Stephen Sondheim obituary: Titan of the American musical

Intellectually rigorous artist who perpetually sought new creative paths

Stephen Sondheim

Born: March 22nd, 1930

Died: November 26th, 2021

Stephen Sondheim, who died on Friday at the age of 91, was one of Broadway history's songwriting titans, whose music and lyrics raised and reset the artistic standard for the American stage musical.


An intellectually rigorous artist who perpetually sought new creative paths, Sondheim was theatre’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th century, if not its most popular.

From his earliest successes in the late 1950s, when he wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy, through the 1990s, when he wrote the music and lyrics for two audacious musicals – Assassins and Passion – he was a relentlessly innovative theatrical force.

The first Broadway show for which Sondheim wrote both the words and music, the farcical 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.

In the 1970s and 1980s, his most productive period, he turned out a series of strikingly original and varied works, including Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and Into the Woods (1987).

In the history of theatre, only a handful could call Sondheim a peer. The list of major theatre composers who wrote words to accompany their own scores (and vice versa) is a short one that includes Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Jerry Herman and Noël Coward.

After the first decade of Sondheim's career he was never again a writer for hire, and his contribution to a show was always integral to its conception and execution. He chose collaborators – notably the producer and director Hal Prince, the orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and, later, the writer and director James Lapine – who shared his ambition to stretch the musical form beyond the bounds of only entertainment.

Overall, Sondheim wrote both the music and the lyrics for a dozen Broadway shows. Five of them won Tony Awards for best musical, and six won for best original score. A show that won neither of those, Sunday in the Park, took the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

In 1993 Sondheim received the Kennedy Centre Honours 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, and in 2010, in perhaps the ultimate show-business accolade, a Broadway house on West 43rd Street, Henry Miller’s Theatre, was renamed in his honour.

For his 90th birthday, in March 2020, a Broadway revival of Company was planned, with a woman (played by Katrina Lenk) in the central role of Bobby, but it was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sondheim, who also maintained a home in New York, a town house on East 49th Street, had been spending most of his time at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, during the pandemic.

But he returned to New York this month to attend revivals of two of his musicals: on November 14th, for the opening night of Assassins, at the Classic Stage Company in lower Manhattan, and the next night for the long-delayed first preview, since Broadway reopened, of Company, at the Bernard B Jacobs Theatre. Sondheim was "extremely" pleased by both productions, according to F Richard Pappas, his lawyer and friend.

Sondheim’s 2010 artistic memoir, Finishing the Hat (the name was taken from a song title in Sunday in the Park; a follow-up, Look, I Made a Hat, came out in 2011), was in many ways a primer on the craft of lyric writing. In it, he took himself to task for numerous sins, including things like adding unnecessary adjectives to fill out lines rhythmically and paying insufficient attention to a melodic line. In the song Somewhere, from West Side Story, for example, the highest note in the opening phrase is on the second beat, which means that in the well-known lyric – “There’s a place for us” – the emphasis is on the word “a”. “The most unimportant word in the opening line is the one that gets the most important note,” he wrote.

What most distinguished Sondheim’s lyrics, however, was that they were by and large character-driven, often probing explorations into a psyche that expressed emotional ambivalence, anguish or deeply felt conflict.

In the title song for Anyone Can Whistle he wrote from the point of view of a woman who found it hard to love:

Anyone can whistle,

That’s what they say –


Anyone can whistle,

Any old day –


It’s all so simple:

Relax, let go, let fly.

So someone tell me why

Can’t I?

I can dance a tango

I can read Greek –


I can slay a dragon

Any old week –


What’s hard is simple,

What’s natural comes hard.

Maybe you could show me

How to let go

Lower my guard.

Learn to be free.

Maybe if you whistle,

Whistle for me.

Over the years, many people theorised that Anyone Can Whistle was a cri de coeur by the author, although Sondheim denied it. Still, it's true that he lived a largely solitary romantic life for many years. "I always thought that song would be Steve's epitaph," the playwright and director Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for Anyone Can Whistle, told Sondheim's biographer Meryle Secrest for her 1998 book, Stephen Sondheim: A Life.

For a time in his 60s, Sondheim shared his New York town house with a young songwriter, Peter Jones, and in 2017 he married Jeffrey Romley, who survives him, along with a half-brother, Walter Sondheim.

