By Alexa Dumas
How do you say a proper final farewell to a legend?
Stephen Sondheim, a monarch of Broadway composing and songwriting died Nov. 26 at the age of 91, in his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. After almost 60 years of quick, witty and catchy lyrics, Sondheim dominated musical theater with beautiful, memorable melodies. His intellectual and artistic approach to songwriting made him the most influential composer-lyricist of the latter half of the 20th century.
Born March 22, 1930 in New York City, Sondheim’s parents divorced when he was 12. He moved with his mother to Pennsylvania, where he became friends with the son of Oscar Hammerstein II, Broadway composer and lyricist of “The Sound of Music” and “Oklahoma.” Sondheim saw Hammerstein as his second father and musical mentor. In 1950, Sondheim graduated from Williams College and started his career in music.
In 1957, Sondheim wrote the lyrics to “West Side Story,” a contemporary adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” set in NYC. With songs composed by the great Leonard Bernstein, the success of songs like “Tonight,” “Somewhere” and “Maria” made Sonheim a professional lyricist on Broadway.
His early shows were popular in its time, but lesser known today. His second show following the success of “West Side Story” was writing lyrics for “Gypsy” in 1959. Based on the memoirs of burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, Ethel Merman starred as Rose, the show business mother of Gypsy. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” based on the comedies of ancient playwright Plautus, opened in 1962 and marked Sondheim’s shift to writing both music and lyrics.
Sonheim collaborated with Broadway directing giant, Harold Prince, for over a decade in the 1970s. The first production of the legendary partnership was “Company” in 1970, the non-linear, contemporary musical about commitment, love and marriage. “Follies” came in 1971, which paid homage to the Ziegfeld Follies of early Broadway. “A Little Night Music” was based on the 1955 film, “Smiles of a Summer Night.” The musical debuted in 1973 and included “Send in the Clowns,” which won a Grammy for Song of the Year in 1976.
The last success the pair saw was “Sweeny Todd” in 1979, which told the story of a murderous barber who slit the throats of his victims while giving them a quick shave. The Victorian melodrama earned Sondheim a Tony for Best Original Score in 1979 and a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album in 1980.
“Pacific Overtures” in 1976 and “Merrily We Roll Along” in 1981 marked flops in Sondheim’s career. However, the lyrics were still seen as witty and conversational, especially since “Pacific Overtures” was inspired by Japanese Kabuki theater and the story of “Merrily We Roll Along” was told backward.
Sondheim broke away from Prince in 1984 to collaborate with director James Lapine. 1984 saw “Sunday in the Park with George,” based on the painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by George Seurat. The musical expressed the life of the troubled artist through life and love. “Into the Woods” debuted in 1987, which joined together famous fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm to tell the story of growing up. In 2014, the musical was adapted by Disney into a film starring James Corden, Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick.
“Assassins” in 1990 and “Passion” 1994 marked the last musicals written by Sondheim. “Assassins” told the story of nine American presidential assassins and “Passion” was a melodrama based on the 1981 Italian film, “Passione d’Amore.”
In Sondheim’s long career, he earned a total of eight Tony awards, eight Grammy awards and one academy award. “Sunday in the Park with George” even earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985. Sondheim was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1993 and was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. The Henry Miller Theater on Broadway was even renamed to the Stephen Sondheim theater in 2010 on his 80 birthday.
The death of the theater giant shocked Broadway fans around the world. Members of the theater community paid tribute to the great composer Nov. 28 in Times Square. The event was called “Sunday for Sondheim” and members of every Broadway production, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Josh Groban and Sarah Bareilles, joined in to celebrate Sondheim’s career.
The large ensemble sang “Sunday,” the first act finale of “Sunday in the Park with George.” After the powerful crowd sang the beloved song, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Sondheim’s impact on the Broadway musical was crucial to the development of lyrical storytelling. Musicals like Miranda’s infamous “Hamilton” would not have occurred without Sondheim paving the way for songwriters. Now, it is up to the new generation of composers and lyricists to start a new legacy, just like Sondheim did six decades ago.
When asked about his legacy in a video interview by the New York Times in 2008, Sondheim stated, “I would just like the shows to be getting done. Whether on Broadway or in regional theaters, schools or communities, I would just like the stuff to be done. Just to be done and done and done and done.”
Sondheim’s songs touched the hearts of many. May his memory be a blessing and his shows live on.