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Stephen Sondheim, towering figure of American musical theater, dies at 91

Mr. SondheimJerry Jackson/Courtesy of HBO

His job description was composer-lyricist, but that didn’t capture the scope of Stephen Sondheim’s artistry as he changed the face of American musical theater.

A 2011 headline about Mr. Sondheim on the cover of American Theatre magazine came closer: “The composer as playwright.”

A peerless musical dramatist who consistently challenged himself and audiences alike, Mr. Sondheim turned the Broadway stage into an arena for moral and psychological complexity in such works as “Sweeney Todd,” “Company,” “A Little Night Music,” and “Sunday in the Park with George,” which won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The question of how Mr. Sondheim did what he did remains, fundamentally, a mystery. That mystery goes by the name of genius. And there is no question that the world has lost a genius with the death of Mr. Sondheim early Friday at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 91.


The death was confirmed by The New York Times, which cited his lawyer, F. Richard Pappas, who said that the death was sudden and that Mr. Sondheim had celebrated Thanksgiving with a dinner with friends in Connecticut.

Mr. Sondheim said his paramount goal, however, was always clarity, “without which nothing else matters,” he wrote in his 2010 book “Finishing the Hat.”H LORREN AU JR/KRT

“Every lyricist and theater composer writing today is influenced by Sondheim,” Willie Reale, the lyricist of the musical “Johnny Baseball,” told the Globe in 2013. “He changed the game.”

A 1950 graduate of Williams College in Williamstown, Mr. Sondheim turned to Boston theaters at key points in his career. In 1970, “Company” had its pre-Broadway tryout at the Shubert Theater, launching what would prove to be the most consequential decade of Mr. Sondheim’s career. A year later another Sondheim masterwork, “Follies,” tried out at the Colonial Theatre. It was at the Colonial that audiences first heard “I’m Still Here,” a now-classic anthem of showbiz survival.

Like an actor determined to avoid being typecast, Mr. Sondheim ranged widely from show to show, both in terms of subject matter and musical idiom. Who else would write a musical about a vengeful barber whose victims are turned into meat pies (“Sweeney Todd”), or attempt to dissect the tangled psyches of presidential killers (“Assassins”), or build a show around the complex topic of Western imperialism in 19th-century Japan (“Pacific Overtures,” which had its tryout in 1975 at Boston’s Shubert Theater)? In Mr. Sondheim’s hands, even well-known fairy tales took on shadowy new depths (1987’s “Into the Woods”).


A devotee and deviser of crossword puzzles, Mr. Sondheim brought that sensibility to his composing: a Sondheim song somehow seemed to both construct and deconstruct the riddle of human behavior. As he chronicled character journeys in song, Mr. Sondheim’s scores were invariably characterized by subtlety and intricacy. His paramount goal, however, was always clarity, “without which nothing else matters,” he wrote in his 2010 book “Finishing the Hat.”

The book was a compendium of his lyrics interwoven with an explication of his songwriting technique; its title is derived from a song in “Sunday in the Park with George” that distills the all-consuming demands of creating art — and the personal price it can exact. Mr. Sondheim followed up the book with 2011’s “Look, I Made a Hat.” Taken in tandem, the books opened a remarkably illuminating window onto his creative process, adding to the insights Mr. Sondheim had delivered with eloquent precision in countless interviews and onstage conversations.

Mr. Sondheim (right) joined Thomas Z. Shepard at a recording session for "Sunday in the Park with George," which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1985.AP/Wire Photo/The Boston Globe

He often professed to find the lyric-writing part of that process a grind, saying he much preferred composing music, but his lyrics nonetheless glowed and burned like nobody else’s. Indeed, before he was 30, Mr. Sondheim had established himself as the premier Broadway wordsmith of his generation by penning the lyrics for two shows that rank among the greatest musicals of all time: “West Side Story” (1957) and “Gypsy” (1959). Then, with 1962’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” he began writing the music as well, which had been his ambition all along.


