Stephen Sondheim death: Musical theatre legend behind Sweeney Todd and Company dies aged 91

Sondheim was one of the 20th Century’s most important musical figures

Sam Moore,Elizabeth Aubrey,Roisin O'Connor
Friday 26 November 2021 22:19
Stephen Sondheim teases 'some real surprises' in new West Side Story movie
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Stephen Sondheim, musical theatre composer behind productions including Company, Sweeney Todd and Company, has died aged 91.

Regarded as one of the foremost artists of the 20th Century, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and composed Into the Woods. among many others.

Sondheim’s friend and lawyer F Richard Pappas announced his death, which he described as “sudden”.

According to Pappas, Sondheim had spent the previous day having a Thanksgiving dinner with friends in Roxbury, Connecticut.

Born in New York in 1930, Sondheim was tutored by the great composer Oscar Hammerstein and wrote his first musical at 15. He went on to have his first hit at just 27 with West Side Story which was a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in Fifties New York City.

In a Broadway career that lasted over 60 years, Sondheim co-created other classics of the stage such as Gypsy, Sweeney Todd and Company.

He is widely regarded as being key to raising the artistic standards of the musical, which was previously considered frivolous entertainment.

Across his lengthy career, Sondheim won nine Tony Awards, an Academy Award, eight Grammys and and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985.

Sondheim was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2015.

US President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to theater composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim at the White House in Washington, DC, on November 24, 2015

There have been many film adaptations of Sondheim’s work including the 1961 Oscar winning adaptation of West Side Story.

His ballad “Send in the Clowns” has been recorded hundreds of times, including by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins.

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The news of Sondheim’s death comes a month before Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story is released in cinemas.

Cameron Mackintosh, the British theatre producer behind Les Miserables and Mary Poppins paid tribute to Sondheim in a statement: “The theatre has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers.

“Sadly, there is now a giant in the sky. But the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim will still be here as his legendary songs and shows will be performed for evermore. Goodbye old friend and thank you from all of us.”

Other tributes came from theatre, film, music and TV stars the world over, including Barbra Streisand, Jake Gyllenhaal, Andrew Lloyd Webber Anna Kendrick and Lin Manuel-Miranda.

In an interview with the New York Times less than a week before his death, Sondheim had said of his health: “Outside of my sprained ankle, OK.”

Speaking of his determination to keep working for as long as possible, he told the paper: “What else am I going to do?” I’m too old now to do a lot of traveling, I’m sorry to say. What else would I do with my time but write?”

Sondheim’s cause of death has not yet been disclosed.

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