Stephen Sondheim, one of the most iconic figures in musical theatre history, has died in his home at the age of 91. Lawyer and friend F. Richard Pappas confirmed his passing to the New York Times on Friday, November 26. Sondheim was both a composer and lyricist for Broadway plays including Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, and also wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy.
Sondheim won many awards throughout his career, including nine Tonys, eight Grammys, an Oscar and a Pulitzer Prize. In 2015, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. For his 90th birthday in 2020, a virtual concert titled Take Me to the World streamed on the Broadway.com YouTube channel in his honor. The title song comes from Evening Primrose, a musical film Sondheim wrote the lyrics and music for in 1966.
As a composer and lyricist, Sondheim was in a league of his own. Most major composers don’t write the lyrics to their scores, and vice versa; others on the list include Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Jerry Herman and Noël Coward. While many of Sondheim’s plays have gone down in theatre history, they were often more successful critically than commercially. They had a reputation for being dark, serious and experimental, a sharp contrast to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Disney’s later crowd-pleasers.
Several of Sondheim’s plays have received Hollywood film adaptations, with the most recent one, a West Side Story remake helmed by Steven Spielberg, out this December. His 1970 musical Company is also returning to Broadway in December. It was set to open on Sondheim’s 90th birthday in March 2020, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before his passing, Sondheim was able to attend the November 15 preview.
Many actors and musicians have paid their respects on social media, sharing stories of how Sondheim’s work has inspired them. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who previously worked with Sondheim, compared him to William Shakespeare: