Legendary Broadway songwriter / lyricist Stephen Sondheim has died at 91

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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 at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut at the age of 91 on Friday morning, The New York Times reported.

Sondheim, whose eight lifetime Tony Awards topped any other songwriter’s total, started early, learning the art of musical theater as a teenager from “The Sound of Music” Oscar’s lyricist. Hammerstein II.

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

Sondheim’s most successful musicals 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 barber. murderer in London whose victims are served like meat pies, and the 1962’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, a vaudeville-style comedy set in ancient Rome.

“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”, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics to the music of Leonard Bernstein, will debut next month.

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

‘Clowns’ shot

He did have success, however, with the Grammy “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.

One of Sondheim’s greatest triumphs was his Pulitzer Prize for the 1984 musical “Sunday in the Park with George”, about 19th-century French neo-impressionist artist Georges Seurat.

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”.

FILE PHOTO: 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, Calif. December 5, 2007. Sondheim wrote the music and the lyrics for the original broadway musical “Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” on which the film is based. REUTERS / Fred Prouser

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 assassinations in “Assassins”, the human need for family and the allure of dysfunctional relationships in “Into the Woods”, social inequalities 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 in 1957 when he wrote the lyrics to “West Side Story” to accompany Leonard Bernstein’s music and it became an American classic. The story of a love affair between a Puerto Rican girl, Maria, and a white boy, Tony, in the working class of Manhattan was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 1961. The central 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 partner Richard Rodgers, created the classic musicals “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music,” taught teenager Sondheim how 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 the box office success, Sondheim fell short of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the songwriter behind “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Cats” with whom Sondheim shared a birthday.

Sondheim pushed the boundaries of audiences, which at times 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 his 1970 musical “Company” contained a typical slice of Sondheim’s mind: “Here are the girls playing the woman / Aren’t they too?” ‘/ Just to keep in touch.

Sondheim, who was gay, did not live with a romantic partner until he was 61, according to a profile published in 2000 in the New York Times Magazine, in which he said his romantic relationships were rarely intense. or durable.

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