Stephen Sondheim, one of Broadway’s greatest composers, dies at 91

The composer, who helped define the Broadway musical with his songs such as So Long, Farewell and Sweeney Todd, dies in New York

Stephen Sondheim, the master of musical theater, died on Wednesday in New York at the age of 91.

Sondheim, who had been in hospital in critical condition, died surrounded by family and friends.

He is survived by wife Cindy, sons Charles and Andrew, and nine grandchildren.

Sondheim won six Tony awards, the most recent in 1994, for his work in A Little Night Music, a musical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s movie about an ill-matched couple and their uneasy relationship with the husband’s ill-treated niece and her French expatriate lover.

Sondheim was one of the most important American composers of the 20th century. He had several Broadway hits, including Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George.

Stephen Sondheim, music director Matt Richter, who played Sweeney Todd. Photograph: Burt Rutan/FilmMagic

It was his more experimental works such as Company and Sunday in the Park with George that changed theatre as a whole. They have influenced generations of songwriters. The ultimate from Burt Rutter, who played Sweeney Todd in Sondheim’s stage productions: “I’ve always enjoyed Sondheim’s musicals, especially Sunday in the Park with George and Company.”

A personal adposture of the composer seemed to encompass his work: “Everything Else I’m good at, I hate doing.” He once said: “I’m a very religious man but not in a religious sense. God is the same thing – the greater truth is there is only one truth. Nothing will ever change that.”

His songs were often grim and serious, but always inventive, ironic and loving. Aperta is a female chorus singing: “No, no, I’ll stay home to watch TV.” Turning to the world Sondheim’s composer said: “I would rather like to pour acid on myself or bring down the world. Or be the first person to do something about it. Then you have something to say, something that your audience needs and wants. The business of being a spectator of catastrophe is best reserved for sport – let me play first.”

As a director Sondheim was known for his epic, sweeping pieces, such as West Side Story and Assassins, yet also for new material for shorter productions such as Merrily We Roll Along.

Behind the scenes at Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park Read more

The sound designer Clive Goodwin once said: “Sondheim is the great mystery of modern musical theatre. Why is he still playing at 91?”

He shared the 1974 Pulitzer prize with James Lapine for their collaboration on the musical Follies, for which he wrote the book, lyrics and music.

The 1975 film version of Follies became the fourth highest-grossing movie in the US and won three Academy awards. Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics. Two years later he won the Academy award for his screen adaptation of his musical Company.

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