Stephen Sondheim, beloved composer and West Side Story lyricist, dies aged 91

27 November 2021, 09:31 | Updated: 27 November 2021, 09:43

Legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim has died, aged 91
Legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim has died, aged 91. Picture: Alamy

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Composer and friend Lin-Manuel Miranda has led an outpouring of tributes for the music theatre ‘giant’.

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Stephen Sondheim, the renowned composer and lyricist credited with reinventing the American musical, has died aged 91.

His lawyer told the New York Times that Sondheim died suddenly on Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. The composer had not been ill, and had enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner with a few friends, the day before.

Sondheim is remembered as a ‘giant’ of music theatre, and one of the most influential arts figures of the last half of the 20th century.

His musicals, from Into the Woods to Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, surprised, delighted and challenged audiences, with their darker themes, more sophisticated writing and, in the case of Company, lack of a defined, linear plot.

Sondheim deeply believed in the power of music and the arts, once saying: “Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.”

Sondheim’s big break came through an invitation to write lyrics for West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s modern-day take on Romeo and Juliet, that opened on Broadway in 1957 and is soon to receive a second film adaptation, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Tributes have poured in for the music theatre great, who is poignantly nodded to in Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s recent directorial debut on Netflix, tick, tick… BOOM! featuring Sondheim as a character played by actor Bradley Whitford.

Miranda tweeted: “Future historians: Stephen Sondheim was real. Yes, he wrote Tony & Maria AND Sweeney Todd AND Bobby AND George & Dot AND Fosca AND countless more. Some may theorize Shakespeare’s works were by committee, but Steve was real & he was here & he laughed SO loud at shows & we loved him.”

Actor Josh Gad added: “Perhaps not since April 23rd of 1616 has theater lost such a revolutionary voice.”

Anna Kendrick, who starred in a film adaptation of Into the Woods, described Sondheim’s death as “a devastating loss”, adding: “Performing his work has been among the greatest privileges of my career.”

Author Don Winslow called Sondheim a “giant”, and Wicked star Idina Menzel wrote: “Goodbye dear sir. We will spend our lives trying to make you proud”.

Born on 22 March 1930 in New York, Sondheim saw his first Broadway musical aged nine, and a few years later, was already being mentored by legendary Oklahoma! lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.

During his lifetime he won eight Grammy awards, nine Tony awards, one Academy Award, and a Pulitzer Prize. In 2015, President Barack Obama gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest award for a civilian.

Former First Lady and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has said: “A peerless composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim stirred our souls, broadened our imaginations, and reminded us that no one is alone.”

Today, we remember his extraordinary musical legacy with this performance of ‘Send in the Clowns’ from his musical A Little Night Music, sung exquisitely by the leading choral ensemble, Voces8.

Rest in peace, Stephen Sondheim, and thank you for the music.