‘Incomparable’ Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim dies at 91

Sondheim, renowned for musicals including West Side Story and Sweeney Todd, died at home in Connecticut.

Stephen Sondheim revolutionised musical theatre with shows such as West Side Story and Sweeney Todd [File: Fred Prouser/Reuters]

Legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, widely credited with transforning musical theatre, died on Friday at the age of 91, his publicist said.

Sondheim – renowned for musicals including West Side Story and Sweeney Todd – died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, spokesperson Kathryn Zuckerman told Reuters news agency by email, saying she had little additional information. The news was reported earlier by the New York Times which said he had celebrated Thanksgiving with friends the day before.

“There are no words. He had them all. And the music. He was incomparable,” the UK-based Stephen Sondheim Society, which is dedicated to promoting and studying his work, tweeted along with three heart emojis, one of them broken.

“He was God to many of us. We loved his work. And god he was good.”

Born on March 22, 1930, to an affluent family in New York City, Sondheim was involved in musical theatre from an early age.

He started playing piano at age seven and, after his parents divorced and he moved with his mother to Pennsylvania, learned to write musicals with neighbour Oscar Hammerstein II, who with partner Richard Rodgers wrote hugely popular shows including The Sound of Music.

Sondheim’s got his first big breakthrough on Broadway in 1957 with West Side Story, which transplanted Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to working-class Manhattan.

Sondheim’s songs were celebrated for their sharp wit and insight into modern life and for giving voice to complex characters.

Later successes included Sweeney Todd, about a murderous barber in London whose victims are served as meat pies, which opened in 1979, and Into the Woods, which opened on Broadway in 1987 and used children’s fairy tales to untangle adult obsessions.

“I love the theatre 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,” Sondheim said in a 2013 interview with National Public Radio.

‘Singing your songs forever’

Sondheim won numerous awards during his career including eight Grammy awards, and eight Tony awards, including the special honour of Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. He also picked up one Academy Award and a Pulitzer Prize, and was nominated for many more Grammys and Tonys, as well as two Golden Globes.

In 2015, then-US president Barack Obama presented Sondheim with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, for his life’s work.

Several of Sondheim’s musicals have been turned into films including West Side Story in 1961, which won an Oscar, and Into the Woods, starring Meryl Streep, in 2007. A new version of West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg, is due to be released next month.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created the smash-hit rap musical Hamilton and was mentored by Sondheim, has called him musical theatre’s greatest lyricist.

Sondheim, who was gay, reportedly lived alone until his 60s, keeping his sexuality under wraps. In 2017, he married his partner Jeffrey Romley, who survives him.

“Thank the Lord that Sondheim lived to be 91 years old so he had the time to write such wonderful music and GREAT lyrics!” tweeted singer Barbra Streisand.

Actress and singer Lea Salonga, who was the first Asian woman to win a Tony for originating the lead role of the musical Miss Saigon, thanked Sondheim for his “vast contributions to musical theatre”.

“We shall be singing your songs forever. Oh, my heart hurts,” she wrote on Twitter.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies