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Stephen Sondheim, Musical Legend and Broadway "God," Has Died at the Age of 91

Sondheim was the author of several landmark musicals including Sunday in the Park With George and Company.

Stephen Sondheim
(© David Gordon)

Stephen Sondheim, the eight-time Tony Award-winning composer/lyricist behind musicals including Sunday in the Park With George and Sweeney Todd, has died at the age of 91. According to published reports, Sondheim passed away Friday morning at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, after celebrating Thanksgiving with friends.

Born March 22, 1930, Stephen Joshua Sondheim was the son of Herbert Sondheim, a dress manufacturer, and Etta Janet "Foxy" Sondheim, a dress designer. An only child, his parents later divorced and, owing to a fraught relationship with his mother, young Stephen became friends with James Hammerstein, the son of landmark theater creator Oscar Hammerstein II. The elder Hammerstein became Stephen's mentor and surrogate father.

While at the George School, Sondheim wrote his first musical, titled By George, and, believing it to be successful, asked Hammerstein to evaluate it as though he didn't know who the author was. Deeming it "terrible," Hammerstein then educated Sondheim in musical theater construction. "In that afternoon, I learned more about songwriting and musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime," Sondheim would say.

Sondheim's first outing as a Broadway lyricist was West Side Story, with a score coauthored with Leonard Bernstein and a book by Arthur Laurents. The original 1957 production ran for 732 performances and garnered little recognition for its lyricist. His next project, the 1959 musical Gypsy, also featured his lyrics, though the music was written by Jule Styne.

The first musical for which Sondheim wrote both lyrics and music was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which ran 964 performances after opening in 1962. The show, inspired by the Greek comedies of Plautus and featuring a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, received the Tony for Best Musical, though Sondheim did not receive a nomination for his score. Between 1970 and 1981, Sondheim collaborated with the producer/director Harold Prince on six musicals, Company (with George Furth), Follies (with James Goldman), A Little Night Music (with Hugh Wheeler), Pacific Overtures (with John Weidman), Sweeney Todd (with Hugh Wheeler), and Merrily We Roll Along (with George Furth).

Merrily's failure on Broadway effectively put an end to one of the most invaluable partnerships in theatrical history, until, of course, Sondheim met James Lapine. Their collaborations include Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, and Passion. Sondheim also collaborated with Weidman on the musicals Assassins and Road Show. He coauthored Anyone Can Whistle with Arthur Laurents, The Frogs with Burt Shevelove, and Do I Hear A Waltz? with Laurents and Richard Rodgers.

Musical revues bearing Sondheim's songs include Side By Side By Sondheim, Marry Me A Little, You're Gonna Love Tomorrow, Putting It Together, Sondheim on Sondheim, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, and Secret Sondheim…a celebration of his lesser known work. Lest anyone think Sondheim was limited to musicals, he also coauthored (with George Furth) the Broadway play Getting Away With Murder (which played 17 performances at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1996) and the screenplay The Last of Sheila (written with Anthony Perkins). His lyrics are collected in two volumes, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954–1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes and Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Wafflings, Diversions and Anecdotes, which were published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

Films of Sondheim's musicals include Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Gypsy, and West Side Story. Several productions were taped with original (or close to original) casts, broadcast on television, and later released for home viewing.

Sondheim's long list of honors includes the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (for Sunday in the Park With George); an Academy Award for Best Song ("Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man") from Dick Tracy; eight Tony Awards (including a 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award); eight Grammy Awards (including Song of the Year in 1975 for "Send in the Clowns"); a 1993 Kennedy Center Honor; and memberships in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Theatre Hall of Fame, among many others. On September 15, 2010, Roundabout Theatre Company renamed Henry Miller's Theatre on West 43rd Street in Sondheim's honor.

Sondheim's survivors include his husband, Jeff Romley, whom he married in 2017, and a half brother, Walter Sondheim.

At the time of his death, there were two major revivals of his work in New York, Company on Broadway and Assassins at Classic Stage Company, and he was at work with David Ives on a new musical titled Square One. A film remake of West Side Story is slated for a release in December.

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