In 1994, a stark black-and-white cover of New York magazine asked, “Is Stephen Sondheim God?”
The cheeky question tacitly acknowledged that the then 64-year-old was the reigning composer-lyricist of Broadway, perhaps of all time, and implied with a bit of wishful thinking that maybe he was immortal.
Certainly his musicals, ranging from 1957’s West Side Story to 2008’s Road Show, as well as such revivals in New York this season of Company, Assassins and Encore’s Into the Woods due in May, will prove immortal.
But Sondheim, alas, will not, having died in his sleep at his Connecticut country home on Friday, at the age of 91.
At a time when most musicals were lightweight, escapist entertainments or simple, predictable love stories, Sondheim brought the genre into the realm of art, reflecting his own urbane, witty and complex personality and interests.
He took pride in never repeating himself with his invariably challenging subject matters. (As he wrote for a brothel madam to sing in the film The Seven Percent Solution, “I Never Do Anything Twice.”) He was drawn to dark-toned, uncompromising topics that pushed the musical theater into uncharted territory, which usually prevented this shows from becoming long-running hits.
Still, who else would give us a tale of a vengeful barber who slits the throats of his customers and bakes their corpses into meat pies (Sweeney Todd). Or the opening of isolated Japan and the corruption of its culture by the West (Pacific Overtures). Or a shooting gallery of misfits who attempted to or succeeded at assassinating the American president (Assassins). Or the life of a post-impressionist painter obsessed with making art (Sunday in the Park with George).
At the age of 10, Sondheim’s parents divorced and he moved with his mother from New York to Bucks County, Pa. But that proved fortuitous for young Steve, for his new neighbor was Oscar Hammerstein II, who became a surrogate father to the boy, tutoring him in the tenets of writing musicals. As Sondheim would later put it, “If he had been a geologist, I would have become a geologist.” But Hammerstein was a songwriter and dramatist and soon so was Steve.
Soon after graduating from Williams College with a degree in music composition, Sondheim wrote a show called Saturday Night, which was to be his Broadway debut at 23. But when the lead producer died unexpectedly, the production was scrapped and it took another 43 years for the show to premiere.
Undaunted, Sondheim used that score to audition for Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents, earning the job of lyricist for what would become West Side Story, an updating of Romeo and Juliet on the mean streets of New York,
Next he wrote the lyrics to Gypsy, a backstage musical about the rise of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee that many consider the greatest American musical of all time. Following it, Sondheim at last got to write both the music and lyrics for a Broadway show, a farce called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It became his longest running show – 964 performances — which had a happy ending, an element he apparently had little interest in repeating.
He followed Forum with two commercially unsuccessful shows – Anyone Can Whistle and Do I Hear a Waltz? — before turning the corner into the 1970s, his most productive decade, due in large part to a collaboration with director Harold Prince, who also enjoyed pushing the bounds of the musical theater. They racked up a host of Tony awards while churning out a new musical each season – Company, Follies and A Little Night Music – each with a wholly distinctive score.
The last of those three shows contains “Send In the Clowns,” a fluke hit song with a life outside of the musical, recorded and popularized by Judy Collins, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and many others.
Sondheim ended the decade with what is widely considered his masterwork, Sweeney Todd, which cemented his reputation for embracing difficult subjects, a show which is often revived by opera companies.
If Sweeney Todd made Sondheim and Prince the toast of Broadway, their collaboration would soon be toast. It was severed by Merrily We Roll Along, a show that ran a mere two weeks and garnered particularly vicious reviews.
Sondheim then considered retiring from the theater until director-librettist James Lapine brought him an idea that evolved into Sunday in the Park with George, earning them both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Four years later, they had another winner, Into the Woods, which jumbled several family-friendly fairy tales but ended with a very adult moral about interdependence.
Still, Into the Woods has some of Sondheim’s lightest material, particularly compared to his next show, Assassins, a downbeat history lesson told in vaudeville form. In what would be Sondheim’s final new Broadway musical, 1994’s Passion, a show about romantic obsession that audiences had difficulty warming up to, he earned his seventh Tony Award for best score, besting the more popular Beauty and the Beast.
While Sondheim’s shows have been regularly revived, he continued writing new ones. He spent years on a show about the Mizner brothers, architects and developers of South Florida and perhaps con men too. The musical kept being revised as it kept changing names – from Wise Guys to Gold! to Bounce to Road Show – and eventually landing off-Broadway for a modest run. At the time of his death, Sondheim was completing a show called Square One with a book by David Ives that they had hoped would be produced next season.
Sondheim was more focused on the theater than on the movies, though he did win an Oscar for the song “Sooner or Later” in 1990’s Dick Tracy. He wrote underscoring for such movies as Alain Resnais’ Stavisky (1974) and Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), as well as co-writing the screenplay for the 1973 murder mystery The Last of Sheila with Anthony Perkins. And on Dec. 10, a remake of West Side Story directed by Steven Spielberg opens nationwide.
He is survived by his husband, Jeff Romley, whom he married in 2017 and by the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, the former Henry Miller Theatre, renamed for the composer-lyricist in 2010.