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, has died. He was 91.
Sondheim’s death was announced by his Texas-based attorney, Rick Pappas, who told The New York Times the composer died on 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.
The artist refused to repeat himself, finding inspiration for his shows in such 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.
“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. But the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim will still be here as his legendary songs and shows will be performed for evermore,” producer Cameron Mackintosh wrote in tribute.
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 Honour. 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.”
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?”