NEW YORK – Stephen Sondheim, the songwriter who transformed American musical theater in the second half of the 20th century with his clever, intricately rhymed lyrics, his use of evocative melodies, and his willingness to tackle unusual subjects, has died. He was 91 years old.
Sondheim’s death was announced by Rick Miramontez, President of DKC / O&M. Sondheim’s attorney from Texas, Rick Pappas, told the New York Times that the composer passed away Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.
Sondheim has influenced several generations of theatrical songwriters, notably iconic musicals such as Company, Madness and Sweeney Todd, which are considered some of his finest works. His most famous ballad, Let’s Go The Clowns, has been recorded hundreds of times, including by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins.
The artist refused to repeat himself, finding inspiration for his shows on such diverse topics as the film by Ingmar Bergman (“Little Night Music”), the opening of Japan to the West (“Pacific Overtures”), French artist Georges Seurat (“Sunday in the Park with George”) , Grimm’s fairy tales (“Into the Woods”) and even the killers of American presidents (“The Assassins”) and others.
Six of Sondheim’s musicals won a Tony Award for Best Soundtrack, a Pulitzer Prize (Sunday in the Park), an Academy Award (for the song Sooner or Late from Dick Tracy), five Oliviers. Awards and Presidential Medal of Honor. In 2008, he received the Tony Lifetime Achievement Award.
Sondheim’s music and lyrics gave his show a dark, dramatic flavor, whereas before him the dominant tone of musicals was frothy and comic. Sometimes he was criticized as a composer of non-existent songs, and this did not bother Sondheim. Frank Sinatra, who had the hit “Send in the Clowns” by Sondheim, once complained, “He could make me so much happier if he wrote more songs for saloon singers like me.”
For theater lovers, Sondheim’s sophistication and talent have made him an icon. The Broadway theater is named after him. The cover of a New York magazine asked, “Is Sondheim God?”
The Guardian newspaper once asked the question, “Is Stephen Sondheim the Shakespeare of Musical Theater?”
In this 2010 interview for PBS NewsHour, Stephen Sondheim met with art correspondent Jeffrey Brown to talk about his legendary career and the art of writing music, lyrics and rhymes that stand the test of time.
A brilliant master of words and a passionate wordplayer, Sondheim’s joy of language showed through. “The opposite of left is right / The opposite of right is wrong / So anyone on the left is wrong, right?” he wrote in the book “Anyone Can Whistle.” In The Company, he wrote the following lines: “The good things get better / The bad things get worse / Wait – I think I meant the opposite.”
In his first volume of lyric collection, he proposed three principles for a songwriter: “Content dictates form,” “Less is more,” and “God is in the details.” All these truths, he wrote, “serve Clarity, without which nothing else matters.” Together they led to stunning lines like: “From pinch and punch to belly, bag and retirement is a very shortcut.”
Trained with no less genius than Oskar Hammerstein, Sondheim pushed the musical into a darker, richer and more intellectual place. “If you think of theatrical lyrics as a short story like me, then every line has a paragraph weight,” he wrote in his 2010 book Closing the Hat, the first volume of his collection of texts and texts. Comments.