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Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim dies at 91

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim at the premiere

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim at the premiere of the 2013 HBO documentary "Six by Sondheim." Credit: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/Evan Agostini

Stephen Sondheim, whose literate, exhilarating, grown-up musicals changed the course of musical theater for almost six decades, died Friday. The death of Sondheim, who was 91, was announced by his lawyer and friend, F. Richard Pappas, who said that Sondheim died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.

Considered by many the most significant musical force since the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim arrived on the scene toward the end of the American musical's so-called Golden Age. Although he always preferred to write both music and lyrics, he made his initial Broadway impact as the young lyricist for two breakthrough shows, "West Side Story" (1957) and "Gypsy" (1959).

Sondheim's passing is especially timely: On Dec. 9, a revival of his 1970 musical "Company" starring Northport native Patti LuPone opens on Broadway, and the following day, Steven Spielberg's movie remake of "West Side Story" arrives in theaters.

During his career, Sondheim won eight competitive Tony Awards, the most given to any composer; a lifetime achievement Tony in 2008 and the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for his masterwork, "Sunday in the Park With George," a ravishing work built around the isolated life and creative passions of pointillist painter George Seurat.

For much of his career, Sondheim never had what he called "a smash," except for the early and atypical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." His shows seldom toured. His songs have internal rhymes and uneven phrase lengths and they don’t split off into jingles. His only jukebox hit has been "Send in the Clowns," from "A Little Night Music" (1973).

Even so, he influenced an entire generation of young artists, pushing the stop-action-and-sing traditions of the American musical toward more cohesive conceptual forms.

For his 90th birthday last year, which had to be celebrated in a virtual concert due to the coronavirus pandemic, performers including Josh Groban, Lin-Manuel Miranda and LuPone sang his praises.

For most of his astonishing career, Sondheim was marginalized as a troublemaker, an acquired taste who didn’t write hummable hits or drop chandeliers. Until the successful revivals in recent years, Sondheim was accustomed to being praised for his dazzling lyrics and vision, but dismissed for what some heard as unmelodic music and emotional chill. "Depressive pretty," is how his music was described by Jule Styne, composer of "Gypsy." Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the music for "West Side Story," expressed concern for the young man’s emotional guardedness, a fear of appearing corny that inhibited self-expression.

"People mistake sentimentality for feeling," Sondheim told me in an interview in 1984. "I believe in sentiment, but not sentimentality. I also think people don’t understand the difference between passion and sentimentality. Maybe it has to do with certain subject matters we’ve chosen. I don’t understand it."

By subject matters, he meant such unlikely shows as "Pacific Overtures" (1976), about Commodore Perry’s 1853 invasion of Japan as seen through the eyes of the Japanese and "Sweeney Todd" (1979), about a revenge-mad barber who bakes his victims into pies. In "Assassins" (1990), he makes a macabre carnival out of people who killed or tried to kill American presidents. "Passion" (1994) is a twisted love drama about a handsome 19th century soldier obsessed with an ugly woman.

Always a whiz kid, he read The New York Times in the first grade. Years later, he wrote devastatingly complex crossword puzzles for New York magazine.

Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, the only child of a New York dress manufacturer and a frustrated dress designer, who spent his first 10 years in privilege on the Upper West Side. When his father left, he and his mother moved to a Pennsylvania farm. As he told biographer Meryle Secrest, "My mother was very angry at my father for leaving her and she used me as a whipping boy."

Fortunately, their neighbor happened to be Hammerstein, who became a mentor and, as Sondheim frequently said, taught him virtually everything he knew about lyric writing.

Sondheim nearly majored in mathematics, but studied composition with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt, then went to Hollywood for his first job — writing scripts for the 1953 sitcom "Topper." There he worked under George Openheimer (once Newsday’s drama critic) and claimed, "I learned how to tell a story in 23 minutes — and earned enough money to rent an apartment in New York."

He went on to write songs that tell whole dramas in even less time. He wrote the world’s best ambivalent bride song "Getting Married Today" from "Company," the greatest divorce revenge song "Could I Leave You?" from 1971's "Follies," and the most knowing I-need-you-go-away song, "Buddy’s Blues" (also from "Follies").

Until the troubled opening of "Merrily We Roll Along" (1981), Sondheim’s close collaborator was producer-director Harold Prince. "It was more than a 25-year collaboration, it’s something of a marriage," Sondheim told me after the opening of "Sunday." The team broke up, and the considerably younger James Lapine directed "Sunday," "Into the Woods" (1987) and "Passion" (1994).

The last years after "Passion" were preoccupied with working — and reworking — a show that finally opened Off-Broadway in 2009 with the name "Bounce." It is an adventure story about two buccaneering brothers from the gold rush to the 1933 Florida real estate bust. The musical, which was playful but minor, may go down in history for having Sondheim’s first openly gay love song.

Even after the Pulitzer, Sondheim told me, "I never can believe the next show will get on. It took six years to get ‘Follies’ on. ‘Forum’ took four years. ‘Sweeney Todd?’ I auditioned again for backers."

"Sunday" originally opened Off-Broadway as a one-act. The musical includes "Finishing the Hat," arguably the best song about the creative process and the only one Sondheim owned up to as autobiographical.

"Most people think … that there are some people who are lucky. They sit in a studio. In comes a small, beautiful girl in a filmy nightgown — Terpsichore or whomever. She sits down on their shoulder and hums and that’s the way the music of the spheres comes out."

But Seurat "put hundreds of thousands of dots on that canvas. And every one was a separate decision. … And that’s what art is. You spend four days working out the flower on the hat, then you spend 10 days working out the hat. Then you have 20 other hats to do. Then all the hats are part of a pattern. Then you start working on the face. It is just hard work."

An HBO documentary directed by Lapine, "Six by Sondheim," aired in 2013 and disclosed that he liked to compose lying down and sometimes enjoyed a cocktail to loosen up as he wrote. He admitted that he really only fell in love after reaching 60, first with dramatist Peter Jones and then in his last years with Jeff Romley, who he married on Dec. 31, 2017.

In 2015, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. Perhaps his greatest honor came in 2010 when the Henry Miller Theatre was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. "I'm deeply embarrassed. I'm thrilled, but deeply embarrassed," he said as the sun fell over dozens of clapping admirers in Times Square. Then he revealed his perfectionist streak: "I've always hated my last name. It just doesn't sing."

Survivors include Romley, and a half brother, Walter Sondheim.

AP also contributed to this story.

Linda Winer was Newsday's theater critic from 1987 until her retirement in 2017.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

BROADWAY

“West Side Story” (lyrics only) (1957) — Tony nomination

“Gypsy” (lyrics only) (1959) — Tony nomination

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962) — Tony win

“Company” (1970) — Tony win

“Follies” (1971) — Tony win

“A Little Night Music" (1973) — Tony win

“Pacific Overtures” (1976) — Tony nomination

“Sweeney Todd” (1979) — Tony win

“Merrily We Roll Along” (1981) — Tony nomination

“Sunday in the Park With George” (1984) — Tony nomination

“Into the Woods” (1987) — Tony win

“Assassins" (1990)

“Passion” (1994) — Tony win

MOVIES

“The Last of Sheila” (1973) — Screenwriter

“Reds” (1981) — Score

“Dick Tracy” (1990) — Best song Oscar for “Sooner or Later”

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