Out songwriter and composer Stephen Sondheim died Friday at the age of 91. Sondheim’s work reshaped American musical theater and has influenced generations of songwriters.
His death was announced by his lawyer and friend, Richard Pappas, according to The New York Times. Pappas said Sondheim wasn’t known to be ill, and his death was sudden. The Broadway legend had spent Thanksgiving with some friends, Pappas said.
Sondheim’s success stretched from the 1950s, writing lyrics for West Side Story, to the 1990s, writing for such musicals as Assassins and Passion. The first Broadway show that he wrote the music and lyrics for was the 1962 comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It won a Tony Award for best musical.
The Times noted that the 1970s and 1980s were his “most productive” years. His works in those decades included Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods, and Sunday in the Park With George.
“If you think of a theater lyric as a short story, as I do, then every line has the weight of a paragraph,” he wrote in his 2010 book Finishing the Hat, which was the first volume of his collection of lyrics and comments.
Sondheim majored in music at Williams College in Massachusetts, going on to study with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt after graduation, reports the Associated Press.
According to a 2013 HBO documentary, Six by Sondheim, he liked to write his music lying down and would occasionally have a cocktail to help him write. He also revealed in the documentary, directed by frequent collaborator James Lapine, that he only fell in love after he turned 60. Most recently, he had been in a relationship for several years with Jeff Romley.
In April of 2020, at the height of lockdowns, musical theater luminaries came together in a virtual event to celebrate Sondheim’s momentous birthday with Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration. The event was hosted by Raúl Esparza and included performances from Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone, Ben Platt, Jake Gyllenhaal, Beanie Feldstein, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, and Katrina Lenk, among so many others. The comedic showstopper of the evening arrived courtesy of Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald, and Meryl Streep, who delivered a boozy “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
During a 2010 event renaming the Henry Miller Theatre on Broadway as the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, Sondheim said, “I’m deeply embarrassed. I’m thrilled, but deeply embarrassed,” according to the AP. “I’ve always hated my last name. It just doesn’t sing.”