Stephen Sondheim, one of Broadway history’s songwriting titans, whose music and lyrics raised and reset the artistic standard for the American stage musical, died early Friday at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 91.
His lawyer and friend, F. Richard Pappas, announced the death, which he described as sudden. The day before, Mr. Sondheim had celebrated Thanksgiving with a dinner with friends in Roxbury, Mr. Pappas said.
An intellectually rigorous artist who perpetually sought new creative paths, Mr. Sondheim was the theater’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th century, if not its most popular.
His work melded words and music in a way that enhanced them both. From his earliest successes in the late 1950s, when he wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” through the 1990s, when he wrote the music and lyrics for two audacious musicals, “Assassins,” giving voice to the men and women who killed or tried to kill American presidents, and “Passion,” an operatic probe into the nature of true love, he was a relentlessly innovative theatrical force.
The first Broadway show for which Mr. Sondheim wrote both the words and music, the farcical 1962 comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” won a Tony Award for best musical and went on to run for more than two years.
In the 1970s and 1980s, his most productive period, he turned out a series of strikingly original and varied works, including “Company” (1970), “Follies” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973), “Pacific Overtures” (1976), “Sweeney Todd” (1979), “Merrily We Roll Along” (1981), “Sunday in the Park With George” (1984) and “Into the Woods” (1987).
In the history of the theater, only a handful could call Mr. Sondheim peer. The list of major theater composers who wrote words to accompany their own scores (and vice versa) is a short one — it includes Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Jerry Herman and Noël Coward.
Though Mr. Sondheim spent long hours in solitary labor, usually late at night, when he was composing or writing, he often spoke lovingly of the collaborative nature of the theater. After the first decade of his career, he was never again a writer for hire, and his contribution to a show was always integral to its conception and execution. He chose collaborators — notably the producer and director Hal Prince, the orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and later the writer and director James Lapine — who shared his ambition to stretch the musical form beyond the bounds of only entertainment.
Mr. Sondheim’s music was always recognizable as his own, and yet he was dazzlingly versatile. His melodies could be deceptively, disarmingly simple — like the title song of the unsuccessful 1964 musical “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Our Time,” from “Merrily,” and the most famous of his individual songs, “Send In the Clowns,” from “Night Music” — or jaunty and whimsical, like “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” from “Forum.”
They could also be brassy and bitter, like “The Ladies Who Lunch,” from “Company,” or sweeping, like the grandly macabre waltz “A Little Priest,” from “Sweeney Todd.” And they could be exotic, like “Someone in a Tree” and “Pretty Lady,” both from “Pacific Overtures,” or desperately yearning, like the plaintive “I Read,” from “Passion.”
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