Stephen Sondheim, master of musical theater, died at 91

As a lyricist, songwriter, concept artist, and creative force, Sondheim was perhaps unrivaled in modern American theater. His works included an astonishing range: the romance “Romeo and Juliet” update of “West Side Story” (which he wrote the lyrics for), the woes of a modern group of friends and lovers in “Company” , even the plight of the presidential murderers (and attempted murders) in “Assassins.”

His song lyrics, in particular, were the gold standard of the art of the theater, whether provocative (“Rose’s Turn”), sad (“Send in the Clowns”), menacing (“Children Will Listen” ) or simply smart (“Ah, but below”).

They were delicate at times – filled with clever rhymes and difficult measurements, perhaps natural for a man who once described himself as “a mathematician by nature.” But they rarely failed to get to the heart of a character.

“The funny thing about Steve’s songs is you think, ‘Oh, this is something,’ and then you start working on it, and you say, ‘No, this is SOMETHING. THING ‘”, actress Bernadette Peters, one of Sondheim’s leading performers, told ABC News in 2010. “It goes even further than you imagined. ”

Sondheim was particularly good at expressing romantic desire and loss. Songs such as “Send in the Clowns” (from “A Little Night Music”), “Losing My Mind” (from “Follies”) and “Somewhere” (from “West Side Story”) are heartbreaking in their emotion.

“For many theatergoers, there are musicals, then there are Sondheim musicals,” Garry Nunn wrote. in the Guardian. “The latter is a separate category because with Sondheim, each word, each rhyme has been worked to the point that it is melodious and articulate (although a little chatty).”

Indeed, although his work has at times been criticized as casual, Sondheim said the joy of the theater reaches audiences.

“I am interested in theater because I am interested in communication with the public,” he said. told NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 2010. “Otherwise, I’d be in concert music. I’d be in a different kind of profession. I love theater as much as music, and the very idea of ​​reaching an audience and making them laugh, making them cry – just make them feel – is paramount to me. “

Beginnings

Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born March 22, 1930 in New York, the son of a wealthy dressmaker and his wife, designer. His parents divorced when Sondheim was a teenager and he moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia.

Thanks to the tutelage of a friend’s father – lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II of the famous theater team Rodgers and Hammerstein – Sondheim, already a musical prodigy, received a master class in dramatic writing.

“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 staging practical.” Sondheim told the Paris Review in 1997. “I absorbed it all and still practice the principles he taught me that afternoon.”

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

Sondheim attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where he won a scholarship for his music that allowed him to continue his education. After a short stint in Los Angeles – where he wrote screenplays for the “Topper” TV show, thanks to a lead from Hammerstein – he returned to New York and embarked on a career in theater.

His first success, at the age of 27, is that of lyricist of “West Side Story”, to music by Leonard Bernstein. Famous songs from the musical include “America”, “Tonight”, “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere”. Although Sondheim later called the lyrics “embarrassing,” the show was a huge success, with almost 1,000 performances.

Next came “Gypsy” from 1959, the story of Gypsy Rose Lee and her mother, Rose, for which Sondheim worked with composer Jule Styne, and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” from 1962, for which Sondheim wrote both the music and song lyrics.

A long period of drought followed, finally interrupted in 1970 with “Company,” which lasted over a year and won a Tony for Best Musical. It also marked the start of Sondheim’s 11-year collaboration with producer-director Hal Prince, which included hits such as “Follies” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973), and “Sweeney Todd” ( 1979).

“A Little Night Music” produced what is perhaps Sondheim’s best-known song, “Send in the Clowns”.

A daring work

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

“Company” and “Follies” stood out for their almost uninhibited presentations; “Pacific Overtures” (1976), about the American entry into Japan in the 19th century, was performed in the Kabuki style. “Sweeney Todd” was a rant about a murderous barber who turns his victims into meat pies.

US President Barack Obama (R) presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to theatrical 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 the French pointillist painter Georges Seurat, “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize for theater. “Into the Woods” (1987), probably his most performed work, was a reworking of Grimm’s fairy tales. “Assassins” (1990) was an unlikely tale of presidential assassins past and present.

His latest new work was 2008’s “Road Show”, about a pair of socially climbing brothers. He never made it to Broadway.

Although his early works, such as “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” were adapted for film, his post-1970 work generally resisted the transition.

PBS and Showtime filmed “Sunday in the Park” for television, a version released later with Sondheim’s commentary. “Sweeney Todd” became a 2007 Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp, and “Into the Woods,” with a cast including Meryl Streep and future late-night host James Corden, was filmed in 2014.

A new adaptation of “West Side Story” is slated for next month by director Steven Spielberg.

Sondheim won his Oscar for a song he wrote for “Dick Tracy” from the 1990s, “Sooner or Later”. New Yorker at heart, he did not attend the ceremony.

The theater, however, was another matter. A 2010 review for its 80th anniversary, “Sondheim on Sondheim,” received rave reviews and a reconsideration of its long career. The composer, a reluctant man when he didn’t rave about his Clement Wood rhyming dictionary or praise his collaborators, was generally modest in reaction.

A virtual concert celebrating Sondheim’s 90th anniversary and all of Sondheim’s work was held last year amid the global pandemic. The concert, which raised funds for Artists Striving to End Poverty, featured appearances and performances by Broadway heavyweights like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone.

“It’s been a bit too much of the public spotlight,” he told “Fresh Air’s” Terry Gross. “But the burst of enthusiasm and affection paid off. It’s great to know that people love what you do.”

Tributes

Some of the many people who performed or were moved by Sondheim’s work have flooded social media with tributes following the news of his death.

“Thank you Lord, Sondheim lived to be 91, so he had time to write such wonderful music and GREAT lyrics!” Barbra streisand wrote. “May he rest in peace.”
“Perhaps since April 23, 1616 the theater has not lost such a revolutionary voice,” actor Josh Gad said. wrote. “Thank you Mr. Sondheim for your Demon Barber, the nightly music, a Sunday in the park, company, forum fun, a trip to the woods and telling us a West Side story. RIP . ”
Actor Aaron Tviet noted: “Thank you for everything Mr. Sondheim. Speechless. We are so lucky to have what you have given to the world.”