importance as rock music gained public attention in the 1960s.

Increasingly, musicals borrowed material from television and film, rather than 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, and expressed it repeatedly in interviews.

“There are so many forms of entertainment that theater is becoming more marginalized,” he told the British newspaper The Times in 2012.

But Broadway musicals also became more artistic, and Sondheim played a key role in their development, critics said. He explored such weighty topics as political assassinations in “Assassins,” the human need for family, and the attraction of dysfunctional relationships in “Into the Woods,” social inequality in “Sweeney Todd,” and Western imperialism in “Pacific Overtures.”

He also developed new methods of presenting a play. Instead of telling a story from start to finish, he jumped back and forth in time to explore a single theme. It was called the “concept musical”.

The Broadway audience was introduced to Sondheim in 1957 when he wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story” to fit Leonard Bernstein’s music, and it became an American classic. The story of 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 with the songs “Maria,” “Somewhere “and” Tonight. “

Conflict with mother

Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, in New York City to wealthy Jewish parents who worked in fashion. He described his early childhood as a lonely one, with servants as his main companion.

After his parents divorced when he was 10 years old, Sondheim moved with her mother to rural Pennsylvania, where she bought a farm. He later said his mother took her anger over the divorce beyond him. He found a surrogate family in the nearby household of Hammerstein and his wife, Dorothy.

President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sondheim in 2015. (Alex Wong / Getty Images Archives)

Hammerstein, who together with partner Richard Rodgers created the classic musicals “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music,” the teenager Sondheim learned how to write musical theater.

After Sondheim became famous, he mentored others on Broadway. When Miranda started working on a rap musical about
The American founder Alexander Hamilton, Sondheim encouraged and criticized him. The play became a huge hit on Broadway in 2015.

In box office success, Sondheim fell short with Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer behind “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Cats,” with whom Sondheim shared a birthday.

Sondheim pushed the boundaries of the audience, sometimes resulting in box office flops.

Some of his least commercially successful plays were praised by critics. These included the 1976 “Pacific Overtures” depicting Japan during an era of Western colonialism, and his 1990 off-Broadway production “Asssins” about real-life characters who each set out to assassinate 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 appointed him a visiting professor of drama.

His devotees celebrated the sharp irony of his lyrics, which they described as commenting on everything from the frontiers of the melting pot of the United States to the disadvantages of marriage.

These lines from “The Ladies Who Lunch” in his 1970 musical “Company” contained a typical excerpt of Sondheim’s wit:

“Here is for the girls who play wife /
Are they not too much? /
Keeps house, but keeps a copy of ‘LIFE’ /
Just to keep in touch. “

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