Stephen Sondheim, the legendary Broadway composer and lyricist whose hits included “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods,” died Friday at age 91.
He died suddenly at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, his friend and lawyer F. Richard Pappas told the New York Times.
During his long career, Sondheim earned eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards and an Oscar for a song he wrote for the 1990 film “Dick Tracy” performed by pop star Madonna, “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man).”
After getting his start as a lyricist on classic late-1950s musicals like “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” Sondheim emerged as one of the most influential Broadway composers of the late-20th century — embracing both difficult subject matters as well as challenging musical choices that relied on minor keys, tricky time signatures and discordant harmonies.
He won his first Tony for Best Musical in 1963 for the comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” an updated version of ancient Roman farces and the first show for which he wrote both the music and lyrics. Other critical triumphs followed — including 1970’s “Company,” 1971’s “Follies” and 1973’s “A Little Night Music” — though commercial success often proved elusive.
Though he had a flare for witty lyrics and memorable melodies — “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music” became a standard for non-Broadway singers — he increasingly experimented with dissonance and highly chromatic compositions that flirted with atonality. Even the most experienced singers could be challenged in performing his scores.
Sondheim also helped introduce more adult themes into a Broadway landscape that tended to cater to more populist fare. “Company” centered on a commitment-phobic man and his five married couple friends (a new Broadway revival, recasting the lead as a woman, opens on Broadway next month). The 1981 show “Merrily We Roll Along” followed three creative buddies backwards in time from bitter middle-aged sellouts to their more idealistic early-20s selves. And 1984’s “Sunday in the Park With George” — which opened one year after Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megahit “Cats” — focused on the creative and romantic struggles of the post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat. Six years later, he pushed the boundaries again with “Assassins,” which rounded up John Wilkes Booth, John Hinckley Jr. and other historic figures who attempted to assassinate the president of the United States. (An acclaimed revival is now playing at Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company.)
Sondheim’s popularity spread beyond Broadway to Hollywood. “Sweeney Todd,” the story of a murderous butcher in 19th-century London told with Grand Guignol flourish, became a successful 2007 movie starring Johnny Depp. A 2014 movie version of “Into the Woods,” starring Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick, captured his ensemble approach to the rethinking of classic fairy tales. That 1987 show, which struggled in its initial Broadway run, earned Sondheim a Pulitzer Prize.
Sondheim had long valued the idea of mentorship. After his parents divorced when he was a boy of about 10, famed “The Sound of Music” and “South Pacific” lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II became a surrogate father figure who encouraged him to develop his gifts for musical theater.
Later in life, he became an influential mentor to a generation of younger Broadway composers, including Adam Guettel (“The Light in the Piazza”), Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) and Jonathan Larson (“Rent”). A fictionalized version of Sondheim, played by Bradley Whitford, even appears in Miranda’s new movie version of Larson’s pre-“Rent” musical “Tick, Tick… Boom!”
Sondheim is survived by his husband, Jeffrey Scott Romley.