Towering musical theater master Stephen Sondheim dies at 91

NEW YORK – Stephen Sondheim, the songwriter who reshaped the American musical theater in the 2nd 50 % of the 20th century with his smart, intricately rhymed lyrics, his use of evocative melodies and his willingness to tackle unconventional subjects, has died. He was 91.

Sondheim’s death was introduced by Rick Miramontez, president of DKC/O&M. Sondheim’s Texas-based attorney, Rick Pappas, told The New York Moments the composer died Friday at his household in Roxbury, Connecticut.

Sondheim influenced various generations of theater songwriters, specially with these types of landmark musicals as “Company,” “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd,” which are deemed amongst his finest do the job. His most famed ballad, “Send in the Clowns,” has been recorded hundreds of times, which include by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins.

The artist refused to repeat himself, getting inspiration for his displays in these kinds of varied topics as an Ingmar Bergman film (“A Very little Night Music”), the opening of Japan to the West (“Pacific Overtures”), French painter Georges Seurat (“Sunday in the Park With George”), Grimm’s fairy tales (“Into the Woods”) and even the killers of American presidents (“Assassins”), among the other people.


Tributes quickly flooded social media as performers and writers alike saluted a large of the theater. “We shall be singing your music without end,” wrote Lea Salonga. Aaron Tveit wrote: “We are so fortunate to have what you’ve supplied the entire world.”

“The theater has dropped one of its finest geniuses and the entire world has dropped a single of its finest and most first writers. Sadly, there is now a big in the sky,” producer Cameron Waterproof coat wrote in tribute. Tunes supervisor, arranger and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire tweeted: “For those of us who appreciate new musical theater: we are living in a planet that Sondheim designed.”

6 of Sondheim’s musicals received Tony Awards for best score, and he also acquired a Pulitzer Prize (“Sunday in the Park”), an Academy Award (for the track “Sooner or Later” from the movie “Dick Tracy”), five Olivier Awards and the Presidential Medal of Honor. In 2008, he received a Tony Award for life time achievement.


Sondheim’s music and lyrics gave his exhibits a dark, extraordinary edge, whilst right before him, the dominant tone of musicals was frothy and comedian. He was at times criticized as a composer of unhummable music, a badge that did not trouble Sondheim. Frank Sinatra, who had a hit with Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” once complained: “He could make me a great deal happier if he’d create much more tunes for saloon singers like me.”

To theater supporters, Sondheim’s sophistication and brilliance made him an icon. A Broadway theater was named right after him. A New York magazine deal with questioned “Is Sondheim God?” The Guardian newspaper the moment supplied this problem: “Is Stephen Sondheim the Shakespeare of musical theatre?”

A supreme wordsmith — and an avid participant of word online games — Sondheim’s pleasure of language shone by means of. “The opposite of left is right/The reverse of ideal is completely wrong/So any individual who’s still left is improper, proper?” he wrote in “Anyone Can Whistle.” In “Company,” he penned the strains: “Good points get better/Negative gets even worse/Wait — I imagine I meant that in reverse.”


He presented the three rules required for a songwriter in his initially quantity of collected lyrics — Information Dictates Form, Considerably less Is Extra, and God Is in the Particulars. All these truisms, he wrote, had been “in the support of Clarity, without the need of which practically nothing else issues.” Collectively they led to gorgeous lines like: “It’s a pretty small road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension.”

Taught by no significantly less a genius than Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim pushed the musical into a darker, richer and far more mental area. “If you believe of a theater lyric as a brief story, as I do, then each individual line has the fat of a paragraph,” he wrote in his 2010 ebook, “Finishing the Hat,” the very first volume of his collection of lyrics and responses.

Early in his profession, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for two shows thought of to be classics of the American stage, “West Side Story” (1957) and “Gypsy” (1959). “West Facet Story,” with tunes by Leonard Bernstein, transplanted Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to the streets and gangs of contemporary-working day New York. “Gypsy,” with music by Jule Styne, instructed the backstage tale of the best phase mom and the daughter who grew up to be Gypsy Rose Lee.


