'Isn't It Rich?' Stephen Sondheim, Dead at 91

(Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

West Side Story is the play that sealed Stephen Sondheim’s name recognition as a premier lyricist, and will always be my personal favorite. A Little Night Music, an experimental play inspired by an Ingmar Bergman film Songs of a Summer Night, would come in as second.

The beautifully haunting, “Send In The Clowns” would turn out to be one of Sondheim’s most popular tunes off the Broadway stage, and be sung by a number of premier vocalists, including Frank Sinatra, Carol Burnett, Barbra Streisand, and the great Sarah Vaughan.

 

Whether you are a lover of the Great White Way or not, Stephen Sondheim is not just a part of Broadway’s lexicon. He is among the small company of composers such as Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, who have helped author the Great American Songbook.

The prolific composer, lyricist, and artist died suddenly at his home in Roxbury, CT. He was 91 years old.

Vocalists loved him: From Bernadette Peters (Sunday In The Park With George), to Patti Lupone (Company), to Anna Kendrick (Into The Woods), his compositions offered them not only challenge but an opportunity to shine.

But for the common person who merely listened to his tunes, Sondheim’s music not only shined, but shined a spotlight, and left an indelible impression.

From Variety:

Stephen Sondheim, the dominant voice in American musical theater in the second half of the 20th century and the composer with the most Tony Awards, has died. He was 91. The Broadway icon died Friday, November 26th at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 91.

His shows, from the comedic “A Funny Thing, Happened on the Way to the Forum” to the ground-breaking “Company” to the operatic “Sweeney Todd” to the experimental “Pacific Overtures,” transformed the Broadway musical stage, influencing and advancing the medium. Sondheim, a protege of Oscar Hammerstein II, slowly moved away from that melodic tradition to incorporate complex and dissonant themes and structures of 20th-century classical music into his works.

Sondheim won seven Tony Awards plus a 2008 Special Tony Award for lifetime achievement in the theater.

Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, in Manhattan. After his parents divorced, he was sent off to military school, but when his mother moved to Doylestown, PA, Sondheim joined her there. They lived near family friend Oscar Hammerstein II, who became a surrogate father.

Sondheim has left us a legacy of interviews about his life and creative process. Sondheim said that when he was 15, he presented his first musical, By George, to Hammerstein, wanting his opinion. Hammerstein tore it to pieces. At first wounded, Sondheim then recalled,

“I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater (that afternoon) than most people learn in a lifetime,” he said.

Sondheim became Hammerstein’s assistant on his musicals, Allegro, South Pacific and The King and I. In 1946, Sondheim finished his studies at the George School, then attended Williams College where he studied music. In 1950, Sondheim graduated magna cum laude and earned a Hutchinson Prize for Composition, which afforded him the means to study music and composition under composer Milton Babbitt.

Between 1948 and 1951, under the tutelage of Hammerstein, Sondheim wrote All That GlittersHigh TorMary Poppins, and Climb High.

From Variety:

Sondheim’s Broadway debut came in 1953 with the musical “Saturday Night,” for which he wrote the music and lyrics, but the producer died suddenly and so too did its financial backing. Sondheim briefly earned a living in Hollywood as a telescripter for the series “Topper.” He also wrote the incidental music to such plays as “Girls of Summer” and “Invitation to a March.”

Through Arthur Laurents, Sondheim was introduced to Bernstein, who afforded him the opportunity to write the lyrics for his musical updating of “Romeo and Juliet” called “West Side Story” (1957). Though he disparaged his work on that musical later, it launched Sondheim on his career.

West Side Story not only launched Sondheim’s career, but gave the world a glimpse of the genius, the unique phrasing, and the social commentary that would mark his future works. When I listen to “Officer Krupke,” from West Side Story, I feel Sondheim was almost prophetic and exceedingly dark in a song that was supposed to represent a lighter moment in the 1957 musical.

 

In 1961, the musical was adapted to screen, taking Sondheim’s gifts off the Broadway stage and into the stage of everyday life.

In 1959, Sondheim went on to write the lyrics for Gypsy, with the great voice of Ethel Merman to carry his lines. The play about the life of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee is considered one of the great musicals, and was also made into a 1962 film.

Sondheim struck out on his own after this, writing music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Starring Zero Mostel, this was one of Sondheim’s most commercially successful musicals. By the mid-1960s, Sondheim’s critical reception was up and down, and his attempted collaborations after Gypsy with Arthur Laurents were experimental in nature, but not well received.

Sondheim hit the mark once again in 1969 with Company, a cynical musical take on urban married life. The songs, “Being Alive,” “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and “I’m Not Getting Married Today,” became hits and won Sondheim his first Tony Award. In 1970, Sondheim went on to pen Follies, which earned him another Tony.

Nineteen-seventy-three’s A Little Night Music, was the zenith of his musical works, and gave the world, “Send in the Clowns.” Sondheim went on to create other critical and audience favorites, including, Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday In The Park With George (1984), for which he received a Pulitzer Prize, and Into The Woods (1987).

In June 2008, Sondheim received the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. Sondheim’s most recent play, Road Show (aka Gold, Wise Guys, and Bounce), opened off-Broadway in October 2008, in London in 2011, and had a U.S. revival in Chicago in the Summer of 2013.

Sondheim also wrote for the silver screen. His first turn in 1953 was as a script writer for the television series Topper. Sondheim co-authored the film, The Last of Sheila (1973), and the play, Getting Away With Murder (1996). His musical compositions include the scores for the films Stavisky (1974), and a co-composition on Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), for which he gave us the song, “Goodbye for Now.” Sondheim also penned songs for The Seven Percent Solution (1976), and Dick Tracy (1990). The song, “Sooner Or Later,” which was sung in the movie by Madonna, won the 1999 Academy Award for Best Song.

In 2010, the Henry Miller’s Theater was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theater in honor of Sondheim’s 80th birthday. Numerous celebrations, concerts, and benefits were held around the world to mark this milestone birthday, including a new anthology show, Sondheim On Sondheim, where Sondheim himself provided a pre-recorded video commentary before the live performance.

In 2011, Sondheim was awarded a Special recognition at Britain’s Olivier Awards. Sondheim was honored for his contribution to the London theater. In 2015, Sondheim was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

In 2013, HBO produced a documentary on the artist’s legacy with, Six by Sondheim.

The body of Sondheim’s works have been lauded for being daring, experimental, and pushing the envelope in terms of what was then traditional Broadway fare. Many credit Sondheim with paving the way for such works as, Cabaret (1966), Chicago (1975), A Chorus Line (1975), and Rent (1996), to find a place on the Broadway stage. While not all were considered successes, Sondheim appeared to aim for his own creative satisfaction rather than commercial success.

In the end, he managed to acquire both.