Obituary: Stephen Sondheim

In memoriam of the musical theatre titan.

Meg Howe
27th November 2021
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Stephen Sondheim, aged 91, passed away on 26th November 2021. Known for revolutionising the American musical, Sondheim’s compositions and lyrics make him one of the most important figures in twentieth century musical theatre. 

Inheriting his love for music theatre from his close friend James Hammerstein, Sondheim’s most famous works include Company (1970); Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979); and Into the Woods (1987). He was also known for writing the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story (1957), subject of a Steven Spielberg directed film releasing this December, and one of many Sondheim works that have been adapted for screen.

As a mentee to Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim’s career was heavily influenced from the beginning. This early friendship allowed Sondheim to correspond frequently with legendary directors, composers and lyricists such as Richard Rogers and Hal Prince. Ultimately, it was Hammerstein’s mentoring that allowed Sondheim to master his craft, and whilst many of his early works, like the 1955 production 'Saturday Night', were unfinished and therefore not produced, it was these defining moments that built the foundations of Sondheim’s successful career. 

Music from the early Sondheim musical, 'Saturday Night'

Opening in 1962, the first musical that Sondheim wrote lyrics for was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Whilst this show received many awards, Sondheim’s lyrics were not received well and he did not receive nomination for any category. And yet, in this moment Sondheim's versatility emerged, inspiring the complex, genre-defining composition and omnipotent lyricism for which he became known on countless hit musicals. 

A career highlight was surely the success of 'Company', which reshaped and reconfigured the entire concept of the traditional American musical, following a set of vignettes rather than linear plot points. Gritty determinism and political awareness confronted the upper-middle classes, ultimately proving the genesis for such contemporary musicals as Rent, Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen but to name a few. As Lloyd-Webber puts it, Sondheim's 6 decade career was "inspirational not just to two but to three generations".

In his later career, the mentee became the mentor, advising the late Jonathan Larson on his musical 'Tick, Tick… Boom!', and working with Lin-Manuel Miranda to translate the lyrics of West Side Story into Spanish. Sondheim also gave notes on Hamilton (at the time called The Hamilton Mixtape), and respected Miranda for his attention to detail within his lyrics. 

Across his career, Sondheim was awarded an Academy Award, 8 Grammy Awards and 8 Tony Awards. In November 2015, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the White House by President Barack Obama, the highest civilian honour in the United States. The musical theatre titan also has a theatre named after him on London’s West End, that is currently housing the performance of Les Miserables.

Sondheim’s career was unmatched, bridging the gap between traditional and contemporary with such eloquence, nuance and respectability. As Stephen Colbert put so perfectly in a recent interview, Sondheim "laid out the desire and the beauty of the act of creation itself, regardless of where that may take you". In the revolution of musical theatre, it's accessibility and continued experimentation, his legacy lives on.

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AUTHOR: Meg Howe
Passionate History student and Educator

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