R.I.P. Stephen Sondheim, legendary Broadway songwriter

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Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim, one of Broadway’s best known and revered composers and lyricists, known for West Side Story, Into The Woods, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, has died. Per The New York Times, Sonheim’s lawyer and friend, F. Richard Pappas, confirmed Sondheim’s death at his Connecticut home Friday. He was 91.

Born in New York City in 1930, Sondheim began his musical theater training under the tutelage of his neighbor, Oscar Hammerstein II, of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The composer of such classics as Oklahoma, Hammerstein became Sondheim’s mentor after the 10-year-old boy’s parents divorced.

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Though Hammerstein would guide Sondheim through the first two decades of his career, Broadway’s most influential and successful songwriter was also one of Sondheim’s earliest critics. In 1945, when Sondheim presented his first musical, By George, to Hammerstein, who told his protégé: “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.” Years later, Sondheim described the lesson: “I dare say, at the risk of hyperbole, that I learned more that afternoon than most people learn about songwriting in a lifetime.”

Having such a remarkable teacher paid off. After graduating from Williams College, where he wrote four shows under Hammerstein’s guidance, Sondheim spent two years studying with avant-garde composer Milton Babbit.

Sondheim nearly made his Broadway debut in 1955, writing the words and music for the musical comedy Saturday Night. However, the death of the show’s producer led to his opening night’s delay. Still, it wouldn’t take much longer for young Sondheim to find success. His next job would make him a star.

In 1957, at the behest of his old teacher Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim shelved his aspirations at becoming a composer-lyricist and settled for writing the words for West Side Story. The show won two Tonys, while the film adaptation (the unapologetic Sondheim was not a fan) won 10 Oscars. Two years later, Hammerstein would again convince Sondheim to take the job of lyricist, this time on “what may be the greatest of all American musicals,” Gypsy.

1962 would be a landmark year for Sondheim, with the premiere of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Though it was his third to reach the stage, Funny Thing was Sondheim’s first show as composer and lyricist.

It would be another 10 years before Sondheim won his first Tony. 1971’s Company, which earned Sondheim Best Lyrics and Best Original Score Tonys, would begin an unmatched streak of artistic heights. Shows like Follies, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Assassins, Pacific Overtures, and Into The Woods would span a broad spectrum stylistically. Some productions failed on opening night, only to be reworked decades later, while others seemed to become generation-defining smashes before intermission. Critical reception was just as varied, with early reviews sometimes expressing befuddlement and outrage towards the composer’s idiosyncratic structures.

Nevertheless, Sondheim’s successes and failures alike make up a rich body of work that defies expectation. He worked from a place of experimentation, in many cases, breaking the rules of musical theater and embracing more “dangerous” routes as he headed into the unknown. “You shouldn’t feel safe,” Sondheim said in 2017. “You should feel, ‘I don’t know if I can write this.’ That’s what I mean by dangerous, and I think that’s a good thing to do. Sacrifice something safe.”