Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim has died at 91


Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim in New York in 1976. Sondheim died on Friday at the age of 91.

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Stephen Sondheim, the Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning Broadway songwriter, has died today at the age of 91, multiple media outlets have confirmed.

Sondheim would have been the first to tell you he was a Broadway baby. As a teenager he learned to write theatrical songs from a master – Oscar Hammerstein, the author of Showboat and Oklahoma!, among others – and, at the age of twenty-seven, Sondheim had his first show, West Side Story, on Broadway.

Although he wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music only for West Side Story, it was the start of a remarkable career in which Sondheim – as a lyricist and composer – elevated what was, essentially, light and upbeat commercial entertainment into an art form.

Sondheim’s shows, with their intricately elaborated scores, reflected his restless curiosity for human nature – from the barber demanding murderous vengeance in Sweeney todd, to the painter in difficulty Georges Seurat in Sunday at the park with George. Sondheim examined contemporary marriage – and ambivalence – in Society, the culture shock between 19th-century Japan and the United States in Pacific openings, the dark side of fairy tales In the woods, and even presidential poll Assassins.

In a career spanning more than 60 years, Sondheim has received both critical and critical praise for his adventurous work. Frank Rich is a columnist for new York Magazine and former drama critic for The New York Times.

“Maybe no one more than Sondheim helped keep the form of what had once been the classic Broadway musical alive. He reinvented it,” says Rich. “He kept it fresh, interesting, finding new ways, you know, to fiddle with it for every show.”

Sondheim was notoriously thorough in his craft – and in fact published two great books featuring his lyrics and explaining his writing process. He told WHYY Fresh air in 2010 that before writing a music bar or finding a rhyme, he needed to consult the script of the show.

“I always write after the librettist has started writing a scene or two,” said Sondheim, “so I can guess and mimic the style the writer uses, both in terms of dialogue and approach. and getting to know the characters as he’s shaping them. “

And this specificity has made people like her work like Bernadette Peters. “He writes like he’s an actor, like he’s playing the part … If you have a black girl, there’s a reason – the black girl helps you express how you are feeling at that moment.”

“Send in the Clowns” is the only hit song ever written by Sondheim. it comes from his show A little night music, which was itself a modest success. The musical was originally produced by Hal Prince, one of Sondheim’s most frequent collaborators.

Laurence Maslon, who co-produced the PBS series Broadway, says their envelope reeling job was never really commercial.

“Not a single show that he wrote has exceeded a thousand performances,” observes Maslon. “And they play all over the world and they come up every five minutes, but they just don’t have that commercial traction, that even Hammerstein had back then.”

Indeed, from the 1980s, Sondheim exclusively developed his work in non-profit theaters, a period which also saw the beginning of his collaborations with James Lapine.

“My first non-profit show was Sunday at the park with George and it was because of Lapine, “Sondheim said Fresh air. “And, of course, it was such a pleasure, compared to doing it on Broadway. I mean, the lack of pressure, not having to worry about everything from the budget to the backers, and that was just right. fun to do. And that’s how theater should be done – just for the sake of it. “

Sunday at the park with George, written with James Lapine, eventually migrated to Broadway, where he won a Pulitzer Prize – but again, it wasn’t a commercial success. Like many other artists who are now considered masters, it took some time for Sondheim’s shows to emerge and for Sondheim to grow from a cult figure to a cultural icon. He said he was always very conscious of making an impact with his writing.

“I’m interested in theater because I’m interested in communicating with audiences,” Sondheim said. “Otherwise I would be in concert music. I would be in a different kind of profession. I love theater as much as music, and the very idea of ​​reaching an audience and making them laugh, make them cry – just making them feel – is paramount to me. “

And the feelings he aroused in the audience will continue well beyond his death.

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