Scoring his first big hit with West Side Story at 27, the US composer and lyricist raised the art form’s status with moving and funny masterpieces including Follies and Company
Stephen Sondheim, the master craftsman of the American musical, has died at the age of 91.
His death, at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, on Friday has prompted tributes throughout the entertainment industry and beyond.
Andrew Lloyd Webber called him “the musical theatre giant of our times, an inspiration not just to two but to three generations [whose] contribution to theatre will never be equalled”.
Cameron Mackintosh said: “The theatre has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers. Sadly, there is now a giant in the sky. But the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim will still be here as his legendary songs and shows will be performed for evermore.”
Over the course of a celebrated career spanning more than 60 years, Sondheim co-created Broadway theatre classics such as West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, all of which also became hit movies.
His intricate and dazzlingly clever songs pushed the boundaries of the art form and he made moving and funny masterpieces from unlikely subject matters, including a murderous barber (Sweeney Todd), the Roman comedies of Plautus (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and a pointillist painting by Georges Seurat (Sunday in the Park With George).
Sondheim raised the status of the musical, which had often been considered comforting and unadventurous family entertainment, and used it to explore adult relationships in all their complexity. Follies and Company, which received rapturous revivals in London in 2017 and 2018 respectively, gave bittersweet accounts of love and life.
His compositions, too, were richly adventurous. While many musical-theatre creators specialise as either a composer or lyricist, Sondheim excelled at both. After he had established himself on Broadway, he typically took charge of music and lyrics in his shows.
Sondheim was born on 22 March 1930 in New York.
His parents, who both worked in the fashion industry, divorced when he was 10.
He was tutored by one of the greatest lyricist and librettists, Oscar Hammerstein, whose son he befriended at George school in Newtown, Pennsylvania.
His first musical, written when he was 15, was a satire of that school, entitled By George.
Hammerstein, said Sondheim, taught him that in writing lyrics “the whole point is to underwrite not overwrite because music is so rich an art itself”.
When Sondheim published his two-volume set of memoirs, he identified three principles for a lyric writer to turn out a “respectable lyric”. These were “less is more, content dictates form and God is in the details”.
He was 27 when he had his first big hit with West Side Story, which relocated Romeo and Juliet to the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side and was conceived by Jerome Robbins, with a book by Arthur Laurents and music by Leonard Bernstein. His lyrics for Tonight, America and Somewhere would be loved by generations of theatregoers but, as a perfectionist and his own worst critic, he came to regret one of Maria’s lines – “It’s alarming how charming I feel” – in I Feel Pretty. “That wouldn’t be unwelcome in Noël Coward’s living room,” he said. “I don’t know what a Puerto Rican street girl is doing singing a line like that.”
C) The Guardian, London