Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim has died aged 91.
The famed American composer and lyricist passed away ‘suddenly’ at his Roxbury, Conn. home, according to his lawyer F. Richard Pappas, The New York Times reported.
Pappas said that Sondheim had celebrated Thanksgiving the day prior with his friends surrounding him.
Stephen Sondheim dead at 91: Broadway legend passes away ‘suddenly’ day after celebrating Thanksgiving (Pictured in 2004)
Sondheim wrote the words for West Side Story and Gypsy; and the music and lyrics for a celebrated list of shows that include A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sunday In The Park With George.
The composer was born on March 22, 1930, to his upper-middle-class parents, Herbert and Janet Sondheim in New York City.
His father was a dress manufacturer while his mother worked in the same industry as a fashion designer and interior decorator.
At a very young age, he studied piano for two years which is where his interest in the musical stage began, and continued throughout his education.
Honors: Above, Sondheim is presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2015
After his parents divorced when he was 10, he took solace in his time with the family of lyricist, producer and librettist Oscar Hammerstein, who won eight Tony Awards and two Oscars for Best Original Song over his career.
At 15, he began writing his first musical By George, which was a satire inspired by his high school in Newtown, Pennsylvania.
He brought the musical to Hammerstein and solicited the master’s straightforward opinion – to which Hammerstein replied that the show was the worst he had ever read.
There followed a conversation that has become legendary in theatrical history, where Hammerstein taught the teenage Sondheim the necessary mechanics of writing an effective stage musical.
‘It’s a central principle, which is to treat songs like little one-act plays, where you present a situation, and then either resolve it or if you don’t resolve it move it forward, so that by the time you finish the song you’re at a different point than you are when you – this is in terms of the story of the show, of the play – so that each song has a function,’ he said on Desert Island Discs.
Impressive: Sondheim’s career spanned more than 60 years, and he was known for co-creating Broadway theatre classics including Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, which both went on to become hit movies; seen in 2008
Sondheim came to regard Hammerstein as a parental figure amid his tortured relationship with his mother Foxy, whom he eventually supported in her later years out of what he described as ‘filial duty’ rather than actual affection.
His career spanned more than 60 years, and he was known for co-creating Broadway theatre classics including Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, which both went on to become hit movies.
West Side Story became his first produced Broadway musical when he was just 27 years old in 1957, and he went on to be praised for having ‘reinvented the American musical.’
Although he studied to be a composer, he found himself much to his frustration only writing lyrics on West Side Story – a role he repeated two years later on the Ethel Merman vehicle Gypsy, which also garnered a reputation as one of the great Broadway shows of all time.
Ultimately he itched to turn his hand to composing and got his first shot with the 1961 comedy A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, which became a massive success with Zero Mostel in the lead.
However as the 1960s wore on he earned some experience with flops, including Do I Hear A Waltz? with music by Richard Rodgers.
Sondheim reluctantly returned to being just a lyricist for that show in order to fulfill a deathbed promise to Hammerstein, and it became the one musical he regretted.
Then however came the 1970s which have come to be seen by many of his fans as the hero period of his career – his string of collaborations with director Hal Prince.
First came Company, an acid-tongued show about marriage and relationships that brought a new level of urbane maturity to the musical comedy and, as a ‘concept musical’, experimented with a plotless structure.
In Follies he dazzled the audience with elegant pastiches of various genres from Viennese operetta to interwar Ziegfeld extravaganzas to Fred Astaire toe-tappers – all as a backdrop to a stark depiction of two marriages fraying at the seams.
Through the middle of the decade he and Prince worked on A Little Night Music, a sophisticated romance based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles Of A Summer Night, and Pacific Overtures, a tribute to kabuki theater about the fraught origins of Japan’s relationship to the western world.
It was at the end of the decade though that he and Prince produced Sweeney Todd, an operetta about a homicidal barber and the pie shop owner who is romantically obsessed with him – and who finds a gruesome way to dispose of his victims.
Sondheim drew heavily from the film composer Bernard Hermann, known for such movies as Psycho, and has described Sweeney as a ‘movie for the stage.’
Although the show was initially not a success, particularly when it went to London, it has come to be regarded as his reigning masterpiece and has been described by Sondheim himself as the easiest show for him to write. ‘It just flowed,’ he remarked.
However the grand epoch of the Sondheim-Prince collaboration came crashing down with the massive failure of Merry We Roll Along, a sour experimental musical that confounded audiences by going backwards in time.
As he wrote at the end of the first part of his collected lyrics: ‘But then I met James Lapine.’
Lapine was the writer-director with whom Sondheim enjoyed an extremely fruitful collaboration in the 1980s.
