Stephen Sondheim, titan of the American musical, is dead at 91

Stephen Sondheim, backstage at a production of his play “Passion,” at the Plymouth Theater in New York, May 9, 1994. Sondheim, one of Broadway history’s songwriting titans, whose music and lyrics raised and reset the artistic standard for the American stage musical, died at his home in Connecticut early on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. He was 91. (Fred R Conrad/The New York Times)
Stephen Sondheim, one of Broadway history’s songwriting titans, whose music and lyrics raised and reset the artistic standard for the American stage musical, died early Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. He was 91.

His lawyer and friend, F. Richard Pappas, announced the death. He said he did not know the cause but added that Sondheim had not been known to be ill and that the death was sudden. The day before, Sondheim had celebrated Thanksgiving with a dinner with friends in Roxbury, Pappas said.

An intellectually rigorous artist who perpetually sought new creative paths, Sondheim was the theatre’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th century, if not its most popular.

His work melded words and music in a way that enhanced them both. From his earliest successes in the late 1950s, when he wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” through the 1990s, when he wrote the music and lyrics for two audacious musicals, — “Assassins,” giving voice to the men and women who killed or tried to kill American presidents, and “Passion,” an operatic probe into the nature of true love — he was a relentlessly innovative theatrical force.

The first Broadway show for which Sondheim wrote both the words and music, the farcical 1962 comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” won a Tony Award for best musical and went on to run for more than two years.

In the 1970s and ’80s, his most productive period, he turned out a series of strikingly original and varied works, including “Company” (1970), “Follies” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973), “Pacific Overtures” (1976), “Sweeney Todd” (1979), “Merrily We Roll Along” (1981), “Sunday in the Park With George” (1984) and “Into the Woods” (1987).

In the history of the theatre, only a handful could call Sondheim peer. The list of major theatre composers who wrote words to accompany their own scores (and vice versa) is a short one that includes Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Jerry Herman and Noël Coward.

Although Sondheim spent long hours in solitary labour, usually late at night, when he was composing or writing, he often spoke lovingly of the collaborative nature of the theatre. After the first decade of his career, he was never again a writer for hire, and his contribution to a show was always integral to its conception and execution. He chose collaborators — notably producer and director Hal Prince, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and later writer and director James Lapine — who shared his ambition to stretch the musical form beyond the bounds of only entertainment.

Sondheim’s music was always recognisable as his own, and yet he was dazzlingly versatile. His melodies could be deceptively, disarmingly simple — like the title song of the unsuccessful 1964 musical “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Our Time,” from “Merrily,” and the most famous of his individual songs, “Send In the Clowns,” from “Night Music” — or jaunty and whimsical, like “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” from “Forum.”

They could also be brassy and bitter, like “The Ladies Who Lunch,” from “Company,” or sweeping, like the grandly macabre waltz “A Little Priest,” from “Sweeney Todd.” And they could be desperately yearning, like the plaintive “I Read,” from “Passion.”

Tonys and a Pulitzer

He wrote speechifying soliloquies, conversational duets and chattery trios and quartets. He exploited time signatures and forms; for “Night Music,” he wrote a waltz, two sarabandes, two mazurkas, a polonaise, an étude and a gigue — nearly an entire score written in permutations of triple time.

Overall, he wrote both the music and the lyrics for a dozen Broadway shows — not including compendium revues like “Side by Side by Sondheim,” “Putting It Together” and the autobiographical “Sondheim on Sondheim.” Five of them won Tony Awards for best musical, and six won for best original score. A show that won neither of those, “Sunday in the Park,” took the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Of the many revivals of his shows, three won Tonys, including “Assassins” in 2004, even though it had not previously been on Broadway. (It was presented off-Broadway in 1990.)

In 1993, Sondheim received the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement, and in 2015 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. In 2008, he was given a Tony Award for lifetime achievement, and in 2010, in perhaps the ultimate show business accolade, a Broadway house on West 43rd Street, Henry Miller’s Theater, was renamed in his honour.

