Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim dead at 91

Born into a Jewish family, Sondheim wrote songs for many notable musicals such as Sweeney Todd and West Side Story.

 Stephen Sondheim poses as he arrives at a special screening at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Stephen Sondheim poses as he arrives at a special screening at Paramount Studios in Hollywood.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Stephen Sondheim, one of musical theater's most famous composer-lyricists, died on Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.

Sondheim, born in New York City in 1930 into a Jewish family, has written and composed for some of the most notable musicals throughout the 20th century, including West Side Story, Assassins, A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, Company, Sweeney Todd, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Gypsy

For all his work, which spans over six decades, Sondheim's achievements include nine Tony awards (more than any other composer), eight Grammys, an Oscar, a Laurence Olivier Award and a Pulitzer Prize. In 2015, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Barack Obama.

Many of the musicals he composed went on to have feature film adaptations, with a new cinematic adaptation of West Side Story directed by Jewish filmmaker Steven Spielberg coming in December. The first cinematic adaptation of the musical came out in 1961, winning many Academy Awards.

Sondheim's death was announced by F. Richard Pappas, his lawyer and friend, who described the Broadway songwriter's passing as "sudden," according to the New York Times. He also stated that the day before, he was having Thanksgiving dinner with his friends.

 US President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. (credit: REUTERS) US President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. (credit: REUTERS)

Sondheim started his musical journey when he took piano lessons as a kid. His artistic career only began when he first met fellow theater lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, and would often ask him for feedback on music he wrote for school, Vanity Fair reported. He then went on to collaborate with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story at 27 years old, which is based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and is about a romance between a Puerto Rican woman, Maria, and a white man, Tony.

After Sondheim became famous, he mentored others on Broadway. While actor, composer and rapper Lin-Manuel Miranda was writing the musical Hamilton, Sondheim encouraged and critiqued him. Miranda, who also wrote the songs for the hit Broadway show In the Heights, called Sondheim "theater's greatest lyricist" in a 2017 New York Times article.

Just before Sondheim's passing, actor Bradley Whitford played the legendary Broadway composer in Miranda's film directorial debut Tick, Tick... Boom!, which was recently released on Netflix and is an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name by Jonathan Larson. The musical is based on Larson's personal life as another musical theater songwriter who was inspired by Sondheim. Larson, like Sondheim, was born into a Jewish family.

As a child, Sondheim's parents divorced when he was only ten. He himself didn't enter a romantic partnership himself until the age of 60. 

Upon his death, which was compared to that of Shakespeare, many people praised the legendary composer on social media and the work he contributed to the musical theater scene. 

Actress Anna Kendrick described singing Sondheim's songs as being "among the greatest privileges of [her] career." Musical theater star Lea Salonga wrote on Twitter that "we shall be singing your songs forever." Bernadette Peters thanked him for "all the gifts you gave the world."

Actor Hugh Jackman also wrote, "As millions mourn his passing I also want to express my gratitude for all he has given to me and so many more." Star Wars actor Mark Hamill wrote "I find it difficult to express how profound the loss of musical genius Stephen Sondheim is to the world. All we can be is grateful for what he gave us."

Fellow Broadway composer Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote that Sondheim's "contribution to theatre will never be equalled." Jewish actor, comedian and writer Mel Brooks, creator of the musicals The Producers and Young Frankenstein, tweeted that "he was an incredible gift to the Broadway stage."

Composer Alan Menken, who wrote the songs for the Disney films The Little MermaidBeauty and the BeastAladdin, PocahontasThe Huntchback of Notre DameHercules and Tangled, tweeted: "he will always be with us in his brilliant and peerless music and lyrics; a legacy for the ages."

Sondheim was consistently praised for his work, with The Guardian describing him as "raising the status of the musical."

Jewish actress and singer Barbra Streisand tweeted on Saturday, "Thank the Lord that Sondheim lived to be 91 years old so he had the time to write such wonderful music and GREAT lyrics!

Streisand's rendition of Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" was one of the most popular versions of all of his songs.

Musician Paul McCartney wrote, "Very sad to hear of the passing of the great Stephen Sondheim. I was fortunate to meet him and chat about songwriting. 'Send in the Clowns' is one of my favourite songs."

Anyone who wishes to learn more about Sondheim can also watch Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, a documentary on Netflix that takes a look at the original production of his 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along.

Sondheim, who came out as gay at around age 40, is survived by his husband, Jeffrey Romley, whom he married in 2017.

Hannah Brown and Reuters contributed to this report.