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Stephen Sondheim, the sublime and sophisticated composer and lyricist who revolutionized American musical theater with such achievements as Company, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods, has died. He was 91.
Sondheim, who was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II and Leonard Bernstein en route to collecting nine Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, an Oscar and eight Grammys during his incomparable career, died early Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, his lawyer and friend F. Richard Pappas told The New York Times.
In the late 1950s, Sondheim put words to Bernstein’s music for the original production of West Side Story (“Maria,” “America”), then collaborated with Jule Styne on Gypsy (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses”).
“Send in the Clowns,” his somberly plaintive plea from A Little Night Music, the 1973 play inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, has been recorded by such notable singers as Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, Barbra Streisand and Krusty the Clown.
Writing only with soft, Blackwing pencils — the brand went out of production years ago, so he bought a lifetime supply — the meticulous New Yorker delighted in wordplay, and his lyrics were lauded for their wit and intricacy.
From his song “Now,” about a lawyer considering his options to woo his young wife, from 1973’s A Little Night Music:
Now, with my mental facilities
And ready to snap
Now, though there are possibilities
Still to be studied, I might as well nap
Bow though I must
To adjust my original plan
How shall I sleep
Half as deep
As I usually can
When now I still want and/or love you,
Now as always,
Sondheim often dealt with subject matter far darker than the radiant buoyancy and uplifting tales of the typical musical, and his productions did not send audiences out of the theater smiling and humming.
During his most fertile creative period, Sondheim collaborated with producer-director Hal Prince. They paired on nine musicals: 1957’s West Side Story, 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1970’s Company, 1971’s Follies and A Little Night Music, 1976’s Pacific Overtures, 1979’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along and 2003’s Bounce.
After parting ways with Prince in the early 1980s, Sondheim worked with playwright James Lapine, collaborating on the Pulitzer-winning Sunday in the Park With George, the 1984 Broadway production that starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in a story about an iconoclastic artist.
The musical, which was inspired by the Georges Seurat painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, was honored with the Pulitzer for drama and two Tonys.
“They were writing it as we were rehearsing it and still writing it after we’d opened off-Broadway in 1983,” Peters recalled in a 2014 interview with The Guardian. “Every day, Steve would come along with a new song that we’d put in the show that night or the next.
“I remember how exciting it was when ‘Finishing the Hat’ came in. And then we went to Broadway and more songs came in, including ‘Children and Art.’ I used to wait every night to be able to sing ‘Move On,’ which got to be like meditating — it was so healing and uplifting.”
Sondheim’s subject matter dealt with unmusical emotions like loneliness and obsession: In Sweeney Todd, a barber uses his cutting skills for murder while his female friend cooks the victims into pies.
His Broadway production of Into the Woods, a twisted look at classic fairy tales, also starred Peters and Joanna Gleason and was adapted for the big screen by Rob Marshall in 2014. The film version starred Meryl Streep, who in a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter recalled nervously meeting Sondheim at his Manhattan townhouse after being cast as the Witch.
Streep “asked if he wouldn’t mind autographing her sheet music. ‘I’d be pleased to,’ replied the great man, then scribbled something down and handed over the pages. His inscription to Streep read, ‘Don’t f— it up.’ ”
Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, in New York City. His father, Herbert, was a dress manufacturer, and his mother, Etta, a Parsons School of Design graduate who created the designs for the gowns. The family lived in a large apartment on Central Park West.
Regarding his parents’ marriage, which ended when Sondheim was 10, he said, “I think — this is my opinion — that it was a bargain. I think my mother was in love with my father, and he was not in love with her, but needed a designer.”
At age 7, Sondheim was taking piano lessons. “My father would sit me at the piano bench and have me put my hand on his little finger, which played the melody over the top. At the end of each year, we would have to give recitals for all the little kids,” he says in Meryle Secrest’s 1998 book, Stephen Sondheim: A Life.