For his 90th birthday in March 2020, a Broadway revival of “Company” was planned, with a woman (played by Katrina Lenk) in the central role of Bobby, but it was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The New York Times published a special section devoted to him, and a virtual concert, “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration,” was streamed on the YouTube channel, featuring Broadway performers singing his songs.

Sondheim, who also maintained a home in New York, a townhouse on East 49th Street, had been spending most of his time during the pandemic in Roxbury, in western Connecticut.

But he returned to New York this month to attend revivals of two of his musicals: on Nov 14, for the opening night of “Assassins,” at the Classic Stage Company in lower Manhattan, and the next night for the long-delayed first preview, since Broadway reopened, of “Company,” also starring Patti LuPone, at the Bernard B Jacobs Theater.

Sondheim was “extremely” pleased by both productions, said Pappas, his lawyer.

In addition to his theatre work, Sondheim wrote occasional music for films, including the score for “Stavisky,” Alain Renais’ 1974 movie about a French financier and embezzler, and his song “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” for Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” won an Academy Award in 1991. Six cast albums from his shows won Grammy Awards, and “Send In the Clowns” won the Grammy for song of the year in 1975.

With the exception perhaps of “Forum,” Sondheim’s shows had hefty ambitions in subject matter, form or both. “Company,” which was built from vignettes featuring several couples and their mutual single male friend, was a bittersweet reflection on marriage. “Pacific Overtures” aimed to tell the story of the modernization of Japan from the Japanese perspective. “Sweeney Todd,” a bloody tale about a vengeful barber in 19th century London, approached Grand Guignol in tone and opera in staging and scoring. “The Frogs,” which was first performed in the Yale University swimming pool in 1974 (with Meryl Streep in the cast) before it was revised for Broadway in 2004, blended the Greek comedy of Aristophanes with present-day political commentary.

Sondheim liked to think of himself less as a songwriter than as a playwright, albeit one who wrote very short plays and set them to music. His lyrics, scrupulously literate and resonant with complex ideas or emotional ambivalence, were often impossibly clever but rarely only clever; his language was sometimes erudite but seldom purple. He was a world-class rhyming gymnast, not just at the ends of lines but within them — one of the baked dishes on the ghoulish menu in “Sweeney Todd” was “shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd” — and he upheld the highest standards for acceptable wordplay, or at least tried to.

Rhymes and Beats

His 2010 artistic memoir, “Finishing the Hat” (the name was taken from a song title in “Sunday in the Park”; a follow-up, “Look, I Made a Hat,” came out in 2011), was in many ways a primer on the craft of lyric writing. In it, he took himself to task for numerous sins, including things like adding unnecessary adjectives to fill out lines rhythmically and paying insufficient attention to a melodic line. In the song “Somewhere” from “West Side Story,” for example, the highest note in the opening phrase is on the second beat, which means that in the well-known lyric — “There’s a place for us” — the emphasis is on the word “a.”

“The most unimportant word in the opening line is the one that gets the most important note,” he wrote.

In another example from “West Side Story,” he complained about a stanza from “America,” which was sung by a chorus of young Puerto Rican women.

“Words must sit on music in order to become clear to the audience,” he said to his biographer Meryle Secrest for her 1998 book, “Stephen Sondheim: A Life.” “You don’t get a chance to hear the lyric twice, and if it doesn’t sit and bounce when the music bounces and rise when the music rises, the audience becomes confused.”

In “America,” he added, “I had this wonderful quatrain that went: ‘I like to be in America/OK by me in America/Everything free in America/For a small fee in America.’ The little ‘for a small fee’ was my zinger — except that the ‘for’ is accented and ‘small fee’ is impossible to say that fast, so it went ‘For a smafee in America.’ Nobody knew what it meant!”

What most distinguished Sondheim’s lyrics, however, was that they were by and large character-driven, often probing explorations into a psyche that expressed emotional ambivalence, anguish or deeply felt conflict.

