Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, whose work transformed musical theater, has died aged 91

Nov. 26 (Reuters) – Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who has helped American musical theater evolve beyond pure entertainment and reach new artistic heights with works such as “West Side Story,” “Into the Woods “and” Sweeney Todd “, died prematurely on Friday at the age of 91, his press secretary said.

The great comedian died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, spokeswoman Kathryn Zuckerman told Reuters by email, saying she had little additional information. The news was reported earlier by The New York Times.

Sondheim’s eight Tony Awards for lyrics and music topped any other songwriter’s total. In 2008, he also won a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.

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He started early, learning the art of musical theater as a teenager from his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, the legendary lyricist behind “The Sound of Music”.

“Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who in turn was mentored by Sondheim, called him the greatest musical theater lyricist.

Sondheim’s most successful works included “Into the Woods,” which opened on Broadway in 1987 and used children’s fairy tales to unravel adult obsessions; the 1979 thriller “Sweeney Todd”, about a murderous barber in London whose victims are served like meat pies; and 1962 “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” a vaudeville-style comedy set in ancient Rome.

He also wrote the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s score for “West Side Story”, based on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, and collaborated with fellow composer Jule Styne as the loosely based lyricist of “Gypsy”. on the memoirs of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee.

“I love theater as much as music, and the idea of ​​touching an audience and making them laugh, making them cry – just making them feel – is paramount to me,” Sondheim said in a 2013 interview. with National Public Radio.

Several successful Sondheim musicals have been made into films, including the 2014 film “Into the Woods”, starring Meryl Streep, and the 2007 “Sweeney Todd” starring Johnny Depp. A new film version of “West Side Story,” directed by Stephen Spielberg from a screenplay by Tony Kushner, opens next month.

During a September appearance on CBS’s “Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Sondheim said he visited the set for the Spielberg adaptation and approved the film “as truly top notch.”

Sondheim’s songs were celebrated for their quick wit and insight into modern life and for giving voice to complex characters, but few made the pop charts.

HIT ‘CLOWNS’

He did, however, score a hit and one of three Grammys of his career, with “Send in the Clowns” from his 1973 musical “A Little Night Music”. It has been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Judy Collins, among others. Sondheim also won an Oscar for Best Song in 1991 for “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)”, sung by Madonna in the movie “Dick Tracy”.

In 2015, President Barack Obama presented the lyricist with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House.

One of Sondheim’s greatest triumphs was the Pulitzer Prize which he shared with the poise James Lapine for the 1984 musical “Sunday in the Park with George”, about the French neo-impressionist artist of the 19th century Georges Seurat. The two also collaborated on “Into the Woods”.

Actress Bernadette Peters, who played the roles of Dot and Marie in “Sunday in the Park” and the witch of “Into the Woods”, expressed her sadness at the loss of a friend, tweeting, Sondheim “m gave so much to sing about. “

Actress Anna Kendrick, who played Cinderella in the film version of “Into the Woods”, called Sondheim’s death a “devastating loss.”

“Doing her job has been one of the greatest privileges of my career,” she added on Twitter.

Stephen Sondheim poses as he arrives at a special screening of the DreamWorks Pictures film “Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, California on December 5, 2007. REUTERS / Fred Prouser

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As Sondheim garnered accolades, New York’s Broadway theater industry underwent many changes. It played a key role in American culture throughout the 1950s, with many Broadway songs on the pop charts, but lost its prominence as rock music gained traction in audiences from the years onwards. 1960.

More and more, musicals were borrowing material from television and film, instead of the other way around, composer Mark N. Grant wrote in his book “The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical”.

Sondheim shared the view that Broadway has been in decline, voicing it on several occasions in interviews.

“There are so many forms of entertainment, the theater is increasingly marginalized,” he told British newspaper The Times in 2012.

But Broadway musicals also became more artistic, and Sondheim played a key role in their evolution, critics said. He explored such important topics as political violence in “Assassins”, the human need for family and the lure of dysfunctional relationships in “Into the Woods”, social inequality in “Sweeney Todd” and Western imperialism in “Pacific Overtures”.

He also developed new methods of presenting a play. Instead of telling a story from start to finish, he would jump back in time to explore a single theme. It was called the “musical concept”.

Broadway audiences discovered Sondheim with “West Side Story” in 1957. The story of a love affair between a Puerto Rican girl, Maria, and a white boy, Tony, in the working class of Manhattan has been turned into an Oscar-winning film in 1961. The main characters expressed their infatuation in the songs “Maria”, “Somewhere” and “Tonight”.

CONFLICT WITH MOTHER

Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930 in New York City to wealthy Jewish parents who worked in fashion. He described his early childhood as a lonely childhood, with servants as his main company.

After his parents separated when he was 10, Sondheim moved with his mother to rural Pennsylvania, where she bought a farm. He later said his mother got upset about the divorce with him. He found a surrogate family in the neighboring house of Hammerstein and his wife, Dorothy.

Hammerstein, who, along with his songwriting partner Richard Rodgers, created the classic musicals “Oklahoma!” “South Pacific and” The Sound of Music “taught teenager Sondheim to write musical theater.

After Sondheim rose to fame, he mentored other people on Broadway. When Miranda started working on a rap musical about American founding father Alexander Hamilton, Sondheim encouraged and criticized him. The play became a smash hit on Broadway in 2015.

In terms of box office success, Sondheim fell short of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer behind “Phantom of the Opera” and “Cats” with whom Sondheim shared a birthday.

Sondheim pushed audiences, which sometimes resulted in box office failures.

Some of his less commercially successful plays have received critical acclaim. These included the 1976 “Pacific Openings”, which portrayed Japan during the era of Western colonialism, and its 1990 off-Broadway production “Assassins” about real characters who each set out to kill an American president.

Sondheim had many fans in academia. In 1994, a quarterly magazine called Sondheim Review was founded to review his work, five years after the University of Oxford in England appointed him visiting professor of drama.

His followers celebrated the acerbic irony of his words, which they described as commentaries on everything from the limits of the American melting pot to the inconvenience of marriage.

These lines from “The Ladies Who Lunch” in her 1970 musical “Company” contained a typical slice of Sondheim’s mind: ‘/ Just to keep in touch. “

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Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Donna Bryson, Bill Trott and Leslie Adler

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