Stephen Sondheim: master craftsman who reinvented the musical dies aged 91

Stephen Sondheim: master craftsman who reinvented the musical dies aged 91
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: R Jones/Getty Images

Stephen Sondheim, the master craftsman of the American musical, has died at the age of 91.

Over the course of a celebrated career spanning more than 60 years, Sondheim co-created Broadway theatre classics such as West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, all of which also became hit movies. His intricate and dazzlingly clever songs pushed the boundaries of the art form and he made moving and funny masterpieces from unlikely subject matters, including a murderous barber (Sweeney Todd), the Roman comedies of Plautus (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and a pointillist painting by Georges Seurat (Sunday in the Park With George).

Sondheim raised the status of the musical, which had often been considered comforting and unadventurous family entertainment, and used it to explore adult relationships in all their complexity. Follies and Company, which received rapturous revivals in London in 2017 and 2018 respectively, gave bittersweet accounts of love and life. His compositions, too, were richly adventurous. While many musical-theatre creators specialise as either a composer or lyricist, Sondheim excelled at both. After he had established himself on Broadway, he typically took charge of music and lyrics in his shows.

Sondheim was born on 22 March 1930 in New York. His parents, who both worked in the fashion industry, divorced when he was 10. He was tutored by one of the greatest lyricist and librettists, Oscar Hammerstein, whose son he befriended at George school in Newtown, Pennsylvania. His first musical, written when he was 15, was a satire of that school, entitled By George.

Hammerstein, said Sondheim, taught him that in writing lyrics “the whole point is to underwrite not overwrite because music is so rich an art itself”. When Sondheim published his two-volume set of memoirs, he identified three principles for a lyric writer to turn out a “respectable lyric”. These were “less is more, content dictates form and God is in the details”.

Stephen Sondheim: master craftsman who reinvented the musical dies aged 91
© Provided by The Guardian Sondheim in New York in February 2019. Photograph: Bruce Glikas/WireImage

He was 27 when he had his first big hit with West Side Story, which relocated Romeo and Juliet to the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side and was conceived by Jerome Robbins, with a book by Arthur Laurents and music by Leonard Bernstein. His lyrics for Tonight, America and Somewhere would be loved by generations of theatregoers but, as a perfectionist and his own worst critic, he came to regret one of Maria’s lines – “It’s alarming how charming I feel” – in I Feel Pretty. “That wouldn’t be unwelcome in Noël Coward’s living room,” he said. “I don’t know what a Puerto Rican street girl is doing singing a line like that.”

Stephen Sondheim: master craftsman who reinvented the musical dies aged 91
© Photograph: R Jones/Getty Images Stephen Sondheim in 1976 … according to Imelda Staunton, ‘his stories will live as long as Shakespeare’s’.

Robbins also directed and choreographed Sondheim’s Gypsy, based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, with music by Jule Styne. The Roman farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was the first Broadway show where the lyrics and music were both by Sondheim. It won the Tony award for best musical in 1963.

Company, a bittersweet Manhattan musical following a man about town whose friends are all settled down, earned Sondheim Tony awards for best score and best lyrics. It opened in 1970 and had been running on Broadway for almost a year when Sondheim’s Follies also opened in New York. Follies, in which former showgirls look back at their younger selves, featured the song I’m Still Here, an anthem of showbiz survival, sung by Elaine Stritch. Company and Follies are considered two of Sondheim’s best and revivals of both ran concurrently in London in early 2019. The National Theatre’s production of Follies received a five-star review from Michael Billington, who said it “never lets you forget the astringent sadness beneath the spectacle”. Company, staged in the West End, switched the gender of its hero so that Bobby became Bobbie, played by Rosalie Craig.

First staged on Broadway in 1979, Sweeney Todd – about the Victorian barber turned serial killer – fused the cheery and the grisly, most notably in the waltz A Little Priest, which celebrated “shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top”. The genre-defying show has been performed in grand opera houses and, in 2014, in a south London pie-and-mash shop. That production transferred to the West End and then New York.

Sondheim recalled the initial reviews of Merrily We Roll Along, in 1981, as “sneering and hostile. He considered quitting but, “like a cold, it passed”. Four years later, Sunday in the Park with George brought him the Pulitzer prize for drama.

The 1987 fairytale mashup Into the Woods was one of many Sondheim musicals to be brought to the big screen. The 2014 film, adapted for the screen by James Lapine, who wrote the book for the original production, was directed by Rob Marshall and starred Meryl Streep as a witch and Anna Kendrick as Cinderella.

There were regular revivals of Sondheim’s shows and gala concerts and, in 2008, he won a Tony award for lifetime achievement. Imelda Staunton, who starred in productions including Gypsy and Follies, called Sondheim “the Shakespeare of the musical world”. She said: “His stories will live as long as Shakespeare’s because he speaks about people, about emotional difficulties, about the need we all have for love or recognition and to be noticed. A lot of musicals are about happy things – but his musicals are about the difficult things.”

On the news of his death, producer Cameron Mackintosh issued a statement: “The theatre has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers. Sadly, there is now a giant in the sky. But the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim will still be here as his legendary songs and shows will be performed for evermore. Goodbye old friend and thank you from all of us.”

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