One of theatre’s most respected and talented composers and lyricists of the 20th century has died at the age of 91.
Stephen Sondheim died today, Friday 26 November 2021, at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, US. His death, which was described as sudden, was announced by F. Richard Pappas, his lawyer and friend.
His work fused music and words in a way that elevated his musicals into works of art, winning him legions of fans on Broadway, in the West End and around the world, and brought him plenty of awards and acclaim.
Stephen Sondheim was born on 22 March 1930 in Manhattan, New York, on the Upper West Side. His early successes were as a lyricist, writing the words for classic musicals West Side Story and Gypsy in the late 1950s.
The first musical that saw him write both words and music was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a 1962 comedy farce which won a Tony Award for best musical.
In the 70s and 80s Sondheim wrote a string of extraordinary musicals which have become part of America’s musical theatre history, including Company in 1970, Follies in 1971, A Little Night Music in 1973, Pacific Overtures in 1976, Sweeney Todd in 1979, Merrily We Roll Along in 1981, Sunday in the Park With George in 1984 and Into the Woods in 1987. In 1990 he premiered Assassins, followed by Passion in 1994.
Stephen Sondheim was honoured with every major award during his extraordinary career, including nine Tony Awards, an Oscar and eight Grammy awards. In 1985 he won a Pulitzer Prize along with writer and director James Lapine for Sunday in the Park with George. In 1993 Sondheim received the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement, and 2015 saw him awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. In 2008, the Tony Awards gave him a lifetime achievement award, and in 2010 the Henry Miller Theater on West 43rd Street was renamed in his honour.
In 2019 Cameron Mackintosh, his longtime producing partner and friend, renamed his Queen’s Theatre the Sondheim Theatre in his honour.
Sondheim told the New York Times in an interview in 2000 for his 70th birthday that, “I have always conscientiously tried not to do the same thing twice. If you’re broken-field running, they can’t hit you with so many tomatoes. I certainly feel out of the mainstream because what’s happened in musicals is corporate and cookie-cutter stuff. And if I’m out of fashion, I’m out of fashion. Being a maverick isn’t just about being different. It’s about having your vision of the way a show might be.”
Sondheim is survived by his partner Jeffrey Romley, who he married in 2017, and his half brother, Walter Sondheim.
Sondheim’s major musicals
1954 – Saturday Night (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1957 – West Side Story (Music Leonard Bernstein, lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1959 – Gypsy (Music Jule Styne, lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1962 – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1964 – Anyone Can Whistle (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1965 – Do I Hear a Waltz? (Music Richard Rodgers. lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1966 – Evening Primrose (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1970 – Company (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1971 – Follies (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1973 – A Little Night Music (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1974 – The Frogs (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1976 – Pacific Overtures (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1979 – Sweeney Todd (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1981 – Merrily We Roll Along (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1984 – Sunday in the Park with George (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1987 – Into the Woods (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1990 – Assassins (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
1994 – Passion (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)
2008 – Road Show (Music & lyrics Stephen Sondheim)