Before he was done, Mr. Sondheim earned eight Tony Awards, more than any other composer, as well as an Oscar (for a song he contributed to “Dick Tracy”), eight Grammy Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Yet after 1994’s “Passion,” new work from Mr. Sondheim was disappointingly scarce. In 2006, he attributed his failure to expand his oeuvre to advancing age, “a diminution of energy and the worry that there are no new ideas,” and “an increasing lack of confidence.”

Mr. Sondheim’s work has long found a receptive home in Boston. In September 2017, the Huntington Theatre Company staged his “Merrily We Roll Along” to critical acclaim. It was part of a multiyear project launched by former artistic director Peter DuBois, a Sondheim devotee, that aimed to stage all of the musicals for which Mr. Sondheim wrote both the music and the lyrics. Explaining that commitment in 2015, DuBois told the Globe he considered Mr. Sondheim a “singular genius.”


At Lyric Stage Company of Boston, where producing artistic director Spiro Veloudos forged a reputation as an astute interpreter of his work, Mr. Sondheim’s “Gypsy” launched the 2017/2018 season, and his “Road Show” was produced in January 2018. “I find all of his work really, really compelling,” Veloudos told the Globe in 2015. He added: “When you go back to it, it’s like an onion. There’s something else; there’s another layer to it.”

Though he is revered by many in the theater, Mr. Sondheim seldom enjoyed the kind of blockbuster success that routinely smiled upon such composers as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jerry Herman. Indeed, most of his shows lost money. “People have never been neutral about the work of Stephen Sondheim,” New York Times drama critic Frank Rich observed in 1987. “He leaves some theatergoers elated and others enraged. At the theaters where his musicals are playing, the heat and tension of battle seem to charge the air.”

Heat and tension certainly abounded at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater in 2011 after a scathing letter from Mr. Sondheim was published in The New York Times, blasting the ART’s revamped version of “Porgy and Bess,” which was then a week away from its first performance at the Loeb Drama Center. Mr. Sondheim accused director Diane Paulus of “willful ignorance” and “condescension toward the audience.” The production, titled “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” went on to Broadway, where it won a Tony Award for best revival of a musical and earned Audra McDonald a best-actress Tony for her portrayal of Bess.


Mr. Sondheim posed for a portrait in 1976./Handout/The Boston Globe

If he could be severe with others, Mr. Sondheim was no less exacting when it came to his own work. He seemed resigned to the fact that his shows would seldom be universally beloved. “I write generally experimental, unexpected work,” he once said. “My kind of work is caviar to the general. It’s not that it’s too good for people; it’s just that it’s too unexpected to sustain itself very firmly in the commercial theater.”

Though he did not marry until late in life, Mr. Sondheim composed the piercingly insightful “Sorry/Grateful,” from “Company,” in which husbands describe their conflicting feelings about their wives and about marriage. According to The New York Times, Mr. Sondheim married Jeffrey Romley in 2017. Romley survives him, along with a half brother, Walter Sondheim, according to the Times. Though he had no children, he captured the daunting responsibilities and fears of parenthood in “Children Will Listen,” from “Into the Woods.”

And though he came across as a fundamentally solitary man — even in group photos, he always seems to be standing apart or lost in some interior space — Mr. Sondheim nonetheless treasured both the act of collaboration and his many collaborators. Over six decades, they included Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, James Lapine, Hugh Wheeler, George Furth, Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, and John Weidman, as well as Jonathan Tunick, Sondheim’s indispensable orchestrator, and Paul Gemignani, the music director on many of his shows.

But it was his collaboration with Hal Prince, a director-producer of titanic energy and personality, that helped to transform musical theater. Mr. Sondheim and Prince teamed up for an astonishing series of musicals through the 1970s and early 1980s. Wrote Time magazine critic T.E. Kalem: “The frontier of the American musical theater is wherever Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim are.”

