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Stephen Sondheim, musical theater legend behind 'Sweeney Todd' and 'Into the Woods', has died

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No one instilled words and music with more wit, wisdom and warmth than Stephen Sondheim.

The composer and lyricist died Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, at age 91. Rick Miramontez, a publicist for the current Broadway production of Sondheim’s musical “Company," confirmed the news to USA TODAY.

Sondheim's death was sudden, his lawyer and friend F. Richard Pappas told The New York Times. The day before, Sondheim had celebrated Thanksgiving with a dinner with friends in Roxbury.

Sondheim was one of the most imitated and inimitable musical theater artists of his generation, a one-man bridge between Broadway’s golden age and the best of what followed. With groundbreaking musicals such as "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," "Company," "Follies" and "Sunday in the Park with George," Sondheim redefined the American art form without ever losing sight of the fundamentals that made it great: compelling stories driven by unforgettable songs.

In Sondheim’s case, those songs could be daunting for the musicians who played and sang them, marked as they were by winding chromatic paths and dissonant edges that reinforced the rich, often stark drama of his shows. But while it was a running joke that Sondheim didn't write tunes you could hum, his music was actually tonal and sumptuously melodic.

As a lyricist, Sondheim earned attention for his cleverness and erudition, but it was his emotional acuity that most astonished and lingered. A protégé of Oscar Hammerstein II, whom he described as a surrogate father, he never sacrificed feeling for cerebral flash and always let his characters dictate the manner and substance of expression.

Two of his most memorable ballads, "Not While I’m Around" from "Sweeney Todd" and "No One Is Alone" from 1987’s "Into the Woods," were sung by or to children in the shows, and his accounts of the most vexing adult dilemmas could be shatteringly plain and direct. “You said you loved me, or were you just being kind?” a character asks in "Losing My Mind," from "Follies." Has any lyric summed up romantic self-doubt more succinctly or witheringly?

And while Sondheim’s songs could be bitingly funny, he had a vast capacity for tenderness. In "So Many People," from the musical "Saturday Night," young lovers tell each other that no one else will “know love like my love for you ... And if they tell us it’s a thing we’ll outgrow/They’re jealous as they can be/That with so many people in the world/You love me.”

Songwriter/composer Stephen Sondheim attends the New York premiere of "Sweeney Todd " on Dec. 3, 2007.
Songwriter/composer Stephen Sondheim attends the New York premiere of "Sweeney Todd " on Dec. 3, 2007.

Sondheim rose to fame in the 1950s as a wunderkind wordsmith, writing lyrics for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy" before he turned 30. He found success, if not unanimous critical approval, as a composer with 1962’s "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." The 1964 cult classic "Anyone Can Whistle" produced a number of enduring songs, including the title track, but closed after nine performances. "Do I Hear A Waltz" (1965) paired Sondheim with Hammerstein’s old partner Richard Rodgers.

It was in the 1970s that Sondheim truly made his mark both as a composer and a conceptualist. Working with the director Hal Prince and forward-thinking librettists such as Hugh Wheeler, George Furth and John Weidman, he offered musical audiences a more contemporary and intricate, and often darker look at the search for human connection and identity. "Company" (1970) documented the dissatisfaction of a bachelor and his married friends; 1971’s "Follies" and 1973’s "A Little Night Music" traced a series of relationships whose quirks and contradictions could seem achingly familiar.

As time passed, Sondheim tackled broader and more diverse themes, drawing on ever-more eclectic subjects and source material. "Pacific Overtures" (1976) examined Western intervention through the eyes of two Japanese men. "Sweeney Todd," 1979’s Grand Guignol masterpiece, is based on a play in which the title character, an ex-convict adapted from British legend, turns to mass murder and cannibalism to avenge an injustice. 1984’s "Sunday" reimagined pointillist painter Georges Seurat; "Into the Woods" drew on the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Stephen Sondheim during a 2004 appearance at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
Stephen Sondheim during a 2004 appearance at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

There were disappointments and delays. 1981’s "Merrily We Roll Along," an account of striving artists that went backward in time – beginning with its characters in disillusioned middle age – drew criticism even from ardent admirers and closed after only 16 post-preview performances. It marked Sondheim’s last Broadway collaboration with Prince.

