Stephen Sondheim, master of musical theater, dead at 91

As lyricist, songwriter, conceptual artist and imaginative force, Sondheim was maybe without par in the modern-day American theater. His works included impressive variety: the upgraded “Romeo and Juliet” love of “West Side Story” (for which he composed the lyrics), the travails of a modern-day group of good friends and enthusiasts in “Company,” even the issues of governmental killers (and tried killers) in “Assassins.”

His tune lyrics, in specific, were the gold requirement of the theater art, whether bold (“Rose’s Turn”), unfortunate (“Send in the Clowns”), threatening (“Children Will Listen”) or merely creative (“Ah, but Underneath”).

They were in some cases difficult — filled with creative rhymes and difficult meters, maybe natural for a male who as soon as explained himself as “a mathematician by nature.” However they hardly ever stopped working to get to the heart of a character.

“What’s funny about Steve’s songs is you think, ‘Oh, this is about something,’ and then you start working on it, and you go, ‘No, it’s about SOMETHING,'” starlet Bernadette Peters, among Sondheim’s leading interpreters, informed ABC News 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 proficient at revealing romantic yearning and loss. Tunes 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 feeling.

“For many theater lovers, there are musicals, then there are Sondheim musicals,” composed Garry Nunn in the Guardian. “The latter is a category of its own because with Sondheim, every single word, every rhyme has been labored over to the point that it’s mellifluous and articulate (if a little garrulous).”

Certainly, though his work was in some cases slammed as glib, Sondheim stated the delight of the theater was touching audiences.

“I’m interested in the theater because I’m interested in communication with audiences,” he informed NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 2010. “Otherwise, I would be in concert music. I’d be in another kind of profession. I love the theater as much as music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh, making them cry — just making them feel — is paramount to me.”


Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born March 22, 1930, in New york city, the boy of a rich gown producer and his spouse, a designer. His moms and dads separated when Sondheim was a teen, and he relocated to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, outdoors Philadelphia.

Thanks to the tutelage of a good friend’s dad — lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II of the famous theatrical group Rodgers and Hammerstein — Sondheim, currently a musical prodigy, got a master class in play 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 stage directions practical,” Sondheim informed the Paris Evaluation in 1997. “I soaked it all up, and I 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 4 May 1976 at the Mermaid Theatre in London, England, April 1976.

Sondheim went to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he won a fellowship for his music that enabled him to continue research study. After a brief stint in Los Angeles — where he composed scripts for the television program “Topper,” thanks to a lead from Hammerstein — he went back to New york city and started a profession in the theater.

His very first success, at age 27, was as lyricist to “West Side Story,” with music by Leonard Bernstein. The musical’s well-known tunes consist of “America,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere.” Though Sondheim later on called the lyrics “embarrassing,” the program was a huge hit, running for practically 1,000 efficiencies.

Next came 1959’s “Gypsy,” the story of Gypsy Rose Lee and her mom, Rose, for which Sondheim worked with author Jule Styne, and 1962’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” for which Sondheim composed both music and lyrics.

A long drought followed, lastly snapped in 1970 with “Company,” which ran for more than a year and took house a Tony for finest musical. It likewise marked the start of Sondheim’s 11-year partnership with producer-director Hal Prince, that included such hits as “Follies” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973) and “Sweeney Todd” (1979).

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

A vibrant body of work

As Sondheim developed, no concept appeared too improbable for his pen and intelligence.

“Company” and “Follies” were significant for their practically plotless discussions; “Pacific Overtures” (1976), about the 19th-century American entry into Japan, was carried out kabuki-style. “Sweeney Todd” was a romp about a homicidal 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.

In the ’80s and ’90s, he composed a musical about French pointillist painter Georges Seurat, “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984), which won the Pulitzer Reward for Drama. “Into the Woods” (1987), most likely his most-performed work, was a recasting of Grimm’s fairy tales. “Assassins” (1990) was a not likely tale about governmental assassins previous and present.

His last brand-new work was 2008’s “Road Show,” about a set of social-climbing siblings. It never ever made it to Broadway.

Though his early works, such as “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” were made into films, his post-1970 work typically withstood the shift.

PBS and Showtime recorded “Sunday in the Park” for tv, a variation later on launched with Sondheim’s commentary. “Sweeney Todd” was made into a 2007 Tim Burton motion picture starring Johnny Depp, and “Into the Woods,” with a cast consisting of Meryl Streep and future late-night host James Corden, was recorded in 2014.

A brand-new adjustment of “West Side Story” is due out next month from director Steven Spielberg.

Sondheim made his Oscar for a tune he composed for 1990’s “Dick Tracy,” “Sooner or Later.” A Brand-new Yorker to his core, he didn’t participate in the event.

The theater, nevertheless, was another matter. A 2010 evaluation for his 80th birthday, “Sondheim on Sondheim,” made rapturous evaluations and a reconsideration of his long profession. The author, a reticent male when not waxing rhapsodically about his Clement Wood rhyming dictionary or applauding his partners, was normally modest about the response.

A virtual show commemorating Sondheim’s 90th birthday and body of work was arranged in 2015 amidst the worldwide pandemic. The show, which raised cash for Artists Aiming to End Hardship, included looks and efficiencies from Broadway heavyweights like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone.

“It’s been a little too much in the public spotlight,” he informed “Fresh Air’s” Terry Gross. “But the outpouring of enthusiasm and affection has been worth it. It’s terrific to know that people like your stuff.”


A few of the lots of individuals who have actually carried out Sondheim’s work or been moved by it flooded social networks with homages following news of his death.

“Thank the Lord that Sondheim lived to be 91 years old so he had the time to write such wonderful music and GREAT lyrics!” Barbra Streisand composed. “May he Rest In Peace.”
“Perhaps not since April 23rd of 1616 has theater lost such a revolutionary voice,” star Josh Gad composed. “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.”
Star Aaron Tviet stated: “Thank you for everything Mr Sondheim. Speechless. We are so lucky to have what you’ve given the world.”

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.