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STEPHEN SONDHEIM, 1930-2021

Stephen Sondheim, a giant of American musical theater and one of the preeminent composers of his generation, died on 11/25 at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 91. No cause of death has been made public.

Musically adventurous and virtually unparalleled in his lyrical wit, Sondheim is responsible for such Broadway shows as Company, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Follies, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sunday in the Park With George and A Little Night Music. He also wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy.

A nine-time Tony winner (culminating in 2018’s Lifetime Achievement trophy), he also won an Oscar, eight Grammys, a Pulitzer, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and countless other accolades, laurels, dedications and tributes.

The New York-born Sondheim had a troubled upbringing but found his way, as a young man, to the great Oscar Hammerstein II, who became his mentor. Writing lyrics for West Side Story (for Leonard Bernstein's music) and Gypsy (music by Jule Styne) gave him his introduction to Broadway. The Roman farce Forum was the first show for which he composed both music and lyrics. Like the two before it, it was a hit.

Some years of struggle ensued, but the ’70s saw Sondheim in full creative flower (in collaboration with the visionary director/producer Harold Prince), with such wildly diverse projects as Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd stretching the possibilities of musical theater. He continued wowing audiences in the '80s with ambitious themes, including those of Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park and Into the Woods. 1994’s Passion won a Tony despite its short run. He pushed the envelope in the new millennium with projects like A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair, a chamber-jazz collaboration with Wynton Marsalis.

Sondheim's musical odysseys of pointillist painters, presidential assassins, commitment-shy bachelors, London serial killers, Ingmar Bergman revelers and many more have been revived countless times. A reimagining of Company has been in the works and was among the projects he discussed in his final interview with The New York Times—just days before he departed this mortal coil. During that conversation, he revealed that he’d been working on a new musical based on two films by Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel. New audiences will soon discover his lyrics to West Side Story, thanks to Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film remake.

An exacting and brilliant artist, Sondheim was also a warm, vibrant storyteller and a learned, often hilariously opinionated commentator on an array of subjects. We will not see his like again.

Warner Chappell Music issued the following statement in tribute:

Stephen Sondheim’s monumental body of work stands as one of the most innovative and influential in American creativity. He combined music and words into a third art form that changed theater forever. His songs possess the power to transcend any definitive version or performer.

As a human being, he’ll be remembered for his modesty, his sense of humor and his generosity of spirit to every new generation of artists in awe of his talents. As a composer, he’ll be celebrated as a timeless titan of music whose songs will live on for as long as there are singers to sing them.

We join the global musical theater community as we mourn his passing. Our deepest condolences go out to his family and friends.

 

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