“I had a very fleet right hand, so one of the first pieces I would play was ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ by Rimsky-Korsakov. My father and mother used to take me out of bed at cocktail time if they had clients. They’d drag me out in my pajamas to play ‘Flight of the Bumblebee.’ ”
After his parents’ divorce, Sondheim went to live with his mother on a farm in Pennsylvania. Their next-door neighbor was the legendary librettist and theater producer Oscar Hammerstein (Show Boat, Oklahoma!), who became the boy’s mentor and, as Sondheim noted, a surrogate father.
In 1945, Sondheim presented his first musical, By George, to Hammerstein, who told him: “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever read. It was terrible, and if you want to know why it’s terrible, I’ll tell you.”
Hammerstein taught him how to construct a musical. “I dare say, at the risk of hyperbole, that I learned more that afternoon than most people learn about songwriting in a lifetime,” Sondheim recalled in Joanne Gordon’s 1997 book Stephen Sondheim: A Casebook.
Later, Sondheim attended Williams College, where he majored in music. Upon graduating in 1950, he won the Hutchinson Prize for Composition and a two-year fellowship to study with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt.
“I wanted to learn compositional technique, and that’s what I learned from him,” Sondheim told NPR in 2010.
“We had four-hour sessions once a week, and we would spend the first hour analyzing songs by Jerome Kern or by [Buddy] DeSylva, [Lew] Brown and [Ray] Henderson — the classic songs of the American theater and American movies. … We did an hour on songs and three hours on Beethoven and Bach, and it was all about essentially compositional analysis. But I only wanted to write songs. I didn’t want to write concert music.”
After his musical studies, he worked as a scriptwriter for the CBS series Topper, the 1953-55 comedy adapted from the movie about an uptight banker (Leo G. Carroll) who can see and hear ghosts.
In 1954, Sondheim composed the music and lyrics for Saturday Night, which was to open during the 1954-55 Broadway season. However, when producer Lemuel Ayers died, the rights to the production went to his widow and the show did not go on. (It finally appeared in London in 1997 and off-Broadway in 2000.)
“I don’t have any emotional reaction to Saturday Night at all — except fondness,” he told The New York Times Magazine in 2000. “It’s not bad stuff for a 23-year-old. There are some things that embarrass me so much in the lyrics — the missed accents, the obvious jokes. But I decided, ‘Leave it. It’s my baby pictures. You don’t touch up a baby picture — you’re a baby!’ ”
Sondheim got another big break when he was introduced to Bernstein, who hired him to write the lyrics for West Side Story. That play also began his association with Prince, who secured the musical’s financing.
In a 2010 interview with ABC’s Nightline, Sondheim described his work on the play as “embarrassing.”
“Most of the lyrics were sort of … they were very self-conscious. Bernstein wanted the songs to be … heavy, what he called ‘poetic,’ and my idea of poetry and his idea of poetry are polar opposites,” he said. “I don’t mean that they are terrible; I just mean they’re so self-conscious.”
The production, of course, was adapted into the 1961 film that went on to collect 10 Oscars, including best picture. He then worked with Styne as the lyricist on Gypsy (1959), starring Ethel Merman.
The first show for which Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He once said, “When I write words, I’m very careful. When you write lyrics, there are so few lyrics in the song, so few words … in a lyric, each one has enormous weight. You know, a line in a song is like a scene in a play.”
The only composer-lyricist to win a Tony in three consecutive years, Sondheim earned his last competitive Tony for 1994’s Passion, received a best original song Oscar in 1991 for Dick Tracy’s “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man),” performed by Madonna, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.
In 2010, the Henry Miller Theater on West 43rd Street in New York was renamed for him.
“I’m interested in the theater because I’m interested in communication with audiences,” he once said. “Otherwise, I would be in concert music. I’d be in another kind of profession. I love the theater as much as music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh, making them cry — just making them feel — is paramount to me.”
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