Stephen Sondheim, one of the most influential songwriters in Broadway history, died early Friday morning at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. His music and words lifted and redefined the creative standard for the American stage musical. He was 91 years old.
F. Richard Pappas, his lawyer and long-time friend, broke the news of his death. He said that he did not know the reason of Mr. Sondheim’s death, but noted that Mr. Sondheim had not been known to be unwell, and that his death had come unexpectedly. Mr. Sondheim had spent Thanksgiving with friends in Roxbury the day before, according to Mr. Pappas, who described the meal as “delightful.”
Mr. Sondheim was the most respected and important composer-lyricist of the second half of the twentieth century, if not the most popular, in the theatre. He was an academically demanding artist who was always on the lookout for new creative directions.
His work successfully combined language and music in a manner that benefited both. Throughout his career, which began in the late 1950s with the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” and continued into the 1990s with the music and lyrics for two audacious musicals, “Assassins,” which gave voice to the men and women who killed or attempted to kill American presidents, and “Passion,” an operatic exploration of the nature of true love, he was a relentlessly innovative theatrical force.
The farcical 1962 comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” for which Mr. Sondheim created both the lyrics and the music, received the Tony Award for best musical and went on to run for more than two years in the Broadway theatre.
Only a handful of people in the history of the theatre might be considered Mr. Sondheim’s equal. It is a brief list of prominent theatre composers who have written lines to complement their own soundtracks (and vice versa), and it includes names such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Jerry Herman, and Noel Coward.
He was given the Kennedy Center Honors in 1993 for his career accomplishment, and President Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for his contributions to the arts. The Tony Award for lifetime achievement was presented to him in 2008, and the Henry Miller’s Theater on West 43rd Street was renamed in his honour in 2010, in what is considered to be the highest show industry honour.
A Broadway production of “Company,” with a woman (Katrina Lenk) in the major role of Bobby, was originally scheduled for his 90th birthday in March 2020, but it was postponed due to the coronavirus epidemic. He was honoured with a feature in the New York Times dedicated to him, and a virtual concert, “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration,” was broadcast on the Broadway.com YouTube channel, including Broadway stars performing his songs.
In contrast to his predecessors, Mr. Sondheim seldom provided audiences with the effervescent, feel-good musical experience or the happily resolved storey that they had come to anticipate from the musicals of his predecessors. He also didn’t provide them with the opulent spectacle, the rousing score, or the melodramatic storytelling that would come to define the dominant musical theatre style of the 1980s and 1990s, following the arrival from Britain of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megahits “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera,” as well as Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon,” followed
With little dance and a limited narrative, the production adhered to few of the conventions of musical theatre, yet, as Frank Rich noted in The New York Times, it was “startlingly innovative and profoundly fulfilling.” According to Mr. Rich, “it’s anyone’s guess whether the general public would be surprised or thrilled by ‘Sunday in the Park.'” It’s clear to me, at this point, that Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine have produced something bold, eerily elegiac, and ultimately moving in its own really personal manner.”