Stephen Sondheim, Legendary Composer & Lyricist, Dead At 91

Legendary Broadway composer & lyricist Stephen Sondheim passed away Friday at the age of 91.
Stephen Sondheim circa 1970 (public domain)

Stephen Sondheim, perhaps the most respected Broadway composer/lyricist of the past half century, died Friday at the age of 91.

F. Richard Pappas, his lawyer and friend, shared the news with the world characterizing his passing as “sudden.” No cause of death was given. Mr. Sondheim had reportedly celebrated Thanksgiving with a dinner with friends at his home in Roxbury, Conn.

As the New York Times notes only a handful of successful Broadway composers penned their own lyrics. The short list of such artists includes Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Jerry Herman and Noël Coward. And even among those greats, perhaps only Porter might be considered his equal in regard to the complexity of his lyrics.

The first two Broadway musicals to bear his name were West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959) for which he contributed the lyrics. 

Then in 1962, came the musical farce, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was the first Broadway musical for which Sondheim penned both the lyrics and music. The production would go on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical.

He followed that success with Anyone Can Whistle (1964), and Do I Hear A Waltz? (1965).

Then came a series of daring and innovative musicals that began with Company (1970) and continued for two decades: Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the Park With George (1984) and Into the Woods (1987).

There were also successful revues of his songs – Side By Side By Sondheim (1977), Putting It Together (1999), and Sondheim on Sondheim (2010). And, of course, the many revivals of his works throughout the years.

Sondheim kept his personal life fairly private. He didn’t come out as gay until well into mid-life. He is survived by Jeffrey Romley, who he married in 2017, along with a half brother, Walter Sondheim.

Over the course of his career, Sondheim garnered 8 Tony Awards plus a 2008 Special Tony Award for lifetime achievement in the theater. A short list of additional honors includes a Pulitzer Prize (Sunday in the Park with George), an Academy Award (“Sooner or Later” sung by Madonna in Dick Tracy), and 8 Grammy Awards.

Not content to sit still, Sondheim shared in an interview with the New York Times just days before his passing he was working on a new musical titled Fat Chance.

He also recently attended the opening night of the off-Broadway revival of Assassins. And the next night he was in attendance for the first preview performance of long-delayed Broadway revival of his game-changing Company.

Never one to shy away from exploring new worlds, the new production (featuring Tony Award winner Patti LuPone) casts a woman in the central role of “Bobby.” According to the director of the production, Marianne Elliott, Sondheim was quick to approve the new approach. Already acclaimed in London, this new iteration will officially open on December 9.

I encourage you to read the wide-ranging New York Times article which takes a well-deserved deep dive into Sondheim’s incredible career, as well as his final interview here.

Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Broadway world would not be deterred in celebrating Sondheim’s 90th birthday. The streamed musical event, “Take Me To The World,” is an all-star valentine to the genius. Included in the celebration are performances by performances from Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone, Ben Platt, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Groban, Kelli O’Hara, and many, many more.

The comedic high point of the event features Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald, and Meryl Streep, who deliver an increasingly inebriated “The Ladies Who Lunch.” The video below is cued up to the trio’s “Lunch,” but you can view the entire event as well.

Finally, it would be impossible for this writer to address the artistry and legacy of Stephen Sondheim without sharing a brief, personal note as to how his genius has touched my life since…forever.

Before becoming a journalist, I spent the first 40 years of my professional life as an actor. The first musical I ever performed in was Gypsy. My last run on Broadway was in the first revival of Follies in 2001. In between were many productions of West Side Story and Into The Woods.

The photo below was taken backstage at the Belasco Theater in New York City during the run of Follies. In my shyness, I hadn’t considered asking to take a photo with him. But, finally, on one his visits to the theater, just before curtain time, I put my fears aside and approached Mr. Sondheim for a quick pic. Without pause he replied, ”Call me Steve.”

This writer backstage with Stephen Sondheim at the Belasco Theater
This writer backstage with Stephen Sondheim at the Belasco Theater during the 2001 revival of Follies

It’s safe to say Sondheim was instrumental in setting the course of my life, and many gay men, from an early age. At age 7-years-old, I discovered my parents’ original Broadway cast recording of West Side Story. While my young mind couldn’t grasp the scope of the score’s genius, there was no denying how it set my imagination free. Shortly thereafter, I bought my first album – the original recording of Company

No, I didn’t get the complex, intricate nuances of the songs. But I was drawn not only to the humanity of “Being Alive,” but the undeniable drama of Elaine Stritch belting out the bitingly acerbic, “Ladies Who Lunch.” Surely there was a clue phone ringing about my burgeoning gayness.

Every time I dipped a toe into his incredible, richly-layered exploration of the human condition, I marveled at how he could bring next level complexity to relatable musical creations. He reminded us that “Somewhere” there are “worlds to win,” where “children will listen” and “no one is alone”

Rest well Stephen Sondheim. There will be trumpets.

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