Stephen Sondheim, the master craftsman of the American musical, has died at the age of 91. His death, at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, on Friday drew tributes across the entertainment industry and beyond. Andrew Lloyd Webber called him “the musical theater giant of our time, an inspiration not just for two but for three generations. [whose] contribution to the theater will never be matched ”. Cameron Mackintosh said: “The theater has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers. Unfortunately, there is now a giant in the sky. But Stephen Sondheim’s sparkle will always be there as his legendary songs and shows will be played forever. “
During a famous career spanning more than 60 years, Sondheim co-created Broadway theater classics such as West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, which also went on to become blockbuster movies. . His intricate and dazzling songs have pushed the boundaries of the art form, and he has produced moving and entertaining masterpieces from unlikely subjects including a murderous barber (Sweeney Todd), the Roman comedies of Plautus (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and a pointillist painting by Georges Seurat (Sunday in the park with Georges).
Sondheim elevated the status of the musical, which had often been viewed as heartwarming, adventure-free family entertainment, and used it to explore adult relationships in all their complexity. Follies and Company, which had ravishing revivals in London in 2017 and 2018, respectively, gave bittersweet tales of love and life. His compositions, too, were richly adventurous. While many musical theater creators specialize as a songwriter or lyricist, Sondheim excelled at both. After settling on Broadway, he generally took charge of the music and lyrics for his shows.
Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930 in New York City. His parents, who both worked in the fashion industry, divorced when he was 10 years old. He was trained by one of the greatest lyricist and librettist, Oscar Hammerstein, whose son he befriended at George School in Newtown, Pa. His first musical, written at the age of 15, was a satire of this school, titled By George.
Hammerstein, Sondheim said, taught him that in writing lyrics “the point is to subscribe and not to crush because music is such a rich art in itself.” When Sondheim published his two-volume memoir set, he identified three principles for a lyricist to become a “respectable lyric”. It was about “less is more, content dictates form and God is in the details”.
He was 27 when he had his first big hit with West Side Story, which moved Romeo and Juliet to the middle streets of New York’s Upper West Side and was designed by Jerome Robbins, with a book by Arthur Laurents and music by Leonard Bernstein. His lyrics for Tonight, America and Somewhere would be loved by generations of viewers but, as a perfectionist and his own worst critic, he has come to regret one of Maria’s lines – “It’s alarming how I feel. charming ”- in I Feel Pretty. “It wouldn’t be out of place in Noël Coward’s living room,” he said. “I don’t know what a Puerto Rican street girl does singing a line like that. “
Robbins also directed and choreographed Sondheim’s Gypsy, based on memoir by Gypsy Rose Lee, with music by Jule Styne. The Roman farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was the first Broadway show where both lyrics and music were by Sondheim. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1963.
Company, a bittersweet Manhattan musical that follows a town man whose friends have all settled in, won the Sondheim Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Lyrics. It opened in 1970 and had been operating on Broadway for almost a year when Sondheim’s Follies also opened in New York. Follies, in which former showgirls look back on their youth, featured the song I’m Still Here, a hymn to showbiz survival, sung by Elaine Stritch. Company and Follies are considered two of Sondheim’s best and covers of both took place simultaneously in London in early 2019. The National Theater production of Follies received a five-star review from Michael Billington, who said it “never let you forget the astringent sadness beneath the spectacle”. The company, staged in the West End, changed the gender of its hero so that Bobby became Bobbie, played by Rosalie Craig.
First shown on Broadway in 1979, Sweeney Todd – about the Victorian barber turned serial killer – fused the merry and the macabre, most notably in the waltz A Little Priest, which celebrated “the pie dotted with a true shepherd on top ”. The genre-defying show was featured in major opera houses and, in 2014, at a South London pie and mash shop. This production was transferred to the West End and then to New York.
Sondheim recalled the early reviews of Merrily We Roll Along, in 1981, as “sneering and hostile.” He considered quitting but, “like a cold, it’s over.” Four years later, Sunday in the Park with George won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The 1987 fairy tale mashup Into the Woods was one of several Sondheim musicals to be brought to the big screen. The 2014 film, adapted for screen by James Lapine, who wrote the book for the original production, was directed by Rob Marshall and starred Meryl Streep as a witch and Anna Kendrick as Cinderella.
There were regular reshoots of Sondheim’s gala shows and concerts, and in 2008 he won a Tony Lifetime Achievement Award. Imelda Staunton, who has performed in productions such as Gypsy and Follies, called Sondheim “Shakespeare of the musical world”. She said: “His stories will live as long as Shakespeare’s because he is about people, emotional hardships, the need we all have for love or recognition and to be noticed. A lot of musicals are about happy things, but his musicals are about difficult things. “
Upon news of his death, producer Cameron Mackintosh made a statement: “The theater has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers. Unfortunately, there is now a giant in the sky. But the shine of Stephen Sondheim will always be there as his legendary songs and shows will be played forever. Goodbye my old friend and thank you for all of us.