Sleep Sweetly, Stephen Sondheim

Sleep Sweetly, Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim, whose intricate and powerful lyrics, venturesome melodies and sweeping stage visions made him a central figure in contemporary American musical theater, died Nov. 26 at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 91.

Rick Miramontez, a publicist for the current Broadway production of Mr. Sondheim’s musical “Company,” confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.

In a career spanning more than five decades, Mr. Sondheim was associated with many of the most celebrated and enduring musicals of his time.

He won his initial fame as the lyricist for “West Side Story” (1957), with music by Leonard Bernstein, and followed up by writing the lyrics for Jule Styne’s “Gypsy” (1959). His primary achievement lies in the works for which he created both music and lyrics, including “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962), “Company” (1970), “Follies” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973), “Sweeney Todd” (1979), “Sunday in the Park With George” (1984), “Into the Woods” (1987) and “Passion” (1994).

Unlike most of the earlier Broadway songwriters, including George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (the last of whom was his first great mentor), Mr. Sondheim was less interested in creating stand-alone popular “hits” than in fashioning unified works that maintained a firm, near-operatic structural integrity throughout…

He won the Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievement in 1993 and was the subject of a “Sondheim Celebration” there in 2002, where six of his works were presented in repertory staging, to exhilarated reviews and sold-out houses; the Signature Theater in Arlington, Va., meanwhile, became a major staging ground for many of his works. He and James Lapine shared the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1985 for “Sunday in the Park With George.”

In addition to a 2008 Tony Award for lifetime achievement, Mr. Sondheim received eight Tonys for his music and several others for his lyrics. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor…

ROXBURY, Conn. — Stephen Sondheim stood by the gleaming piano in his study, surrounded by posters of international productions of his many famous musicals, and smiled as he inquired whether a visitor might be interested in hearing songs from a show he had been working on for years, but hadn’t finished yet.

“And now would you like to hear the score?” he asked. Of course, the answer was yes. “You got some time?” he asked, before laughing, loudly, with a sense of mischief: “It’s from a show called ‘Fat Chance’!”

That was Sunday afternoon, five days ago, when Mr. Sondheim, 91, had welcomed me to his longtime country house for a 90-minute interview with him and the theater director Marianne Elliott about a revival of “Company” that is now in previews on Broadway. It would turn out to be his final major interview.

There was little indication that Mr. Sondheim, one of the greatest songwriters in the history of musical theater, was unwell. He was engaged and lucid, with strong opinions and playfully pugnacious, as with the tease about his long-gestating, unfinished final musical. At one moment he complained that his memory wasn’t as strong as it had been, but he was also telling anecdotes from a half-century earlier with ease…

He was busy right until the end. On Nov. 14 he attended the opening of an Off Broadway revival of his musical “Assassins,” directed by John Doyle at Classic Stage Company. The next night he went to the first post-shutdown preview for the Broadway revival of “Company” — a reimagined production, opening Dec. 9, in which the protagonist, who has traditionally been played by a man, is now played by a woman. And just this week, two days before he died, he did a doubleheader, seeing a Wednesday matinee of “Is This a Room” and an evening performance of “Dana H.,” two short documentary plays on Broadway…

…[H]e was obviously delighted about the Steven Spielberg-directed film adaptation of “West Side Story,” a musical for which Mr. Sondheim wrote the lyrics, that is scheduled to be released next month. “I think it’s just great,” he said. He added, “The great thing about it is people who think they know the musical are going to have surprises.”

He was looking forward to even more in the months to come: a new production of “Into the Woods,” for which Mr. Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, is scheduled to be staged by the Encores! program at New York City Center next May. Also, Mr. Sondheim revealed, New York Theater Workshop is hoping to stage an Off Broadway revival of “Merrily We Roll Along,” for which he wrote the music and lyrics, directed by Maria Friedman, who has previously directed well received productions in London and Boston…

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