Musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim has died, aged 91

The master composer and lyricist who changed the face of musical theatre has died, just weeks ahead of the release of the film adaptation of West Side Story, the musical that shot him to fame at just 27 years old

Published: November 26, 2021 at 11:16 pm
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Stephen Sondheim, Broadway legend and one of the world's most influential composers and lyricists, has died at 91.

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There are few composers and lyricists who have had as seismic an impact on the world of musical theatre as Stephen Sondheim. He has written the music and lyrics for some of Broadway’s finest musicals, from Company to Into the Woods, all of which have enjoyed enduring success and are still performed on amateur and professional stages the world over. As well as his solo musicals, he also worked with renowned composers as a lyricist, writing lyrics to the scores of West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959) by Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne respectively.

In his early years, Sondheim trained with Oscar Hammerstein II (one half of the Rogers and Hammerstein duo), as well as the avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt. It was always songwriting that appealed to Sondheim most. ‘I’m interested in the theatre because I’m interested in communication with audiences’, he told NPR’s Fresh Air presenter Terry Gross in 2010. ‘Otherwise I would be in concert music. I love the theatre as much as I love music.’

His musicals differ hugely in style, subject matter and format, with some such as Company meditating on middle age and monogamy but described as Sondheim as a ‘non-plot’ musical, and others like Sunday in the Park with George inspired by a painting by Georges Suerat and set over 100 years. Awards came thick and fast, as Sondheim won the Tony and Drama Critics Circle Awards for Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Passion.

His 1984 production of Sunday in the Park with George won him a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which he created with the director James Lapine, who was celebrated for his avant-garde and visually stimulating approach to theatre.

He also stepped away from theatre several times to write film scores and songs for cinema, including ‘Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)’, which was sung by Madonna in the 1990 film Dick Tracy and won Sondheim an Academy Award.

Many of his musicals have been adapted for the big screen, including Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which was directed by Tim Burton and starred Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the leading roles of Sweeney and Mrs Lovett; Into the Woods, released in 2014, receiving three Academy Award nominations; and West Side Story, first adapted for the screen in 1961, four years after its stage debut. It was then adapted again in a film released in 2021 under the direction of Steven Spielberg, starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler as Tony and Maria. The 2021 film adaptation is due for release in just a few weeks' time.

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Here, we name the best musicals by Stephen Sondheim.

Authors

Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.

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