Stephen Sondheim, the legendary Broadway songwriter, has died at his home in Connecticut at the age of 91, according to The New York Times. The prolific composer and lyricist was the creative force behind some 20 musicals starting in 1954 — including West Side Story (lyrics), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and more — as well as numerous film and TV projects, from adaptations of his Broadway hits to original songs for movies such as Dick Tracy and The Birdcage. Over his remarkable, seven-decade career, Sondheim won nine Tony Awards, eight Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize, and an Academy Award, among many other honors.
Versatility was a Sondheim hallmark. His willingness to experiment and innovate meant he rarely trod the same path twice, moving from farce to romance to historical drama and hitting every note in between. No topic was too obscure or offbeat to form the basis for one of his shows: Sweeney Todd followed a homicidal, cannibalistic barber against the backdrop of the early Industrial Revolution; Sunday in the Park With George explored the creative inspirations of the pointillist painter Georges Seurat; Pacific Overtures dealt with the Westernization of Japan in the late-1800s; Assassins was, quite literally, about presidential assassins.
Along the way, several of Sondheim’s songs entered the pop-cultural firmament. The mournful “Send in the Clowns,” from 1973’s A Little Night Music, became his biggest hit after Frank Sinatra recorded it that year (his version runs over the end credits of Todd Phillips’ Joker), and Judy Collins’ version charted two years later. Barbra Streisand covered the song memorably in 1985 — and Sondheim even wrote an extra verse for the occasion.
Presenting Sondheim with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, Barack Obama noted the complexities of his work, and his desire to set the bar high, for both himself and theatergoers: “As a composer and a lyricist, and a genre unto himself, Sondheim challenges his audiences. His greatest hits aren’t tunes you can hum; they’re reflections on roads we didn’t take, and wishes gone wrong, relationships so frayed and fractured there’s nothing left to do but send in the clowns. Yet Stephen’s music is so beautiful, his lyrics so precise, that even as he exposes the imperfections of everyday life, he transcends them. We transcend them. Put simply, Stephen reinvented the American musical.”
Sondheim grew up largely on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and, after his parents’ divorce, attended a military academy and a Pennsylvania boarding school before heading off to Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he majored in theater. He was mentored as a young man by another musical theater titan, Oscar Hammerstein, whose son Sondheim had befriended.
“I’m interested in communication with audiences,” Sondheim told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross of why he was drawn to the theater. “I love the theater as much as music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh, making them cry — just making them feel — is paramount to me.”
Several of Sondheim’s musicals have undergone successful revivals in recent years, including Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George (starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular painter). A planned revival of Company — a virtually plotless meditation on love and marriage that won six Tonys following its 1970 debut — starring Patti LuPone in the gender-flipped lead role and scheduled to coincide with Sondheim’s 90th birthday in March of 2020, was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic; its first preview show took place just weeks ago in Manhattan. And, of course, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story is set to hit theaters Dec. 10.
As news of Sondheim’s death broke on Friday, Broadway stars past and present reacted on Twitter. Josh Gad, Frozen star and a Tony nominee for his role in The Book of Mormon, wrote: “Perhaps not since April 23rd of 1616 has theater lost such a revolutionary voice. Thank you Mr. Sondheim for your Demon Barber, some Night Music, a Sunday in the Park, Company, fun at a Forum, a trip Into the Woods and telling us a West Side Story. RIP.”
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