Stephen Sondheim, master of musical theater, dead at 91

As lyricist, songwriter, conceptual artist and imaginative force, Sondheim was potentially devoid of par in the modern American theater. His functions encompassed astonishing vary: the current “Romeo and Juliet” romance of “West Side Tale” (for which he wrote the lyrics), the travails of a modern-day group of friends and fans in “Organization,” even the woes of presidential murderers (and tried murderers) in “Assassins.”

His tune lyrics, in unique, have been the gold regular of the theater art, irrespective of whether defiant (“Rose’s Transform”), unfortunate (“Deliver in the Clowns”), ominous (“Kids Will Hear”) or merely intelligent (“Ah, but Beneath”).

They ended up sometimes difficult — loaded with intelligent rhymes and demanding meters, potentially organic for a male who once described himself as “a mathematician by nature.” But they seldom failed to get to the coronary heart of a character.

“What is amusing about Steve’s tunes is you consider, ‘Oh, this is about one thing,’ and then you begin doing the job on it, and you go, ‘No, it is about One thing,'” actress Bernadette Peters, 1 of Sondheim’s top interpreters, informed ABC Information in 2010. “It goes even deeper than you imagined.”
Stephen Sondheim onstage during an event at the Fairchild Theater, East Lansing, Michigan, February 12, 1997.

Sondheim was especially great at expressing intimate longing and decline. Music this sort of as “Send in the Clowns” (from “A Minimal Evening Audio”), “Shedding My Mind” (from “Follies”) and “Someplace” (from “West Side Story”) are heartbreaking in their emotion.

“For lots of theater lovers, there are musicals, then there are Sondheim musicals,” wrote Garry Nunn in the Guardian. “The latter is a category of its personal because with Sondheim, every single term, every single rhyme has been labored above to the issue that it really is mellifluous and articulate (if a minor garrulous).”

Indeed, however his operate was at times criticized as glib, Sondheim explained the pleasure of the theater was touching audiences.

“I am intrigued in the theater mainly because I’m interested in communication with audiences,” he informed NPR’s “New Air” in 2010. “Normally, I would be in concert music. I’d be in a further form of career. I adore the theater as much as tunes, and the complete plan of acquiring throughout to an viewers and making them chuckle, earning them cry — just building them experience — is paramount to me.”


Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born March 22, 1930, in New York, the son of a perfectly-off dress manufacturer and his wife, a designer. His moms and dads divorced when Sondheim was an adolescent, and he moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, outdoors Philadelphia.

Many thanks to the tutelage of a friend’s father — lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II of the famed theatrical group Rodgers and Hammerstein — Sondheim, presently a musical prodigy, gained a learn class in participate in creating.

“He taught me how to construction a tune, what a character was, what a scene was he taught me how to explain to a story, how not to inform a tale, how to make phase directions simple,” Sondheim explained to the Paris Overview in 1997. “I soaked it all up, and I continue to apply the concepts he taught me that afternoon.”

Stephen Sondheim poses in front of a poster for 'Side by Side by Sondheim,' opening on 4 May 1976 at the Mermaid Theatre in London, England, April 1976.Stephen Sondheim poses in front of a poster for 'Side by Side by Sondheim,' opening on 4 May 1976 at the Mermaid Theatre in London, England, April 1976.

Sondheim attended Williams Higher education in Massachusetts, wherever he gained a fellowship for his new music that authorized him to proceed research. Just after a short stint in Los Angeles — in which he wrote scripts for the Television set clearly show “Topper,” many thanks to a direct from Hammerstein — he returned to New York and embarked on a profession in the theater.

His initial achievements, at age 27, was as lyricist to “West Aspect Story,” with new music by Leonard Bernstein. The musical’s well known tracks consist of “The us,” “Tonight,” “I Experience Fairly” and “Somewhere.” However Sondheim afterwards named the lyrics “uncomfortable,” the exhibit was a substantial strike, running for almost 1,000 performances.

