Home Rock music Stephen Sondheim, award-winning songwriter-lyricist, has passed away

Stephen Sondheim, award-winning songwriter-lyricist, has passed away

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Stephen Sondheim, the award-winning songwriter who brought the Broadway musical to a higher level of emotional complexity than its predecessors on shows such as “Company”, “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd”, has died at his home from Roxbury, Connecticut

Sondheim, who was briefly incapacitated in early 2020 when he tore a ligament in a fall at his Connecticut home, has died suddenly, Texas attorney Rick Pappas, told the New York Times. He was 91 years old.

In a Broadway career launched in 1957 at the age of 27 as the lyricist of the classic “West Side Story”, Sondheim went on to write the lyrics for the 1959 hit “Gypsy” before writing both the lyrics and music from the 1962 hit “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical.

But it was as the songwriter of what former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich described in 2000 as “a new genre of jarring adult musical” that Sondheim became “the artist. greatest and perhaps the best known of the American musical. theater.”

It all started with “Company,” a 1970 concept musical about an engagement-averse New York bachelor named Bobby opening up with his friends – five couples – while waiting for him to show up at his surprise party. 35th anniversary. The non-linear show unfolds through a series of vignettes that explore marriage and modern relationships as Bobby visits the various couples.

The long-running show, with a book by George Furth, kicked off Sondheim’s longtime collaboration with director Harold Prince and won six Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical.

“Sondheim changed musical theater,” the late Gary Gardner, former chair of the Ray Bolger program in musical theater at UCLA, told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “After the great musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, we have had a period of decrease in creativity. Then we came across rock music. [with ‘Hair’], and it’s like, ‘Oh, no.’ Suddenly with “Company” we have a new savior. “

As an aspiring teenage songwriter in the 1940s, Sondheim had been mentored by close family friend Oscar Hammerstein II, the famous lyricist and librettist for “Oklahoma!” “,” South Pacific “and other popular musicals.

But as San Francisco Chronicle theater critic Steven Winn wrote in 2000, Sondheim transformed the craft “with its own linguistic powers and thematic range, tackling subjects – from emotional ambivalence to cultural relativism and presidential assassinations – of which his mentor had not dreamed “.

Gardner observed: “With Hammerstein, you felt great when you left the theater. But with Sondheim, you realized the angst of living at the end of the 20th century.

Sondheim and Prince continued to collaborate on “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Merrily We Roll Along,” which closed after just 16 performances but became a neglected product. triumph.

In the early 1970s, Sondheim won the Tonys Award for Music and Lyrics three years in a row for “Company”, “Follies” and “A Little Night Music”. He also won Tonys for his music and lyrics for “Sweeney Todd” in 1979, “Into the Woods” in 1988 and “Passion” in 1994.

In 1985, the musical “Sunday in the Park With George” by Sondheim and librettist James Lapine received a Pulitzer Prize for theater.

Playwright-director James Lapine, left, with Stephen Sondheim. In 1985, the musical “Sunday in the Park With George” by Sondheim and Lapine received a Pulitzer Prize for theater.

(John Keating / Newsday)

Sondheim’s best-known song – the haunting “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music” – won a Grammy as Song of the Year in 1975, performed by Judy Collins.

Sondheim also won an Oscar for her song “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)”, performed by Madonna in Warren Beatty’s 1990 movie “Dick Tracy”.

“Singing a Sondheim song is a singer’s award,” Barbra Streisand said on stage during a Sondheim 75th birthday tribute at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005.

“It is a gift, often difficult and complex but always dazzling – dazzling with her intelligence, her wit, her poetry and her passion,” she said. “His music is constantly fascinating, his lyrics are like scenes that call the singer to be an actor, the actor to be a singer.”

A 1993 recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, Sondheim received a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theater in 2008. Sondheim took advantage of a 2019 moment when his songs were interwoven into the scripts for “Marriage Story” , “Joker” and “Knives Out,” and filmmaker Richard Linklater has announced that he will be shooting an adaptation of “Merrily We Roll Along”.

There is currently a “Company” revival on Broadway, and Steven Spielberg’s new version of “West Side Story” hits theaters on December 10th. Both projects had been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A woman in a white dress looking over her shoulder

Rachel Zegler as Maria in a scene from Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “West Side Story”.