Sondheim’s shows, although mostly received with critical accolades, were almost never popular hits. Of the shows for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics, his first, Forum, had the longest Broadway run, at 964 performances; his second, Anyone Can Whistle, lasted nine.

“I have always conscientiously tried not to do the same thing twice,” Sondheim said, reflecting on his career in an interview with the New York Times Magazine in 2000, when he turned 70. “If you’re broken-field running, they can’t hit you with so many tomatoes. I certainly feel out of the mainstream, because what’s happened in musicals is corporate and cookie-cutter stuff. And if I’m out of fashion, I’m out of fashion. Being a maverick isn’t just about being different. It’s about having your vision of the way a show might be.”

Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on March 22nd, 1930, in New York, and lived first on the Upper West Side. Herbert Sondheim, his father, was the owner of a dressmaking company; his mother, the former Etta Janet Fox, known as Foxy, worked for her husband as a designer until he left her, when Sondheim was 10. He was sent for a time to military school, and later to the George School in Pennsylvania. (His father remarried and had two more sons.)

In the years after his parents’ separation, Sondheim recalled for his biography, his mother treated him precisely as she had her husband: flirting with him sexually on the one hand, belittling him on the other. As an adult, Sondheim supported her financially; nonetheless, in the 1970s, the night before she was to have heart surgery, she wrote a letter to her son and had it hand-delivered. It read, in part, “The only regret I have in life is giving you birth.”

His mother was, nonetheless, responsible for the most formative relationship of her son's life. She was a friend of Dorothy Hammerstein, whose husband was the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II; their son Jamie became friends with a young Sondheim, and when the Hammersteins moved to a Pennsylvania farm, Sondheim, who had begun playing the piano at seven, went for a visit and stayed for the summer.

His mother subsequently bought a home nearby, and Sondheim was so often at the Hammersteins’ that he was thought of as a family member.

Sondheim was loath to take either of his first Broadway gigs, West Side Story and Gypsy, because he felt he was a composer, not only a lyricist – “I enjoy writing music much more than lyrics,” he said in Finishing the Hat. But he agreed to both on the advice of Hammerstein.

Only once after Gypsy would Sondheim write lyrics for another composer: an unhappy collaboration with Richard Rodgers, Do I Hear a Waltz?, based on Laurents' play The Time of the Cuckoo.

Sondheim was asked to take the job by Laurents and by Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers's elder daughter, whom he had met as a teenager at the Hammersteins' and for whom he had complicated feelings over many years. However, the two men proved antagonistic as writing partners, and although the show ran for 220 performances in 1965, it never had a Broadway revival and neither man considered it a success.

The period of Sondheim’s greatest work began when Prince became his director. Prince would direct five Sondheim musicals in the 1970s – Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd – and although not all were commercially successful, they were all innovative.

The partnership foundered on Merrily We Roll Along, a show that was hampered in part by the youth of its cast members, who had to play not only young characters but also the disillusioned adults they become, and by Prince’s acknowledged failure to find an appropriate look for the show as a whole. In any case, the two men parted creative company for more than two decades.

During Prince’s absence from his creative life, Sondheim teamed up with a younger collaborator, Lapine, and together they created the most cerebral works of Sondheim’s career. These included Sunday in the Park with George, a work whose first act ingeniously creates the artistic process of the painter Georges Seurat as he produces his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and whose second act jumps ahead a century to illustrate how a contemporary artist makes art in a more consumer-conscious age.

It was one of Sondheim’s most critically admired shows, running for 604 performances. And many critics and other Sondheim-ophiles found in it his most personal statement, as if he had used Seurat’s view of the artist’s life as a surrogate for his own. In the show’s signature song, Finishing the Hat, faced with the loss of the woman he loves because his devotion to painting has superseded his devotion to her, Seurat offers a sad but forceful paean to the joy of bringing original beauty into the world. It ends:

And when the woman that you wanted goes,

You can say to yourself,

“Well, I give what I give.”

But the woman who won’t wait for you knows

That, however you live,

There’s a part of you always standing by,

Mapping out the sky,

Finishing a hat

Starting on a hat

Finishing a hat

Look, I made a hat

Where there never was a hat. – This article first appeared in The New York Times