In “Send In the Clowns,” for example, he couched the famous plaint about missed romantic chances largely in the language of the theatre, because the character singing it is an ageing actress:

Just when I’d stopped opening doors,

Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours,

Making my entrance again with my usual flair,

Sure of my lines,

No one is there.

In the title song for “Anyone Can Whistle,” he wrote from the point of view of a woman who found it hard to love:

Anyone can whistle,

That’s what they say —


Anyone can whistle,

Any old day —


It’s all so simple:

Relax, let go, let fly.

So someone tell me why

Can’t I?

I can dance a tango

I can read Greek —


I can slay a dragon

Any old week —


What’s hard is simple,

What’s natural comes hard.

Maybe you could show me

How to let go

Lower my guard.

Learn to be free.

Maybe if you whistle,

Whistle for me.

Over the years, many people theorised that “Anyone Can Whistle” was a cri de coeur by the author, although Sondheim denied it. “To believe that ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ is my credo is to believe that I’m the prototypical repressed intellectual and that explains everything about me,” he wrote in “Finishing the Hat.”

Still, it’s true that he lived a largely solitary romantic life for many years.

“I always thought that song would be Steve’s epitaph,” playwright and director Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for “Anyone Can Whistle,” as well as “West Side Story,” “Gypsy” and “Do I Hear a Waltz?” told Secrest.

For a time in his 60s, Sondheim shared his New York townhouse with a young songwriter, Peter Jones, and in 2017 he married Jeffrey Romley, who survives him, along with a half brother, Walter Sondheim.

Box office struggles

For all these reasons — the high-minded ambition, the seriousness of subject matter, the melodic experimentation, the emotional discord — Sondheim’s shows, although mostly received with critical accolades, were almost never popular hits.

He suffered from a reputation that he didn’t write hummable tunes and that his outlook was austere, if not grim. For some of the same reasons, not all performers were suited to his shows, although over the years several well-known singers became his stalwart interpreters, among them Elaine Stritch, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Cook and Bernadette Peters.

Sondheim rarely gave audiences the fizzy, feel-good musical experience or the happily resolved narrative that the shows of his predecessors conditioned them to expect. He also didn’t give them the opulent spectacle, the anthemic score or the melodramatic storytelling that became the dominant musical theatre style of the 1980s and ’90s with the arrival from Britain of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megahits “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera,” and Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon,” followed by the corporate productions of Disney.

Of the shows for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics, his first, “Forum,” had the longest Broadway run at 964 performances; his second, “Anyone Can Whistle,” lasted nine. “Merrily We Roll Along,” a famously problematic adaptation of the Kaufman and Hart reverse-chronology play about how idealistic young artists grow cynical as they age, closed after just 16. But even his successes were barely successful. Most of his Broadway shows, in their initial runs, failed to earn back the money it cost to put them on.

“I have always conscientiously tried not to do the same thing twice,” Sondheim said, reflecting on his career in an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 2000, when he turned 70. “If you’re broken-field running, they can’t hit you with so many tomatoes. I certainly feel out of the mainstream because what’s happened in musicals is corporate and cookie-cutter stuff. And if I’m out of fashion, I’m out of fashion. Being a maverick isn’t just about being different. It’s about having your vision of the way a show might be.”

Alone with mother

Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born March 22, 1930, in New York, and lived first on the Upper West Side. Herbert Sondheim, his father, was the owner of a dressmaking company; his mother, the former Etta Janet Fox, known as Foxy, worked for her husband as a designer until he left her, when Sondheim was 10. He was sent for a time to military school, and later to the George School in Pennsylvania, but until he was 16, Sondheim, her only child, lived mostly with his mother, with whom he had a troubled relationship throughout his life. (His father remarried and had two more sons.)

