Broadway's Stephen Sondheim dead at 91

Composer and lyricist was behind hits such as 'Into the Woods' and 'Sweeney Todd'

Stephen Sondheim's eight lifetime Tony Awards surpassed the total of any other composer. AP

Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who helped American musical theatre evolve beyond pure entertainment to reach new artistic heights with works such as West Side Story, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd, died early on Friday.

His death was announced by Rick Miramontez, president of DKC/O&M. Sondheim’s lawyer, Rick Pappas, told The New York Times the composer died in his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.

Sondheim, whose eight lifetime Tony Awards surpassed the total of any other composer, started early, learning the art of musical theatre when he was a teenager from The Sound of Music lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.

Actor and singer Anna Kendrick called Sondheim's death “a devastating loss".

“Performing his work has been among the greatest privileges of my career,” Kendrick added in a tweet.

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was mentored by Sondheim, has called him musical theatre's greatest lyricist.

Sondheim's most successful musicals included Into the Woods, which opened on Broadway in 1987 and used children's fairy tales to untangle adult obsessions, the 1979 thriller Sweeney Todd about a murderous barber in London whose victims are served as meat pies, and 1962's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a vaudeville-style comedy set in ancient Rome.

“I love the theatre 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,” Sondheim said in a 2013 interview with National Public Radio.

Several of Sondheim's hit musicals were turned into movies, including the 2014 film Into the Woods, starring Meryl Streep, and the 2007 Sweeney Todd with Johnny Depp. A new film version of West Side Story, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's music, opens next month.

His songs were celebrated for their sharp wit and insight into modern life and for giving voice to complex characters, but few of them made the pop charts. He had a hit, however, with the Grammy-winning Send in the Clowns from his 1973 musical A Little Night Music. It was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Judy Collins, among others.

One of Sondheim's greatest triumphs was his Pulitzer Prize for the 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George, about 19th-century French Neo-Impressionist artist Georges Seurat.

As Sondheim collected accolades, New York City's Broadway theatre industry underwent many changes. It had a key role in American culture through the 1950s, with many Broadway songs making the pop charts, but lost significance as rock music gained a hold on the public starting in the 1960s.

Sondheim shared the view that Broadway had experienced decline, expressing it repeatedly in interviews.

“There are so many forms of entertainment, theatre is becoming more marginalised,” he told British newspaper The Times in 2012.

But Broadway musicals also became more artistic and Sondheim played a key role in their evolution, critics said. He explored such weighty topics as political assassinations in Assassins, the human need for family and the pull of dysfunctional relationships in Into the Woods, social inequality in Sweeney Todd, and western imperialism in Pacific Overtures.

Broadway audiences were introduced to Sondheim with West Side Story in 1957. The story about a love affair between a Puerto Rican girl, Maria, and a white boy, Tony, in working-class Manhattan was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 1961. The central characters expressed their infatuation in the songs Maria, Somewhere and Tonight.

Sondheim was born March 22, 1930, in New York City to affluent Jewish parents who worked in fashion.

US President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to theatre composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim at the White House on November 24, 2015. AFP
Updated: November 26th 2021, 11:58 PM