Vaguely anointed with the “anointed one” of theater’s hallowed honor, Stephen Sondheim — the composer of such musicals as West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, Follies and Assassins — passed away on Wednesday at his home in Maine. He was 91.
Sondheim died after a prolonged illness. His death was announced by a spokesperson for the Actors’ Equity Association, the union whose members are known for stepping into the roles Sondheim wrote, a performance tradition that included Judy Kaye in Sweeney Todd.
The composer’s contributions to musical theater spanned a span of eight decades. An Englishman who had studied the works of Igor Stravinsky at the Sorbonne in Paris and the Juilliard School in New York, he was adapting Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice for the stage in 1963 when he was spotted by a talent scout who believed he had the necessary “genius and intelligence” to become the next Broadway big thing.
In 1964, he released an album of music he composed in his studio, which reportedly sold 400,000 copies in just the first eight weeks. He joined the New York musical group Gershwin (with George and Ira Gershwin’s younger sister, Rose), which soon after produced his first produced musical, Young Man With a Horn.
Plans for Young Man With a Horn were finalized in 1969, but not before the composer and producer had another concert with musicians. The show debuted on Broadway in 1971, but was stopped in its tracks when the composer won a staggering 12 Tony Awards for his ambitious new musical, Into the Woods, a collaboration with the composer Stephen Flaherty, who had composed The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A sequel, Anastasia, would follow in 2006.
After the success of Into the Woods, Sondheim returned to work on the classic Sondheim and Ms. Porter musical, Sunday in the Park With George, which became his fifth Tony Award-winning musical. He became a Tony-winning director of the stage in 1972 and again in 1991, with Pacific Overtures.
In 1992, Sondheim got his first attempt at a successful Broadway musical with Sunday in the Park With George, but the composer’s dreams of a Broadway smash like his 1962 masterpiece Sunday in the Park With George did not come true.
Then in 1994, at 65, Sondheim wrote the Broadway musical Assassins, his first show without Flaherty since the two teamed up on Sunday in the Park With George. Despite a modest opening night, an extended run allowed the play to solidify its place in the annals of American musical theater.
Last year, Sondheim was awarded the lifetime achievement Tony Award.
“He is what comes to mind first in the act of creation.” said fellow composer and playwright George Furth. “He is what comes to mind first in the act of not doing it. He is what comes to mind before the chance to go to rehearsal.”
“Yes, he has truly done everything imaginable,” wrote John Weidman, a music critic who also wrote for The New York Times. “Yes, he has truly written the soundtrack to my life in so many songs.”
Sondheim is survived by his daughter, Ainsley Sondheim, and his wife, lyricist Meredith Willson.