It was not until finally 1962 that Sondheim wrote equally new music and lyrics for a Broadway display, and it turned out to be a smash — the bawdy “A Funny Detail Occurred on the Way to the Discussion board,” starring Zero Mostel as a wily slave in ancient Rome yearning to be absolutely free.

Nevertheless his next present, “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964), flopped, operating only 9 performances but accomplishing cult status soon after its solid recording was produced. Sondheim’s 1965 lyric collaboration with composer Richard Rodgers — “Do I Hear a Waltz?” — also turned out to be problematic. The musical, dependent on the enjoy “The Time of the Cuckoo,” ran for six months but was an sad encounter for equally adult males, who did not get together.

It was “Company,” which opened on Broadway in April 1970, that cemented Sondheim’s status. The episodic adventures of a bachelor (performed by Dean Jones) with an inability to commit to a connection was hailed as capturing the obsessive nature of striving, self-centered New Yorkers. The demonstrate, manufactured and directed by Hal Prince, received Sondheim his 1st Tony for finest score. “The Women Who Lunch” turned a normal for Elaine Stritch.


The subsequent calendar year, Sondheim wrote the score for “Follies,” a seem at the shattered hopes and upset desires of gals who had appeared in lavish Ziegfeld-design and style revues. The new music and lyrics paid out homage to wonderful composers of the previous such as Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and the Gershwins.

In 1973, “A Minor Evening Tunes,” starring Glynis Johns and Len Cariou, opened. Centered on Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer season Night time,” this rueful romance of center-age lovers consists of the music “Send in the Clowns,” which acquired reputation outdoors the clearly show. A revival in 2009 starred Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones was nominated for a very best revival Tony.

“Pacific Overtures,” with a book by John Weidman, adopted in 1976. The musical, also generated and directed by Prince, was not a monetary results, but it demonstrated Sondheim’s motivation to offbeat material, filtering its tale of the westernization of Japan by way of a hybrid American-Kabuki design and style.


In 1979, Sondheim and Prince collaborated on what numerous imagine to be Sondheim’s masterpiece, the bloody still usually darkly funny “Sweeney Todd.” An ambitious get the job done, it starred Cariou in the title job as a murderous barber whose buyers close up in meat pies baked by Todd’s willing accomplice, played by Angela Lansbury.

The Sondheim-Prince partnership collapsed two years later on, just after “Merrily We Roll Together,” a musical that traced a friendship backward from its characters’ compromised center age to their idealistic youth. The exhibit, primarily based on a participate in by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, only ran two months on Broadway. But yet again, as with “Anyone Can Whistle,” its unique forged recording assisted “Merrily We Roll Along” to become a preferred among the musical-theater buffs.

“Sunday in the Park,” composed with James Lapine, could be Sondheim’s most own clearly show. A tale of uncompromising artistic creation, it advised the tale of artist Georges Seurat, performed by Mandy Patinkin. The painter submerges everything in his daily life, together with his partnership with his design (Bernadette Peters), for his art.) It was most a short while ago revived on Broadway in 2017 with Jake Gyllenhaal.)


3 a long time immediately after “Sunday” debuted, Sondheim collaborated all over again with Lapine, this time on the fairy-tale musical “Into the Woods.” The show starred Peters as a glamorous witch and dealt largely with the turbulent relationships amongst mother and father and young children, utilizing such well known fairy-tale figures as Cinderella, Minor Pink Riding Hood and Rapunzel. It was most recently revived in the summer season of 2012 in Central Park by The Community Theater.

“Assassins” opened off-Broadway in 1991 and it looked at the males and women who needed to get rid of presidents, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. The demonstrate obtained mainly adverse opinions in its first incarnation, but many of those critics reversed them selves 13 years later on when the exhibit was carried out on Broadway and won a Tony for finest musical revival.

“Passion” was another intense look at obsession, this time a desperate lady, performed by Donna Murphy, in love with a handsome soldier. Even with winning the ideal-musical Tony in 1994, the show barely managed a six-thirty day period run.


A new version of “The Frogs,” with supplemental music by Sondheim and a revised e-book by Nathan Lane (who also starred in the generation), performed Lincoln Middle through the summer time of 2004. The show, based on the Aristophanes comedy, originally had been completed 20 years previously in the Yale College swimming pool.

