Musical theatre master Stephen Sondheim dies aged 91

Musical theatre master Stephen Sondheim dies aged 91

Sondheim influenced several generations of theatre songwriters, particularly with such landmark musicals as 'Company', 'Follies' and 'Sweeney Todd'

Stephen Sondheim. Credit: AP/PTI Photo

Stephen Sondheim, the songwriter who reshaped the American musical theatre in the second half of the 20th century with his intelligent, intricately rhymed lyrics, his use of evocative melodies and his willingness to tackle unusual subjects, died aged 91.

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

Sondheim influenced several generations of theatre songwriters, particularly with such landmark musicals as Company, Follies and Sweeney Todd, which are considered among his best work.

His most famous ballad, Send in the Clowns, has been recorded hundreds of times, including by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins.

The artist refused to repeat himself, finding inspiration for his shows in diverse subjects as an Ingmar Bergman movie (A 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 others.

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Tributes quickly flooded social media as performers and writers alike saluted a giant of the theatre. "We shall be singing your songs forever," wrote Lea Salonga.

Aaron Tveit wrote: "We are so lucky to have what you've given the world."

“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," producer Cameron Mackintosh wrote in a tribute.

Music supervisor, arranger and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire tweeted: "For those of us who love new musical theatre: we live in a world that Sondheim built."

Six of Sondheim's musicals won Tony Awards for Best Score, and he also received a Pulitzer Prize (Sunday in the Park), an Academy Award (for the song Sooner or Later from the film Dick Tracy), five Olivier Awards and the Presidential Medal of Honor. In 2008, he received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement.

Sondheim's music and lyrics gave his shows a dark, dramatic edge, whereas before him, the dominant tone of musicals was frothy and comic. He was sometimes criticised as a composer of unhummable songs, a badge that didn't bother Sondheim.

Frank Sinatra, who had a hit with Sondheim's Send in the Clowns, once complained: "He could make me a lot happier if he'd write more songs for saloon singers like me."

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To theatre fans, Sondheim's sophistication and brilliance made him an icon. A Broadway theatre was named after him. A New York magazine cover asked "Is Sondheim God?" The Guardian newspaper once offered this question: "Is Stephen Sondheim the Shakespeare of musical theatre?"

A supreme wordsmith — and an avid player of word games — Sondheim's joy of language shone through.

"The opposite of left is right/The opposite of right is wrong/So anyone who's left is wrong, right?" he wrote in Anyone Can Whistle.

In Company, he penned the lines: "Good things get better/Bad gets worse/Wait — I think I meant that in reverse."

He offered the three principles necessary for a songwriter in his first volume of collected lyrics — content dictates form, less Is more, and god is in the details.

All these truisms, he wrote, were "in the service of Clarity, without which nothing else matters."

Together they led to stunning lines like: "It's a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension."

Taught by no less a genius than Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim pushed the musical into a darker, richer and more intellectual place. "If you think of a theatre lyric as a short story, as I do, then every line has the weight of a paragraph," he wrote in his 2010 book Finishing the Hat, the first volume of his collection of lyrics and comments.

Early in his career, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for two shows considered to be classics of the American stage, West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959).

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West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein, transplanted Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to the streets and gangs of modern-day New York.

Gypsy, with music by Jule Styne, told the backstage story of the ultimate stage mother and the daughter who grew up to be Gypsy Rose Lee.

It was not until 1962 that Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics for a Broadway show, and it turned out to be a smash — the bawdy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, starring Zero Mostel as a wily slave in ancient Rome, yearning to be free.

Yet his next show, Anyone Can Whistle (1964), flopped, running only nine performances but achieving cult status after its cast recording was released.

Sondheim's 1965 lyric collaboration with composer Richard Rodgers Do I Hear a Waltz? also turned out to be problematic. The musical, based on the play The Time of the Cuckoo ran for six months but was an unhappy experience for both men, who did not get along.

It was Company that opened on Broadway in April 1970, which cemented Sondheim's reputation. The episodic adventures of a bachelor (played by Dean Jones) with an inability to commit to a relationship was hailed as capturing the obsessive nature of striving, self-centred New Yorkers.

The show, produced and directed by Hal Prince, won Sondheim his first Tony for best score. The Ladies Who Lunch became a standard for Elaine Stritch.

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