(20th century studios / AP)

An only child, Sondheim was born in New York City on March 22, 1930. His father was a successful dressmaker and his mother the chief designer. Sondheim spent his early years living in the iconic Sanremo apartment building on Central Park West.

The precocious Sondheim, as his mother later told Newsweek magazine, began “picking tunes on the piano” at age 4 and could read The New York Times at age 5.

When Sondheim was 10, his father left his mother for a younger woman, and Sondheim’s mother transferred him from a private school to the New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson.

Sondheim is said to have despised his mother, who obtained custody of him during the divorce and forbade him to have contact with his father.

After the departure of his father, Sondheim says in the biography of Meryle Secrest in 1998 “Stephen Sondheim: A Life”, his mother “substituted me for him. And she used me like she used to, to pick on me and scold me, beat me up. What she’s been doing for five years is treating me like shit, but picking on me at the same time.

In the 1970s, when her mother was about to receive a pacemaker, she wrote him a letter saying, “The only regret I have in life is that I gave birth to you. Although Sondheim continued to support his mother financially, he responded to tell her that he no longer wanted to see her and that he did not attend her funeral when she died in 1992.

Young Sondheim found emotional refuge with Oscar and Dorothy Hammerstein, who had become friends of his mother. After meeting the Hammersteins’ 10-year-old son, Jamie, in 1941, Sondheim spent the summer on their farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Although his mother quickly bought a farm nearby, Sondheim has remained a staple of House Hammerstein.

“Oscar was everything to me,” Sondheim told Newsweek in 1973. “He was a surrogate dad and I wanted to be exactly like him. In a way, I still do.

In 1946, while attending George School, a college preparatory school in Newtown, Pa., Sondheim wrote the music and collaborated on the lyrics for a hit campus musical about life at the school called “By George”.

“I thought it was great, so I asked [Hammerstein] to read it like he’s a producer and doesn’t know me, ”Sondheim told Newsweek. “The next day he called me and said, ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever read in my life, and if you want to know why, I’ll tell you.’

“That afternoon I learned what songwriting is all about – how to structure a song like a one-act play, how essential simplicity is, how much every word matters and, most importantly, the importance of content, of saying what you, not other songwriters, feel.

Hammerstein also developed a multi-year personal study program for Sondheim, consisting of writing the book, music, and lyrics for four musicals that culminated in the writing of an original show.

Sondheim, who served as gofer during summer rehearsals for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “Allegro” in 1947, graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., With a bachelor’s degree in music in 1950. He also graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. received the Hutchinson Prize, the school’s best prize. honor in music, which enabled him to spend two years studying composition and theory with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt.

In 1953, Sondheim landed his first professional job, via his Hammerstein connection: writing scripts for the television sitcom “Topper” in Hollywood for five months.

Later he was hired to write the lyrics and music for a musical called “Saturday Night”. But his hopes of making his Broadway debut with the show were dashed when the project ended with the death of its producer in 1955.

But at a party later that same year, Sondheim met playwright Arthur Laurents, who was working with composer Leonard Bernstein on the idea of ​​making a modern musical based on “Romeo and Juliet”.

Sondheim, whose various credits include co-writing the screenplay for the 1973 mystery film “The Last of Sheila” with actor-friend Anthony Perkins, has been described as extremely private, emotionally reserved, irritable, sardonic, complex and obsessively self-critical.

“Steve is a perfectionist,” said Bernstein, who wrote the music for “West Side Story”. “He’s extremely critical, very sour. … Some people are terrified of his opinion. But he is the hardest on himself.

In an interview with Time magazine in 1987, Sondheim said that despite various infatuations he had “never” been in love and had always lived alone. He lived alone until the age of 61, when he met Peter Jones, a young songwriter, according to the New York Times. The two eventually went their own way but remained friends.

Sondheim said he hadn’t been bothered by his years of living alone.

“God knows I’ve spent enough hours on the psychiatrist’s couch discussing this, but that’s part of what you’re used to as a kid. I grew up entirely, as a friend said, as an “institutionalized child” in the sense that I was brought up either by a cook, a nanny, a boarding school or a camp.

According to him, he never really had parents, “so I never had any role models of what it was like to have a sense of family. I was not unhappy; at least I didn’t mean it, so I didn’t miss it.

Something he only realized in his adult life, Sondheim said, “is that one of the reasons I love writing musicals is that musicals are collaborations. the feeling of family.

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