Last year the theater community lost a legend. After five decades in the business, Stephen Sondheim died at his home in Connecticut at the age of 91. Known worldwide as an award-winning composer-lyricist he was often acknowledged as one of the most important figures in 20th-century musical theatre and for having reinvented the American musical.
How It Began
Born in New York City in 1930, Sondheim was the son of Herbert and Janet (née Fox) Sondheim who worked in the NYC garment district. Even at a young age he began playing the piano and organ and even dabbled in song writing at the George School.
After his parents’ divorce a teenage Stephen moved to Pennsylvania where he became friends with the son of Broadway lyricist and producer Oscar Hammerstein II, who gave the young Sondheim advice and mentoring in musical theater. He also served as a form of surrogate father during this time of tumult.
By the time he was in his early twenties, Sondheim was asked by Leonard Bernstein to write the lyrics for the classic West Side Story. His early lyric genius was first seen on a Broadway stage by the time he was merely 27 years old!
The first Broadway show for which Mr. Sondheim wrote both the words and music, the 1962 comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” won a Tony Award for best musical and went on to run for more than two years.
Broadway Hits & Accolades
With his Broadway career spanning more than fifty years on both sides of the pond, Sondheim was honored to have a Broadway theater named after him as well as one in the West End of London.
Additionally, Sondheim has been honored over the years with many accolades such as: eight Tony Awards, an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and a Laurence Olivier Award. In 1993, Mr. Sondheim received the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement, and in 2015 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. In 2008, he was given a Tony Award for lifetime achievement.
His wide variety of songs and lyrics were often called complex and sophisticated, yet understandable and relatable. Some of his greatest Broadway shows included: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1987).
More recently Sondheim was honored by the New York Times in a published special section devoted to him, and a virtual concert, “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration,” was streamed on the Broadway.com YouTube channel, featuring Broadway performers singing his songs.