Stephen Sondheim, revolutionary theater composer and lyricist, dead at 91

Stephen Sondheim, the songwriter who reshaped American musical theater in the second half of the 20th century with his clever, intricately rhymed lyrics, his use of evocative melodies and his willingness to tackle unusual subject matter, has died. He was 91 years old.

Sondheim’s death was announced by Rick Miramontez, president of DKC/O&M. Sondheim’s Texas attorney, Rick Pappas, told The New York Times that the composer died Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.

Sondheim influenced several generations of theater songwriters, particularly with musicals such as Society, Follies and Sweeney Todd, which are considered among his best works. His most famous ballad, send the clowns, has been recorded hundreds of times, including by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins.

The artist refuses to repeat himself, finding inspiration for his performances in subjects as diverse as an Ingmar Bergman film (A little night music), the opening of Japan to the West (Pacific Openings), French painter Georges Seurat (Sunday in the park with George), Grimm’s fairy tales (In the woods) and even the killers of American presidents (killers), among others.

“The theater 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 Stephen’s brilliance Sondheim will always be there as his legendary songs and shows will be played forever,” producer Cameron Mackintosh wrote in tribute.

Six of Sondheim’s musicals won Tony Awards for Best Score, and he also received a Pulitzer Prize (sunday in the park), an Oscar (for the song Sooner or later from the movie Dick Tracy), five Olivier Awards and the US Presidential Medal of Honor. In 2008 he received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Sondheim’s music and lyrics gave his shows a dark and dramatic edge, whereas before him the dominant tone of musicals was frothy and comedic. He was sometimes criticized as a composer of inhumable songs, a badge that did not bother Sondheim.

For theatergoers, Sondheim’s sophistication and brilliance have made it an icon. A Broadway theater bears his name. A New York magazine cover asked, “Is Sondheim God?” The Guardian newspaper once asked this question: “Is Stephen Sondheim the Shakespeare of musical theatre?”

He proposed the three principles necessary for a songwriter in his first volume of collected lyrics: content dictates form; less is more; and God is in the details. All of these truisms, he wrote, were “in the service of clarity, without which nothing else matters.” Together they resulted in jaw-dropping lines such as: “It’s a very short path from pinch and punch to belly and pocket and boarding.”

7:46Theater legend Stephen Sondheim changed Broadway by telling stories others wouldn’t, critics say

Stephen Sondheim died Friday at the age of 91. The composer and writer known for shows like Company, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, was loved by performers and fans alike. Often telling stories about the darker parts of life, Sondheim changed ideas about what a Broadway musical might look like. NOW magazine theater critic Glenn Sumi and Isaac Butler, cultural critic and theater director in New York, share their memories of the composer and the impact of his work on generations. 7:46

Taught by no less of a genius than Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim pushed the musical into a darker, richer, more intellectual place. “If you consider a theater word as a short story, like me, then each line has the weight of a paragraph,” he wrote in his 2010 book, Hat finish, the first volume of his collection of words and commentaries.

Written theater classics

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

It wasn’t until 1962 that Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics for a Broadway show, and it turned out to be a hit – the bawdy A funny thing happened on the way to the forum, starring Zero Mostel as a cunning slave in ancient Rome yearning to be free.

American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is seen in August 1962. (Michael Hardy/Express/Getty Images)

However, his next show, Everyone can whistle (1964), flopped, running only nine performances but achieving cult status after the release of its cast recording.

It was Society, which opened on Broadway in April 1970, which cemented Sondheim’s reputation. The episodic adventures of a bachelor (played by Dean Jones) unable to commit to a relationship has been hailed as capturing the obsessive nature of hard-working, self-absorbed New Yorkers. The show, produced and directed by Hal Prince, earned Sondheim his first Tony for highest score. The ladies having lunch has become a standard for Elaine Stritch.

The following year, Sondheim wrote the score for Follies, a look at the shattered hopes and dashed dreams of women who appeared in lavish Ziegfeld-style revues. The music and lyrics paid homage to great composers of the past such as Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and the Gershwins.

In 1979, Sondheim and Prince collaborated on what many consider Sondheim’s masterpiece, the gory but often dark and funny Sweeney Todd. An ambitious work, it starred Cariou in the title role of a murderous barber whose customers end up in meat pies cooked by Todd’s willing accomplice, played by Angela Lansbury.

Sondheim presents Tim Burton, who directed a film adaptation of Sweeney Todd, with an award in New York in January 2008. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

sunday in the park, written with James Lapine, is perhaps Sondheim’s most personal show. Story of an uncompromising artistic creation, it told the story of the artist Georges Seurat, interpreted by Mandy Patinkin. The painter overwhelms everything in his life, including his relationship with his model (Bernadette Peters), for his art.

Three years later Sunday debuted, Sondheim collaborated with Lapine again, this time on the fairy tale musical In the woods. The show starred Peters as a glamorous witch and mainly dealt with turbulent relationships between parents and children, using famous fairy tale characters such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel.

A troubled family life

Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930 to a wealthy family, the only son of clothing manufacturer Herbert Sondheim and Helen Fox Sondheim. At age 10, his parents divorced and Sondheim’s mother bought a house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where one of their Bucks County neighbors was lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, whose son, James, was a roommate. from Sondheim to boarding school. It was Oscar Hammerstein who became the young man’s professional mentor and good friend.

He had a lonely childhood, which involved verbal abuse from his chilly mother. He received a letter from her in her forties telling him that she regretted having given birth to him. He continued to support her financially and see her occasionally but did not attend her funeral.

In September 2010, the Henry Miller Theater was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theater. “I’m deeply embarrassed. I’m thrilled, but deeply embarrassed,” he said as the sun set over dozens of cheering admirers in Times Square. Then he revealed his perfectionist side: “I’ve always hated my last name. It just doesn’t sing.”

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