"Assassins," which peered into the hearts and minds of infamous killers, bowed in New York in 1990, but wasn’t produced on Broadway until 14 years later. "Road Show," based on the real-life entrepreneurial exploits of siblings Wilson and Addison Mizner, was in development for more than a decade under various names before opening to mixed notices at the Public Theater in 2008.

But it was in part a measure of Sondheim’s restlessly progressive imagination that his scores sometimes drew more appreciation in retrospect. "Passion" (1994), a meditation on physical and spiritual love inspired by the Italian film "Passione d’Amore," had the shortest run of any show that has won the Tony Award for best musical, but a few of the show’s delicately haunting songs, such as "Happiness," "Loving You" and "I Wish I Could Forget You," have since become contemporary standards.

"Merrily" has been revisited numerous times by ambitious directors, among them John Doyle, whose scaled-down readings of numerous Sondheim classics have drawn raves in the U.K., on Broadway and at regional theaters.

Indeed, high-profile Broadway revivals of Sondheim’s work, several of them based abroad, have remained plentiful into the 21st century, as have other tributes from wide-ranging admirers. For 2013’s "A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair," Wynton Marsalis led an orchestra in jazz arrangements of Sondheim tunes. Jake Gyllenhaal starred in a 2017 Broadway production of "Sunday in the Park With George."

Librettist/director James Lapine, who won Tony Awards for his books for "Into the Woods" and "Passion," conceived the 2010 Broadway revue "Sondheim on Sondheim" and, in 2013, directed "Six by Sondheim," an HBO documentary focusing on its subject’s creative process.

A reimagined “West Side Story” opened on Broadway in 2020, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, as did a new off-Broadway production of “Assassins” this year. A reworked “Company” revival is in previews on Broadway (with the gender of the protagonist switched), and Steven Spielberg's film version of “West Side Story” is set to open Dec. 10.

President Barack Obama presents musical theater master Stephen Sondheim with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the White House November 24, 2015, in Washington, DC.
President Barack Obama presents musical theater master Stephen Sondheim with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the White House November 24, 2015, in Washington, DC.

Sondheim earned eight Tonys (plus a Special Lifetime Achievement award), as well as the Pulitzer Prize in drama, with Lapine, for "Sunday." In 2015, Sondheim was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

Sondheim also wrote songs, scores and incidental music for films and television, among them a number of tunes included in the 1990 movie "Dick Tracy" and "Sooner Or Later," which was sung by Madonna and won an Oscar.

Sondheim’s facility with language found other outlets, including crafting crossword puzzles, which he loved, for New York magazine and writing plays and movie scripts.

But he told USA TODAY in 2008 that “prose is not my natural language,” noting that he had been commissioned 15 years earlier to put together a book of his collected lyrics.

“It’s taking me longer than it would probably take other people.” (Two collections "Finishing the Hat" and "Look, I Made a Hat," were published in 2010 and 2011.)

That humility was typical of Sondheim’s interviews, which he gave sparingly. In the same conversation, he dismissed the notion that he represented the last of musical theater’s giants. “I remember when Frank Loesser died, saying, ‘Well, that’s the end of the great songwriters.’ But you know, it wasn’t. There was his generation, and then there were Bock and Harnick and Kander and Ebb and all of guys and women in our generation. I think the whole idea of the last great anything is specious.”

Largely a private person, Sondheim did not, by his own account, have a serious romantic relationship until he was in his 60s. Speaking with USA TODAY in 2013, he noted, “A great many love songs and stories have been written by people who have never been in love.”

Certainly, few writers of any form touched the minds and souls of their fans as consistently and astutely as Sondheim did. His ability to capture and transcend life through art will be missed, even as the work it produced endures.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stephen Sondheim, musical theater legend, has died at 91