Stephen Sondheim Dead at 91

Master behind 'Sweeney Todd,' 'West Side Story' had just celebrated Thanksgiving with friends
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 27, 2021 6:00 AM CST
Stephen Sondheim Dead at 91
Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is seen after being awarded the Freedom of the City of London honor at the Guildhall in London on Sept. 27, 2018.   (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

CNN calls him a creator "perhaps without par" in American musical theater. The New York Times praises him as "one of Broadway history's songwriting titans." Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the musical force behind Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, and Into the Woods, attended a Thanksgiving dinner with friends on Thursday and wasn't known to be ill, but early Friday, he died suddenly at his home in Roxbury, Conn., at the age of 91, his lawyer and friend F. Richard Pappas tells the Times. The tributes are now pouring out for Sondheim, one of the few major theater composers who also wrote his own lyrics, joining the likes of Irving Berlin, Noel Coward, and Cole Porter.

Sondheim's first big hit was 1957's musical West Side Story, for which he wrote the lyrics to accompany Leonard Bernstein's music. He next worked with composer Jule Styne on the 1959 production of Gypsy, followed by 1962's comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first Broadway musical that Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics for. In the '70s, Sondheim teamed up with producer-director Hal Prince on Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd. In the '80s came his music and lyrics for Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George, and Into the Woods.

Sondheim was showered not only with critical praise, but also with a slew of high-profile awards: CNN notes that over his career he took home a Pulitzer, an Oscar (for a song he wrote for 1990's Dick Tracy film), eight Grammys, eight Tonys, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed on him in 2015 by President Barack Obama. "What's funny about Steve's songs is you think, 'Oh, this is about something,' and then you start working on it, and you go, 'No, it's about something," actress Bernadette Peters told ABC News in 2010. "It goes even deeper than you imagined." Reaction to Sondheim's death is now coming from all corners.

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"Thank the Lord that Sondheim lived to be 91 years old so he had the time to write such wonderful music and GREAT lyrics!" Barbra Streisand wrote on Twitter. "I am so so sad to lose my friend Steve Sondheim," Peters posted. "He gave me so much to sing about. ... Thank you for all the gifts you gave the world Steve." Both Variety and NPR offer up some of Sondheim's most memorable songs, including "Somewhere" from West Side Story, "No One Is Alone" from Into the Woods, and "Send In the Clowns" from A Little Night Music. Much more on the life and career of Sondheim here, including his relationship with "surrogate father" Oscar Hammerstein II, who spurred Sondheim to become a songwriter. (More Stephen Sondheim stories.)

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