Subsequent came 1959’s “Gypsy,” the tale of Gypsy Rose Lee and her mother, Rose, for which Sondheim labored with composer Jule Styne, and 1962’s “A Humorous Issue Took place on the Way to the Discussion board,” for which Sondheim wrote the two new music and lyrics.

A very long dry spell followed, last but not least snapped in 1970 with “Organization,” which ran for a lot more than a year and took residence a Tony for greatest musical. It also marked the commencing of Sondheim’s 11-calendar year collaboration with producer-director Hal Prince, which integrated this kind of hits as “Follies” (1971), “A Small Evening Music” (1973) and “Sweeney Todd” (1979).

“A Little Night time New music” created what is potentially Sondheim’s greatest-known music, “Send in the Clowns.”

A bold entire body of perform

As Sondheim matured, no idea seemed way too significantly-fetched for his pen and intellect.

“Organization” and “Follies” were being noteworthy for their almost plotless shows “Pacific Overtures” (1976), about the 19th-century American entry into Japan, was executed kabuki-style. “Sweeney Todd” was a romp about a murderous barber who has his victims made into meat pies.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to theater composers and lyricists Stephen Sondheim (L)  during an East Room ceremony November 24, 2015 at the White House in Washington, DC. U.S. President Barack Obama (R) presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to theater composers and lyricists Stephen Sondheim (L)  during an East Room ceremony November 24, 2015 at the White House in Washington, DC.

In the ’80s and ’90s, he wrote a musical about French pointillist painter Georges Seurat, “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. “Into the Woods” (1987), likely his most-carried out perform, was a recasting of Grimm’s fairy tales. “Assassins” (1990) was an not likely tale about presidential assassins previous and current.

His previous new do the job was 2008’s “Road Clearly show,” about a pair of social-climbing brothers. It never designed it to Broadway.

Although his early operates, these as “West Facet Story” and “Gypsy,” have been designed into movies, his submit-1970 get the job done normally resisted the transition.

PBS and Showtime filmed “Sunday in the Park” for television, a model afterwards launched with Sondheim’s commentary. “Sweeney Todd” was built into a 2007 Tim Burton motion picture starring Johnny Depp, and “Into the Woods,” with a forged which includes Meryl Streep and long run late-night host James Corden, was filmed in 2014.

A new adaptation of “West Facet Story” is because of out subsequent month from director Steven Spielberg.

Sondheim earned his Oscar for a music he wrote for 1990’s “Dick Tracy,” “Sooner or Later on.” A New Yorker to his core, he failed to go to the ceremony.

The theater, however, was a further make any difference. A 2010 evaluate for his 80th birthday, “Sondheim on Sondheim,” earned rapturous opinions and a reconsideration of his extensive career. The composer, a reticent person when not waxing rhapsodically about his Clement Wooden rhyming dictionary or praising his collaborators, was usually modest about the reaction.

A digital concert celebrating Sondheim’s 90th birthday and system of function was arranged final yr amid the international pandemic. The live performance, which raised income for Artists Striving to End Poverty, showcased appearances and performances from Broadway heavyweights like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone.

“It is really been a very little much too considerably in the general public highlight,” he told “New Air’s” Terry Gross. “But the outpouring of enthusiasm and passion has been really worth it. It can be marvelous to know that men and women like your things.”


Some of the numerous people today who’ve carried out Sondheim’s operate or been moved by it flooded social media with tributes next news of his demise.

“Thank the Lord that Sondheim lived to be 91 many years outdated so he experienced the time to write this kind of amazing music and Fantastic lyrics!” Barbra Streisand wrote. “May well he Rest In Peace.”
“Perhaps not because April 23rd of 1616 has theater shed these kinds of a groundbreaking voice,” actor Josh Gad wrote. “Thank you Mr. Sondheim for your Demon Barber, some Night New music, a Sunday in the Park, Corporation, pleasurable at a Discussion board, a trip Into the Woods and telling us a West Side Story. RIP.”
Actor Aaron Tviet said: “Thank you for all the things Mr Sondheim. Speechless. We are so fortunate to have what you’ve offered the environment.”

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