Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who helped American musical theater evolve beyond pure entertainment and reach new artistic heights with such works as “West Side Story,” “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd,” died early Friday at the age of 91, his publicist said.
The musical great died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, spokesperson Kathryn Zuckerman told Reuters by email, saying she had little additional information. The news was reported earlier by the New York Times.
Sondheim’s eight Tony Awards for his lyrics and music surpassed the total of any other composer. In 2008 he also won a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.
He started early, learning the art of musical theater when he was a teenager from his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, the legendary lyricist behind “The Sound of Music.”
“Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was in turn mentored by Sondheim, has called him musical theater’s greatest lyricist.
Sondheim’s most successful works included “Into the Woods,” which opened on Broadway in 1987 and used children’s fairy tales to untangle adult obsessions; the 1979 thriller “Sweeney Todd,” about a murderous barber in London whose victims are served as meat pies; and 1962’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” a vaudeville-style comedy set in ancient Rome.
He also wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s score for “West Side Story,” inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and collaborated with fellow composer Jule Styne as lyricist for “Gypsy,” loosely based on the memoirs of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee.
“I love the theater as much as music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh, making them cry – just making them feel – is paramount to me,” Sondheim said in a 2013 interview with National Public Radio.
Several of Sondheim’s hit musicals were turned into movies, including the 2014 film “Into the Woods,” starring Meryl Streep, and the 2007 “Sweeney Todd” with Johnny Depp. A new film version of “West Side Story,” directed by Stephen Spielberg from a screenplay by Tony Kushner, opens next month.
During a guest appearance in September on the CBS “Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Sondheim said he visited the set of Spielberg’s adaptation, and endorsed the film “as really first rate.”
Sondheim’s songs were celebrated for their sharp wit and insight into modern life and for giving voice to complex characters, but few of them made the pop charts.
He scored a hit, however, and one of three Grammys of his career, with “Send in the Clowns” from his 1973 musical “A Little Night Music.” It was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Judy Collins, among others. Sondheim also earned a best-song Academy Award in 1991 for “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man),” sung by Madonna in the “Dick Tracy” movie.
In 2015, President Barack Obama presented the lyricist the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony.
One of Sondheim’s greatest triumphs was the Pulitzer Prize he shared with composure James Lapine for the 1984 musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” about 19th-century French Neo-Impressionist artist Georges Seurat. The two also collaborated on “Into the Woods.”
Actress Bernadette Peters, who played the roles of Dot and Marie in “Sunday in the Park” and the witch of “Into the Woods,” expressed sadness at the loss of a friend, tweeting, Sondheim “gave me so much to sing about.”
Fellow actress Anna Kendrick, who starred as Cinderella in the film version of “Into the Woods,” called Sondheim’s death “a devastating loss.”
“Performing his work has been among the greatest privileges of my career,” she added on Twitter.
As Sondheim collected accolades, New York City’s Broadway theater industry underwent many changes. It had a key role in American culture through the 1950s, with many Broadway songs making the pop charts, but lost significance as rock music gained a hold on the public starting in the 1960s.
Increasingly, musicals borrowed material from television and movies, instead of the other way around, composer Mark N. Grant wrote in his book “The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical.”
Sondheim shared the view that Broadway had experienced decline, expressing it repeatedly in interviews.
“There are so many forms of entertainment, theater is becoming more marginalized,” he told British newspaper The Times in 2012.
But Broadway musicals also became more artistic, and Sondheim played a key role in their evolution, critics said. He explored such weighty topics as political violence in “Assassins,” the human need for family and the pull of dysfunctional relationships in “Into the Woods,” social inequality in “Sweeney Todd,” and Western imperialism in “Pacific Overtures.”
He developed new methods for presenting a play as well. Instead of telling a story from beginning to end, he would jump backward and forward in time to explore a single theme. It was called the “concept musical.”