In the years after his parents’ separation, Sondheim recalled for his biography, his mother treated him precisely as she had her husband: flirting with him sexually on the one hand, belittling him on the other. As an adult, Sondheim supported her financially; nonetheless, in the 1970s, the night before she was to have heart surgery, she wrote a letter to her son and had it hand-delivered. It read, in part, “The only regret I have in life is giving you birth.”

His mother was, nonetheless, responsible for the most formative relationship of her son’s life. She was a friend of Dorothy Hammerstein, whose husband was lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II; their son Jamie became friends with a young Sondheim, and when the Hammersteins moved to a Pennsylvania farm, Sondheim, who had begun playing the piano at 7, went for a visit and stayed for the summer.

His mother subsequently bought a home nearby, and Sondheim was so often at the Hammersteins’ that he was thought of as a family member. Hammerstein himself became a surrogate father and mentor — “It was because of my teenage admiration for him that I became a songwriter,” Sondheim wrote in “Finishing the Hat,” although he later assessed Hammerstein as a lyricist of soaring ability but often flawed work. Hammerstein brutally criticised the boy’s first musical, written at the George School, as “the worst thing I’ve ever read,” adding: “I didn’t say that it was untalented, I said it was terrible. And if you want to know why it’s terrible, I’ll tell you.”

An afternoon long tutorial followed, teaching him, by Sondheim’s account, more about the craft than most songwriters learn in a lifetime. Hammerstein laid out a path of writing exercises for him: Adapt a good play into a musical; adapt a flawed play into a musical; adapt a story from another medium into a musical; and, finally, write a musical from your own original story. This the young Sondheim did, a project that carried him through his graduation from Williams College in Massachusetts, where he complemented his theatre work with serious composition study under Robert Barrow, an intellectually rigorous specialist in harmony, from whom Sondheim gleaned the lesson, as he put it, “that art is work and not inspiration, that invention comes with craft.” Sondheim would later study independently with Milton Babbitt, an avant-garde composer.

Sondheim’s first professional show business job was not in the theatre at all; through the agency representing Hammerstein, he was hired to write for a 1950s television comedy, “Topper,” about a fussbudget banker haunted by a pair of urbane ghosts. (Much later, Sondheim wrote a whodunit film script, “The Last of Sheila,” with actor Anthony Perkins; it was produced in 1973 and directed by Herbert Ross.) By the ’50s he had become a connoisseur of word games and puzzles, and an inventor of elaborate games. From 1968 to 1969, he created cryptic crosswords for New York magazine.

His affinity for theatrical misdirection and mystery was acknowledged by his friend, playwright Anthony Shaffer, who based the cunningly vengeful cuckold in his play “Sleuth” partly on Sondheim. (The play was once tentatively titled “Who’s Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?”)

Breaking into broadway

Sondheim was in his early 20s when he wrote his first professional show, a musical called “Saturday Night,” which was an adaptation of “Front Porch in Flatbush,” a play by Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein. He got the job, to write both words and music, after composer Loesser turned it down. The show was scheduled to be presented in 1955, but the producer, Lemuel Ayers, died before he had completed raising the money for it, and the production came to a halt. The show was not presented until 1997, by a small company in London; it subsequently appeared in Chicago and finally had its New York premiere in 2000, off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theater.

Sondheim was loath to take either of his first Broadway gigs, “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” because he felt he was a composer, not only a lyricist — “I enjoy writing music much more than lyrics,” he confessed in “Finishing the Hat.” But he agreed to both on the advice of Hammerstein, who told him that he would benefit from working with the likes of Bernstein; Laurents, (who wrote the book) and director Jerome Robbins, in the first instance, and from writing for a star like Ethel Merman in the second, even though it was she who had wanted a more experienced Broadway hand, Jule Styne, as the composer.

Only once after “Gypsy” would Sondheim write lyrics for another composer: an unhappy collaboration with Richard Rodgers, “Do I Hear a Waltz?” based on Laurents’ play “The Time of the Cuckoo.”

