Stephen Sondheim was 'absolute genius' and 'titan of musical theatre'

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The acclaimed composer and lyricist, most famous for creating the musical Sweeney Todd, died aged 91 at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, on Friday morning. Fellow composer Lord Lloyd- Webber, 73, the creator of beloved musicals including Phantom Of The Opera and Cats, yesterday said: “A Little Night Music is a masterpiece. It’s one of the pieces I go back to play again and again.

“So many will focus on his lyrics because they are peerless, but for me as a composer, I just think his work was really extraordinary.

“Sondheim was an absolute genius and the New York Times rightly calls him a titan of musical theatre. And that’s the only word I can think of.”

As a mark of respect London’s West End theatres will dim their lights for two minutes at 7pm tomorrow.

Six of Sondheim’s musicals won Tony Awards and he also received a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award, five Olivier Awards and the Presidential Medal of Honour.

During a 54-year career Sondheim wrote the music or lyrics, or both, for 19 major stage productions on Broadway and in the West End, as well as for 21 films and TV shows.

His scores include those from some of the world’s best-loved shows, including West Side Story, Company, Follies and the 1973 musical A Little Night Music, which featured his ballad Send In The Clowns, later to become a worldwide hit for Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins.

Poignantly, he will miss the latest big-screen showcase for his talents when a new film version of West Side Story ‑ directed by his friend Steven Spielberg ‑ opens in the US and UK on December 10.

In another ironic twist, most of his fans have yet to realise that he makes a surprise “appearance” in a new TV musical film based on his life that has just started streaming on Netflix.

In the movie Tick, Tick… Boom! ‑ directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda ‑ American actor Bradley Whitford plays Sondheim as a young man.

But a voicemail message in the final scene was actually recorded by the man himself.

Miranda, who is reportedly “devastated” by Sondheim’s death, revealed only last week: “I was in contact with Steve throughout. I showed him the pages and the dialogue and when I showed him the finished film he said, ‘You treated me gently and royally, for which I’m grateful’.”

The icon was only unhappy with his voicemail message ‑ recorded by a voiceover actor – in the last scene and asked if he could rewrite it. “He rewrote it, recorded it himself and just sent it to me. It makes me weep to even think about.”

Sondheim’s Oscar-winning song Sooner Or Later (I Always Get My Man) featured in 1990 film Dick Tracy and was sung by Madonna.

Born on March 22, 1930, he grew up in a well-to-do family in New York and saw his first Broadway musical at the age of nine.

The following year he met Oscar Hammerstein II, of The King And I and Oklahoma! fame, who became a mentor to the child prodigy.

Sondheim’s big break came through an invitation to pen lyrics for West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, which opened on Broadway in 1957 and ran for more than 700 performances. The original 1961 film version won 10 Oscars.

In 2010, a Broadway theatre was renamed in his honour. Ten years later, he received the same accolade in London when the Queen’s Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue was rechristened the Sondheim.

Sondheim is survived by his husband, Jeffrey Scott Romley, who is almost 50 years his junior.

He turned Broadway melody into a serious art form, says Jennifer Selway

When I heard that Stephen Sondheim had died I had to hear Send In The Clowns. I defy anyone to play that song without a tear or two running down their cheek. Heaven knows how anyone can actually sing it without breaking down. But then so many have ‑ Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins and Judi Dench, among others.

It’s a song that tells you everything about Sondheim’s genius. It was written over two days for actress Glynis Johns playing Desiree in A Little Night Music, on Broadway, in 1973.

The musical is based on the Ingmar Bergman 1955 film Smiles Of A Summer Night. That’s what Sondheim did so many times ‑ create a musical out of an unpromising subject.

Can you imagine how unlikely it was to turn a Scandinavian art movie (albeit a comedy) into a Broadway show?

Yet he did it. And like so many of his songs it’s not just a music interlude, an add-on which makes a play into a musical.

It carries the character of Desiree, an ageing actress. It’s about performing and living, and it breaks your heart. It’s also not easy to sing. as it’s in a tricky time signature. He was often criticised for writing un-hummable songs.

And last of all he wrote both the words and the lyrics, which was what he preferred to do.

When he was commissioned to write the lyrics for West Side Story, in 1957, he was initially reluctant because the tunes were left to Leonard Bernstein.

The same went for Gypsy, first staged in 1959 with music by Jule Styne. The ability to write words and music made Sondheim so special.

If you think for a minute about the mental agility it takes to frame lyrics in melody you begin to realise why Sondheim briefly worked as a cryptic crossword compiler for the New York Times magazine.

Sondheim was steeped in musical theatre, part of the Jewish New York tradition that also included the Gershwin brothers, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rogers, Lorenz Hart, Leonard Bernstein, John Kander and Fred Ebb.

But he wasn’t just Mr Showbiz, even though he could do everything.

He made musicals ‑ often disparaged for being, as he once said, “corporate and cookie-cutter stuff” – into a serious art form. People like him don’t come along very often.



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