Their first show was Sunday In The Park With George, the life story of the 19th century French painter Georges Seurat and the show that brought Sondheim together with his late-in-life muse Bernadette Peters.
Sunday In The Park With George included the song Finishing The Hat, which has become widely regarded as Sondheim’s own personal treatise on how he works.
Sondheim, Lapine and Peters were together again with Into The Woods, a set of fractured fairytales that turns into a moving exploration of parenthood.
Later in life he scored such musicals as Passion, a romantic melodrama based on an Italian film, and Assassins, a blackly comic show about the people who have either killed or attempted to kill American presidents.
He continued working into the 21st century on such musicals as The Frogs and Road Show and at the end of his life was collaborating on a new musical called Square One.
Bernadette Peters and Nathan Lane, two longtime interpreters of his material, starred in a table read just this year of the show which featured a book by David Ives and is thought to have been about the life of surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel.
As for his own love life, Sondheim’s affairs included Psycho star Anthony Perkins, with whom he co-wrote the murder mystery film The Last Of Sheila in the 1970s.
However what he called his ‘first serious relationship’ only took place when he was 60 years old, with playwright Peter Jones.
At the end of his life he was the husband of one Jeff Romley, who is a half-century his junior and married him back in 2017.
Titans of Broadway have admired him and leapt at every chance to sing him, including the late actresses Elaine Stritch and Barbara Cook.
Angela Lansbury was a longtime muse, leading the original London cast of Gypsy and the original Broadway productions of Anyone Can Whistle and Sweeney Todd.
Lyricists were also in awe, including his contemporary Fred Ebb, who in the book Colored Lights recalled how delighted he felt to have one of his shows praised by Sondheim. ‘Jesus, I was thrilled!’ said Ebb.
Yet his admirers also often found him intimidating and inscrutable – even Elaine Stritch, who once demanded of a director: ‘You’re scared of me, aren’t you?’, described feeling both ‘in love with’ Sondheim and ‘scared to death’ around him.
She recalled sitting at a bar with him ‘for three hours’ and remarked: ‘So we have got a lot to say to one another. But I have got to have 25 scotches in me in order to do it, and so does he.’
On the news of his death, producer Cameron Mackintosh issued a statement to The Guardian which read: ‘The theatre has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers. Sadly, there is now a giant in the sky. But the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim will still be here as his legendary songs and shows will be performed for evermore. Goodbye old friend and thank you from all of us.’
Beyond talented: The composer had his first big hit with West Side Story when he was just 27 years old, and he went on to be praised for having ‘reinvented the American musical’ (pictured in 1973)
60-year long career: Sondheim seen standing beside an advertisement for one of his shows in 1976
And celebrities around the world have already begun paying homage to the legendary composer, including Barbra Streisand.
She wrote on Twitter: ‘Thank the Lord that Sondheim lived to be 91 years old so he had the time to write such wonderful music and GREAT lyrics!’
While Anna Kendrick added: ‘I was just talking to someone a few nights ago about how much fun (and f****** difficult) it is to sing Stephen Sondheim. Performing his work has been among the greatest privileges of my career. A devastating loss. (sic)’
Honoring his legacy: Celebrities around the world have already begun paying homage to the legendary composer, including Barbra Streisand
‘Every so often someone comes along that fundamentally shifts an entire art form. Stephen Sondheim was one of those,’ Hugh Jackson tweeted
Tributes: Additionally, Idina Menzel took to Twitter to mourn Sondheim, by writing: ‘Goodbye dear sir. We will spend our lives trying to make you proud’
‘Every so often someone comes along that fundamentally shifts an entire art form. Stephen Sondheim was one of those,’ Hugh Jackson tweeted.
The 53-year-old The Wolverine actor: ‘As millions mourn his passing I also want to express my gratitude for all he has given to me and so many more. Sending my love to his nearest and dearest.’
And Josh Gad also tweeted: ‘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.
‘American musical theater has lost a towering giant. Stephen Sondheim’s legacy of song and lyric in unparalleled. From West Side Story to Sweenie Todd, from Gypsy to Sunday in the Park with George, there will never be a master like him,’ George Takei tweeted
Paying homage: Robert Rinder shared a quote about Sondheim, which read: ‘Art is infinite. It has no beginning and no end’
Additionally, Idina Menzel took to Twitter to mourn Sondheim, by writing: ‘Goodbye dear sir. We will spend our lives trying to make you proud.’
‘American musical theater has lost a towering giant. Stephen Sondheim’s legacy of song and lyric in unparalleled. From West Side Story to Sweeney Todd, from Gypsy to Sunday in the Park with George, there will never be a master like him,’ George Takei tweeted.
Robert Rinder shared a quote about Sondheim, which read: ‘Art is infinite. It has no beginning and no end.’