However, success did not come easily to Mr. Sondheim after his initial splash with “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.” His first show after “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” — 1964’s “Anyone Can Whistle” — was a colossal flop. Mr. Sondheim went back to just lyric-writing for 1965’s “Do I Hear a Waltz?” with music by Richard Rodgers, but he did not enjoy the experience. Even his long winning streak in the ’70s and ’80s was marred by the abysmal box-office failure of 1981’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” which unspooled in reverse chronology as it traced the charged relationship among a composer, a lyricist, and a writer. But it was not in Mr. Sondheim’s nature to compromise in search of popularity.

Mr. Sondheim embraced Angela Lansbury backstage at the Uris Theatre after her opening night performance of his new Broadway musical "Sweeney Todd," in New York in 1979.UPI/Wire Photo/The Boston Globe

His artistic and personal outlook was that of an urbane, rigorously clear-eyed skeptic. In his work, Mr. Sondheim was a bard of ambivalence. Yet when his romanticism burst free, he could stop your breath with passages of stunning emotional directness. In “Losing My Mind,” from “Follies,” middle-aged Sally mourns the decades of separation from Ben, the man she loved and lost: “The sun comes up/I think about you/The coffee cup/I think about you …” In the same show, Mr. Sondheim demonstrates his ability to turn somersaults in rhyme with “Ah, But Underneath,” a wryly confessional song that Phyllis, a disillusioned socialite, sings about herself in the third-person: “In the depths of her interior/Were fears she was inferior/And something even eerier/But no one dared to query her superior exterior.”

You could often tell that you were listening to a Sondheim song, even if it was new to you, because of its sheer intellectual excitement, its depth of feeling, the way it captured the human condition in a single blinding phrase. The question of who was the greatest composer in Broadway’s history is open to argument, but there can be no serious debate about the greatest lyricist: It was Stephen Sondheim.

By comparison with the scope, color, insight, and dramatic force of his songs, the scripts for his musicals often felt like wan, pale afterthoughts. Mr. Sondheim’s subject matter ranged far and wide, invariably deep and frequently dark.

Questions of social injustice course through “Sweeney Todd.” For the protagonist of “Sunday in the Park with George,” the demands of art win out over the obligations of love, while for the protagonist of “Passion,” love is a near-obliterative force. In the creepily fascinating “Assassins,” he got inside the minds of presidential assassins and turned the American Dream on its head. In “Company,” a bachelor struggles with commitment issues while observing the wobbly marriages of friends that illustrate just how hard commitment is, while in “Follies,” nostalgia is exposed as a kind of treacherous quicksand when onetime showgirls revisit their glory days at a reunion in their old theater just as it’s about to face the wrecking ball.

Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born in 1930 in New York to Herbert and Janet Sondheim. His father was a dress manufacturer, and his mother, nicknamed Foxy, was a dress designer. They divorced when Stephen was 10, and the son’s relationship with his mother was fraught, often toxic.

In the 1970s, on the night before she underwent surgery to have a pacemaker installed, Janet Sondheim sent her son a hand-delivered letter in which she wrote: “The only regret I have in life is giving you birth.” That letter opened a rift that never healed.

Despite his turbulent upbringing, he got a huge break when he was 11 and met the legendary lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. “He became a surrogate father to me for the next five years, and it was because of my teenage admiration for him that I became a songwriter,” Mr. Sondheim wrote in “Finishing the Hat.” It was Hammerstein, Mr. Sondheim once said, who “taught me how to construct a song like a one-act play.”

As if in repayment of his debt to Hammerstein, Mr. Sondheim would often serve as a mentor himself to younger composers and writers. When it came to performers, being cast in a Sondheim musical was often the most meaningful theater experience of their lives. That was the case for plenty of audience members, too.

“I don’t know who I’d be without him,” the singer and actor Mandy Patinkin, who starred in “Sunday in the Park with George,” told the Globe in 2014.

“I don’t say this lightly: I truly believe he’s the Shakespeare of our time.”

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.