Stephen Sondheim hailed among theatre’s ‘greatest geniuses’ after death aged 91

Stephen Sondheim (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Archive)
Stephen Sondheim (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Archive)

Stephen Sondheim has been hailed as one of theatre’s “greatest geniuses” after his death at the age of 91.

The creator of the musical Sweeney Todd died on Friday morning at his home in Connecticut, according to the New York Times

The newspaper said the American composer’s death was announced by his friend and lawyer, Richard Pappas, who described it as sudden.

Sondheim influenced several generations of theatre songwriters with his work, which included other musicals such as Company and Follies.

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

Six of Sondheim’s musicals won Tony Awards for best score and he received a Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park.

The composer also won an Academy Award for the song Sooner or Later from the film Dick Tracy, five Olivier Awards and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honour.

British theatrical producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh who named a venue after Sondheim in late 2019, said theatre had “lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers”.

Almost a decade earlier in 2010, when the Henry Miller Theatre was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, he said he was “thrilled, but deeply embarrassed”.

Sondheim added that he had “always hated my last name”, insisting: “It just doesn’t sing”.

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

Speaking of his determination to keep working, 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?”

Ahead of the release of the film adaptation of West Side Story, a musical for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics, he told the publication the big screen version – directed by Steven Spielberg – was “just great”, adding that there would be “surprises” for people who feel they know the musical.

Spielberg said Sondheim was a “gigantic figure in American culture – one of our country’s greatest songwriters, a lyricist and composer of real genius, and a creator of some of the most glorious musical dramas ever written”.

In the tribute, reported by ABC News, the director said the pair had become “good friends” in recent times and added Spielberg will “miss him very much, but he left a body of work that has taught us, and will keep teaching us, how hard and how absolutely necessary it is to love”.

Phantom Of The Opera creator Andrew Lloyd Webber was among others who paid tribute, describing Sondheim as a “musical theatre giant of our times, an inspiration not just to two but to three generations”.

He said Sondheim’s contribution to theatre “will never be equalled”.

Lyricist Sir Tim Rice described him as a “master musical man”, while Barbra Streisand whose The Broadway Album featured lyrics written by Sondheim, tweeted: “Thank the Lord that Sondheim lived to be 91 years old so he had the time to write such wonderful music and GREAT lyrics! May he Rest In Peace.”

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