Sondheim was asked to take the job by Laurents and by Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers’ elder daughter, whom he had met as a teenager at the Hammersteins’ and for whom he had complicated feelings over many years. However, the two men proved antagonistic as writing partners — years later, Sondheim was quoted as saying that Hammerstein was “a man of limited talent and infinite soul” and Rodgers the reverse — and although the show ran for 220 performances in 1965, it never had a Broadway revival, and neither man considered it a success.

The period of Sondheim’s greatest work began when Prince became his director. They were old friends, having been introduced by Mary Rodgers in the late 1940s or early ’50s, and Prince had been the producer of “West Side Story.” He had proved his chops as a director as well, with musical successes like “She Loves Me” (1963) and “Cabaret” (1966).

Prince would direct five Sondheim musicals in the 1970s — “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures” and “Sweeney Todd’’ — and although not all were commercially successful, they were all innovative, the product of two supremely talented artists whose individually authoritative visions were, for the most part, complementary.

As Prince naturally saw a show’s big picture, its look and its pace, Sondheim, who had inherited the Rodgers and Hammerstein belief that the songs are critical elements of the play, pushed the idea further — not merely integrating the words and music but imbuing the songs with the concerns of a playwright; that is, providing singers with the material to deepen their character portrayals, and in rehearsals concentrating on their delivery and diction.

The partnership foundered on “Merrily We Roll Along,” a show that was hampered in part by the youth of its cast members, who had to play not only young characters but also the disillusioned adults they become, and by Prince’s acknowledged failure to find an appropriate look for the show as a whole.

“I never knew how to direct it because I work so much from ‘What is it going to look like?’ ” Prince told Secrest for her Sondheim biography. “That becomes the motor of the show. I never could figure it out.”

“Merrily” has had several lives since then, off-Broadway, in regional theatre and overseas, as producers and directors have tried to solve its problems and showcase what is generally acknowledged to be a vivid and poignant score.

A younger collaborator

In any case, the two men parted creative company for more than two decades, not working together again until they hammered out a version of a much-revised musical about a pair of entrepreneurial American brothers in the early 20th century that in other incarnations, before and after, was variously titled “Gold,” “Wise Guys” and “Road Show.” Under Prince, it was called “Bounce,” and it was produced in 2003 at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and the Kennedy Center in Washington.

During Prince’s absence from his creative life, Sondheim teamed up with a younger collaborator, Lapine, and together they created the most cerebral works of Sondheim’s career. These included “Into the Woods,” which reimagined familiar children’s fairy tales into darker adult fables; “Passion,” a nearly operatic meditation on the nature of love; and “Sunday in the Park With George,” a work whose first act ingeniously creates the artistic process of painter Georges Seurat as he produces his masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and whose second act jumps ahead a century to illustrate how a contemporary artist makes art in a more consumer-conscious age.

With no dancing and a slim plot, there was little of musical theatre convention in the show, but, as Frank Rich wrote in the Times, it was startlingly original and deeply satisfying. “It’s anyone’s guess whether the public will be shocked or delighted by ‘Sunday in the Park,’” Rich wrote. “What I do know is that Mr Sondheim and Mr Lapine have created an audacious, haunting and, in its own intensely personal way, touching work.”

It was one of Sondheim’s most critically admired shows, running for 604 performances. And many critics and other Sondheim-ophiles found in it his most personal statement, as if he had used Seurat’s view of the artist’s life as a surrogate for his own. In the show’s signature song, “Finishing the Hat,” faced with the loss of the woman he loves because his devotion to painting has superseded his devotion to her, Seurat offers a sad but forceful paean to the joy of bringing original beauty into the world. It ends:

And when the woman that you wanted goes,

You can say to yourself,

“Well, I give what I give.”

But the woman who won’t wait for you knows

That, however you live,

There’s a part of you always standing by,

Mapping out the sky,

Finishing a hat

Starting on a hat

Finishing a hat

Look, I made a hat

Where there never was a hat.

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