As lyricist, songwriter, conceptual artist and creative force, Sondheim was perhaps without par in the modern American theater. His works encompassed astonishing range: the updated “Romeo and Juliet” romance of “West Side Story” (for which he wrote the lyrics), the travails of a modern group of friends and lovers in “Company,” even the woes of presidential murderers (and attempted murderers) in “Assassins.”
His song lyrics, in particular, were the gold standard of the theater art, whether defiant (“Rose’s Turn”), sad (“Send in the Clowns”), ominous (“Children Will Listen”) or simply clever (“Ah, but Underneath”).
They were sometimes tricky — filled with clever rhymes and challenging meters, perhaps natural for a man who once described himself as “a mathematician by nature.” But they rarely failed to get to the heart of a character.
Sondheim was particularly good at expressing romantic longing and loss. Songs such as “Send in the Clowns” (from “A Little Night Music”), “Losing My Mind” (from “Follies”) and “Somewhere” (from “West Side Story”) are heartbreaking in their emotion.
Indeed, though his work was sometimes criticized as glib, Sondheim said the joy of the theater was touching audiences.
Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born March 22, 1930, in New York, the son of a well-off dress manufacturer and his wife, a designer. His parents divorced when Sondheim was an adolescent, and he moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia.
Thanks to the tutelage of a friend’s father — lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II of the famed theatrical team Rodgers and Hammerstein — Sondheim, already a musical prodigy, received a master class in play writing.
“He taught me how to structure a song, what a character was, what a scene was; he taught me how to tell a story, how not to tell a story, how to make stage directions practical,” Sondheim told the Paris Review in 1997. “I soaked it all up, and I still practice the principles he taught me that afternoon.”
Sondheim attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where he won a fellowship for his music that allowed him to continue study. After a short stint in Los Angeles — where he wrote scripts for the TV show “Topper,” thanks to a lead from Hammerstein — he returned to New York and embarked on a career in the theater.
His first success, at age 27, was as lyricist to “West Side Story,” with music by Leonard Bernstein. The musical’s famous songs include “America,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere.” Though Sondheim later called the lyrics “embarrassing,” the show was a massive hit, running for almost 1,000 performances.
Next came 1959’s “Gypsy,” the story of Gypsy Rose Lee and her mother, Rose, for which Sondheim worked with composer Jule Styne, and 1962’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics.
A long dry spell followed, finally snapped in 1970 with “Company,” which ran for more than a year and took home a Tony for best musical. It also marked the beginning of Sondheim’s 11-year collaboration with producer-director Hal Prince, which included such hits as “Follies” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973) and “Sweeney Todd” (1979).
“A Little Night Music” produced what is perhaps Sondheim’s best-known song, “Send in the Clowns.”
A bold body of work
As Sondheim matured, no idea seemed too far-fetched for his pen and intellect.
“Company” and “Follies” were notable for their almost plotless presentations; “Pacific Overtures” (1976), about the 19th-century American entry into Japan, was performed kabuki-style. “Sweeney Todd” was a romp about a murderous barber who has his victims made into meat pies.
In the ’80s and ’90s, he wrote a musical about French pointillist painter Georges Seurat, “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. “Into the Woods” (1987), probably his most-performed work, was a recasting of Grimm’s fairy tales. “Assassins” (1990) was an unlikely tale about presidential assassins past and present.
His last new work was 2008’s “Road Show,” about a pair of social-climbing brothers. It never made it to Broadway.
Though his early works, such as “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” were made into movies, his post-1970 work generally resisted the transition.
PBS and Showtime filmed “Sunday in the Park” for television, a version later released with Sondheim’s commentary. “Sweeney Todd” was made into a 2007 Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp, and “Into the Woods,” with a cast including Meryl Streep and future late-night host James Corden, was filmed in 2014.
A new adaptation of “West Side Story” is due out next month from director Steven Spielberg.
Sondheim earned his Oscar for a song he wrote for 1990’s “Dick Tracy,” “Sooner or Later.” A New Yorker to his core, he didn’t attend the ceremony.
The theater, however, was another matter. A 2010 review for his 80th birthday, “Sondheim on Sondheim,” earned rapturous reviews and a reconsideration of his long career. The composer, a reticent man when not waxing rhapsodically about his Clement Wood rhyming dictionary or praising his collaborators, was typically modest about the reaction.
“It’s been a little too much in the public spotlight,” he told “Fresh Air’s” Terry Gross. “But the outpouring of enthusiasm and affection has been worth it. It’s terrific to know that people like your stuff.”
Some of the many people who’ve performed Sondheim’s work or been moved by it flooded social media with tributes following news of his death.