Farewell to the Shakespeare of his generation: CHRISTOPHER STEVENS looks back at the career of Stephen Sondheim, the genius who defined musical theatre after his death aged 91
Tributes poured in last night for Stephen Sondheim, the genius behind some of Broadway’s greatest musicals who has died aged 91.
After scoring his first major hit with West Side Story aged just 27, Sondheim went on to delight New York audiences over six decades.
The writer of Send In The Clowns and Broadway Baby passed away suddenly at his home in Connecticut early yesterday morning, his friend and lawyer F Richard Pappas said.
Andrew Lloyd Webber paid tribute to the ‘musical theatre giant of our times’ who had inspired three generations.
Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of Cats and Les Miserables, said: ‘The theatre has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers. Sadly, there is now a giant in the sky.’
Elaine Paige, who starred in the 2011 Broadway run of Follies, called him ‘one of the most important musical theatre giants of our generation’, while actor Josh Gad, the voice of Olaf in Disney’s Frozen, compared him to Shakespeare, tweeting: ‘Not since April 23rd of 1616 has theatre lost such a revolutionary voice.’
Here the Daily Mail’s Christopher Stevens looks back at the career of one of America’s greatest songwriters…
Theatres around the world will be dimming their lights in salute to Stephen Sondheim, the most influential figure of the modern stage. Hearing the news, Broadway star Josh Gad compared Sondheim, on Twitter, to Shakespeare.
That’s scarcely an exaggeration, or even original – in 2017, the New York Times placed him beside not only the Bard, but Picasso and Dickens too.
From West Side Story to his fairytale extravaganza Into the Woods, he created some of the most memorable musical theatre of all. And he did it without diluting his principles or selling out his talent. Rooted in the avant garde, he used modern jazz and innovations in classical music to treat stage musicals as serious art.
Stephen Sondheim, with stars including Meryl Streep at the premiere of Into the Woods
The Oxford Companion to Popular Music noted archly, 30 years ago, that Sondheim ‘moves in an area that bears little relation to the goings-on of the pop world that Andrew Lloyd Webber lends an ear to’.
His tireless determination to experiment and to challenge audiences with complex scores meant that many of his shows were not immediate box office triumphs, or even critical successes in his youth. But by the time of his death yesterday, he was regarded as far and away the most significant composer of his generation.
Most of the timeless entries in the Great American Songbook needed two writers, a tunesmith and a lyricist – Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, or George and Ira Gershwin, for example.
Sondheim worked alone. But he achieved his first success with words only, supplying the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story in 1957 – a reworking of the Romeo and Juliet love story set in contemporary New York.
A movie version in 1961 with Natalie Wood as Maria made Sondheim a household name. The film has been remade and will be released next month, this time directed by Steven Spielberg.
Perhaps his best-known song, certainly for casual listeners, is Send In The Clowns – a favourite for both Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand.
It was written for his 1973 musical A Little Night Music – a deceptively frivolous title for a production that adapted Swedish movie director Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night for the stage. Born to a Jewish couple who designed and made dresses in pre-war New York before divorcing, Sondheim was a lonely child whose mother pictured a life in the military for him.
He was sent to the New York Military Academy aged ten, in 1940, but his musical talent became luminous by his early teens, when he was already writing songs.
His mother detested his ambitions, constantly criticising him. Long afterwards she wrote to him, declaring that the ‘only regret’ she ever had was giving birth to him. When she died in 1992, he refused to attend her funeral.
He regarded Oscar Hammerstein as his surrogate father. The father of a schoolfriend, Hammerstein (who went on to write the words for The Sound of Music) spotted his gifts and encouraged him to write full musicals. One of Sondheim’s earliest attempts was a version of Mary Poppins, which was never staged. When a chance meeting at a party gave Sondheim the chance to write the lyrics for West Side Story, Hammerstein urged him to grab it. The opportunity to write music would come later, he promised.
He achieved his first success with words only, supplying the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story in 1957. Pictured: Spielberg’s adaptation of the musical, released next month
Sondheim played the lyricist again in 1959 for Gypsy, the life story of Gypsy Rose Lee, after Cole Porter and Irving Berlin both turned the work down.
But he was determined to compose scores, and in 1971 had a substantial hit with Follies.
He followed it in the 1970s with ambitious productions such as Pacific Overtures, which featured Japanese Kabuki stylings, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.
Into the Woods, in 1987, cemented his reputation as a composer without parallel in theatre, and for the last decades of his life he was constantly feted and celebrated.
But he was a relentless perfectionist, who never admitted to being completely satisfied with his work. One of his best-loved songs from West Side Story, I Feel Pretty, included a line that grated on him: ‘It’s alarming how charming I feel.’
That didn’t sound like a working-class Puerto Rican girl, he fretted – it belonged in a Noel Coward number.
Barack Obama, bestowing the Medal of Freedom on Sondheim in 2015, said: ‘Stephen reinvented the American musical. He’s loomed large over more than six decades in the theatre.
‘As a composer and a lyricist, and a genre unto himself, Sondheim challenges his audiences.
‘His greatest hits aren’t tunes you can hum; they’re reflections on roads we didn’t take, and wishes gone wrong, relationships so frayed and fractured there’s nothing left to do but send in the clowns.’