A single of his much more troubled exhibits was “Road Show,” which reunited Sondheim and Weidman and spent years becoming worked on. This tale of the Mizner brothers, whose get-loaded strategies in the early component of the 20th century last but not least built it to the Community Theater in 2008 just after likely by means of a number of unique titles, directors and casts.

He had been operating on a new musical with “Venus in Fur” playwright David Ives, who called his collaborator a genius. “Not only are his musicals brilliant, but I can’t consider of yet another theater particular person who has so chronicled a whole age so eloquently,” Ives explained in 2013. “He is the spirit of the age in a sure way.”


Sondheim was born March 22, 1930, into a rich loved ones, the only son of gown maker Herbert Sondheim and Helen Fox Sondheim. At 10, his mothers and fathers divorced and Sondheim’s mom bought a residence in Doylestown, Pa., where by 1 of their Bucks County neighbors was lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, whose son, James, was Sondheim’s roommate at boarding college. It was Oscar Hammerstein who turned the younger man’s specialist mentor and a great pal.

He experienced a solitary childhood, a single that involved verbal abuse from his chilly mother. He received a letter in his 40s from her telling him that she regretted providing start to him. He continued to assistance her economically and to see her at times but didn’t go to her funeral.

Sondheim attended Williams Faculty in Massachusetts, in which he majored in songs. Following graduation, he obtained a two-year fellowship to research with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt.


A single of Sondheim’s initial positions was crafting scripts for the tv exhibit “Topper,” which ran for two decades (1953-1955). At the same time, Sondheim wrote his to start with musical, “Saturday Night,” the story of a team of young people in Brooklyn in 1920s. It was to have opened on Broadway in 1955, but its producer died just as the musical was about to go into manufacturing, and the clearly show was scrapped. “Saturday Night” at last arrived in New York in 1997 in a modest, off-Broadway generation.

Sondheim wrote occasionally for the films. He collaborated with actor Anthony Perkins on the script for the 1973 murder thriller “The Previous of Sheila,” and other than his function on “Dick Tracy” (1990), wrote scores for this sort of movies as Alain Resnais’ “Stavisky” (1974) and Warren Beatty’s “Reds” (1981).

In excess of the years, there have been quite a few Broadway revivals of Sondheim displays, particularly “Gypsy,” which had reincarnations starring Angela Lansbury (1974), Tyne Daly (1989) and Peters (2003). But there also were productions of “A Humorous Thing,” 1 with Phil Silvers in 1972 and one more starring Nathan Lane in 1996 “Into the Woods” with Vanessa Williams in 2002 and even of Sondheim’s considerably less prosperous exhibits these as “Assassins” and “Pacific Overtures,” both of those in 2004. “Sweeney Todd” has been generated in opera homes all-around the globe. A reimagined “West Aspect Story” opened on Broadway in 2020 and this year an off-Broadway “Assassins” opened off-Broadway at Typical Stage Organization and a scrambled “Company” opened on Broadway with the gender of the protagonist switched. A movie variation of “West Aspect Story” is to open this December directed by Steven Spielberg.


Sondheim’s tunes have been made use of extensively in revues, the best-recognised currently being “Side by Facet by Sondheim” (1976) on Broadway and “Putting It Alongside one another,” off-Broadway with Julie Andrews in 1992 and on Broadway with Carol Burnett in 1999. The New York Philharmonic place on a star-studded “Company” in 2011 with Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert. Tunes from his musicals have lately popped up everywhere you go from “Marriage Story” to “The Early morning Show.”

An HBO documentary directed by Lapine, “Six by Sondheim,” aired in 2013 and discovered that he favored to compose lying down and in some cases enjoyed a cocktail to loosen up as he wrote. He even uncovered that he actually only fell in like just after reaching 60, initially with the dramatist Peter Jones and then in his very last many years with Jeff Romley.

“Every so frequently anyone comes together that essentially shifts an overall art kind. Stephen Sondheim was one of all those. As millions mourn his passing I also want to express my gratitude for all he has specified to me and so many far more,” singer and actor Hugh Jackman wrote via Twitter.



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