Stephen Sondheim, the American composer and lyricist known for hit Broadway musicals such as West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, has died. He was 91.
Richard Pappas, Sondheim’s lawyer and friend, announced the death on Friday (November 26th) via the New York Times.
Sondheim died at his Roxbury, Connecticut home early Friday, with Pappas noting that the death was “sudden.” The evening prior, Sondheim had celebrated Thanksgiving with friends.
Sondheim was born on March 22nd, 1930 in New York City, and grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and on a farm near Doylestown, Pennsylvania, following his parents’ divorce. He has said his interest in theatre began when he saw the Broadway musical Very Warm for May at age nine.
From a young age, Sondheim was mentored by lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II. He later enrolled in the theatre program at Williams College in Massachusetts, and by the late 1950s he was penning lyrics for musicals such as West Side Story and Gypsy. The first show for which he wrote both music and lyrics was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; it won a Tony Award for best musical.
The 1970s and ‘80s brought Sondheim’s biggest string of successes, as he wrote music and lyrics for Company (the revival of which is currently active on Broadway), Follies, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods.
Some of his most famous musical compositions include “America” from West Side Story, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, and “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company.
Many of his shows have made the leap to the silver screen, from Gypsy and West Side Story (its second feature-length adaptation will hit theaters on December 10th), to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Into the Woods. “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)”, sung by Madonna in the movie adaptation of Dick Tracy, won Sondheim his sole Academy Award.
He also received nine Tony Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Tony), eight Grammy Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Sunday in the Park with George (shared with James Lapine), a Lifetime Achievement award in the 1993 Kennedy Center Honors, and a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“I have always conscientiously tried not to do the same thing twice,” Sondheim reflected to The New York Times Magazine in 2000. “If you’re broken-field running, they can’t hit you with so many tomatoes. I certainly feel out of the mainstream because what’s happened in musicals is corporate and cookie-cutter stuff. And if I’m out of fashion, I’m out of fashion. Being a maverick isn’t just about being different. It’s about having your vision of the way a show might be.”
At the time of his death, Sondheim had been spending most of his time in Roxbury, though he also had a home in Manhattan. He is survived by his partner Jeffrey Romley and half brother Walter Sondheim.