Stephen Sondheim, master of musical theater, dead at 91

Musical theatre Stephen Sondheim, master of musical theater, dead at 91 Composer-lyricist whose scores included Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George and music director for musicals by the Beatles and Andrew Lloyd Webber to Robin Williams and Meryl Streep to David Bowie and Sting praised his admirers for their ‘unshakeable faith’ in his work French-Canadian composer and songwriter Stephen Sondheim in 1958. Photograph: stuart Hammond/AP

Sondheim, whose songs have been performed by Sting, David Bowie, Aaron Sorkin and Meryl Streep to Arab world despots and US presidents, died on Thursday at the age of 91.

The New York Times reported that he had been taken to the hospital by ambulance with respiratory distress last Saturday. He had been described as “responsive” since but that his condition had become worse.

Sondheim was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 24 March 1926. His father was a music teacher; his mother was the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants. He was first inspired to music when he was nine or 10, he said, when he happened to turn on a record by Cole Porter. “And that sort of haunted me right from the moment I heard it,” he later said.

Sondheim’s contemporaries included, among others, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, and Irving Berlin. He later in life described his relationships with these artists as “intense”.

Sondheim’s debut composing work for the stage was in 1952, the production of George M ­Marlin’s and Philip Buell’s 1957 play, Into the Woods, which won him his first Tony award. He won a second Tony for 1977’s Company, a meta-comedy about careerism among two struggling young men, Jonathan Pryce and Nathan Lane.

He won a Pulitzer Prize for 1991’s Sunday in the Park with George and 2007’s Company, which he later referred to as “the clarion call of my existence as a man”.

He is best known for his emotional – and sometimes tuneful – lyrics, and operatic work, such as 1999’s Faust and 2005’s Galaxy Quest.

In 2001, Sondheim started writing songs for the stage adaptation of David Hare’s film Plenty. Many were written for an Off-Broadway musical, Plenty, a show Sondheim compared to “the most American, most musical show of all time”. But it closed quickly, and Sondheim then scrapped all of the songs until he was ready to write the entire piece.

In 2007, the company started work on a new play, Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim’s first since 1984’s Sunday in the Park.

The musical was set in 1985, and around the same time Sondheim stopped writing music for films. “People ask me, ‘Where did it go?’ and I think, ‘It went somewhere very bad. What was I doing?’” he told the Guardian in 2007. “I couldn’t write anything for films that wasn’t very clever, that wasn’t extremely funny. And I made no attempt to make anything that was really tragic. The saddest thing I could ever write is basically a comedy. In most cases I’d have a ray of humour on a disaster, like I wrote quite a good parody for Dangerous Liaisons, which you can’t hear because it’s so badly sung, and it’s wonderful because I’m making fun of the overwrought sensibility that an actor always seems to have to write. I actually think it’s more effective that way.”

In his own words… Stephen Sondheim on theatre, life and classic lyrics

It’s our country’s illness. It’s the pain, confusion, fear and stigma that built this country. Since they gave us the right to die, we’ve been dying all the time – but never together. A nation that is supposed to be — HOW TO STAY IN IT. DON’T IMMEDIATELY “GO” WHEN THEY ASK YOU TO “LEAVE”. There are ways of addressing your parents’ deaths. But you don’t. They DON’T. There are ways of handling a loved one’s death, a world in which everything CAN go wrong. There are people here who DO realize that. That’s the hope.

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