Stephen Sondheim, the composer, lyricist and theater giant whose Broadway musicals ranged from West Side Story and Gypsy to Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, died on Friday, Nov. 26, in his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 91.
Sondheim’s work won him acclaim across mediums. In a career of more than 60 years, Sondheim claimed an Oscar, a Pulitzer Prize, seven Grammys and eight Tonys.
His songbook includes “Send in the Clowns,” “I’m Still Here” and “Being Alive.”
Despite his showpieces being recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Madonna and Meryl Streep, Sondheim was regarded as an acquired taste. Even by Sondheim. “I’ve never been popular,” he told the New York Times.
At the same time, Sondheim was hugely influential, broadening the idea of what a musical could be about. Time critic Richard Corliss called Sondheim “an institution” and “the defining musical voice of his generation and those that followed.”
Sondheim was born March 22, 1930, in New York City. At age 10, his parents divorced, and Sondheim and his mother moved to Pennsylvania. There, Sondheim encountered a neighbor who became a mentor: Oscar Hammerstein II, the legendary Broadway lyricist and writer (The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!).
“He taught me how to structure a song, what a character was, what a scene was; he taught me how to tell a story, how not to tell a story, how to make stage directions practical,” Sondheim said.
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Sondheim wrote his first shows as a schoolboy. His career began in earnest after college. He wrote for the 1950s TV comedy Topper, and worked on a handful of musicals that never made it to opening night before being offered a job that paired him with another Broadway legend: the composer Leonard Bernstein. The gig was West Side Story.
The New York-set Romeo-and-Juliet tale opened on Broadway In 1957. It won two Tonys (but not Best Musical), spawned the Oscar-winning film adaptation and introduced the classics “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “America” and more. A ditty like “Gee, Officer Krupke!,” with its closing line, “Krup you!,” established Sondheim’s love of word play and established him as a limber, even daring lyricist.
Sondheim’s next assignment was the backstage musical Gypsy. Originally, the then-twentysomething was hired to write the words and music, but star Ethel Merman demanded an older hand be brought in to compose the songs. The subsequent Jule Styne-Sondheim score introduced its own share of standards, including “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Let Me Entertain You.”
Sondheim fulfilled his ambition of writing the words and music for a Broadway hit with 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The show brought Sondheim his first Tony. He would go onto win Broadway honors for Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Passion. In 2008, he rated a special Tony for lifetime achievement.
Sondheim shows that didn’t earn Tonys, but added to his reputation included Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George, which won Sondheim the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and Assassins, which proved even something as unmusical as a presidential assassination could be fodder for a musical.
Sondheim’s songs were introduced on stage by Angela Lansbury, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch and more. They were covered by the likes of Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and, most notably, Judy Collins. Collins’ 1975 recording of A Little Night Music‘s melancholy “Send in the Clowns” was a Billboard Hot 100 hit, and won Sondheim the Grammy for Song of the Year.
In addition to West Side Story, Sondheim shows that were translated to the big screen included Gypsy, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and the all-star rendering of his fairytale favorite, Into the Woods, starring Streep and Johnny Depp, who also headlined Sweeney Todd.
Sondheim wrote original music and songs for the movies, including the Madonna-crooned “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” from Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. The cut won Sondheim the Academy Award for Best Song.
With Psycho star Anthony Perkins, Sondheim cowrote the 1973 mystery-drama film, The Last of Sheila.
After the Tony-winning triumph of Passion in 1994, Sondheim remained a theater fixture, though mostly through revivals and tribute concerts.
“I don’t know that there’s an audience now for the kind of shows I would want to write,” he said in 2010. “But that should not deter me, and it’s something I’m ashamed of feeling.
Sondheim was a recipient of both the Kennedy Center Honors and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Survivors include Jeff Romley, his partner.