The Life and Legacy of Stephen Sondheim

Photo from nytimes.com

As 2021 comes to a close, there has been no shortage to a loss of artistic talent over this year. Few of those lost, however, have had a career as long and complex as American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The songwriter passed away at 91 on Dec. 2 in his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.

Sondheim is credited with being one of the major forces that have kept Broadway and musical theater alive throughout the 20th century. The New York native studied the piano and organ as a child and wrote a musical at the age of 15. After graduating from Williams College in 1950, where he was awarded the Hutchison Prize for composition, Sondheim studied with composer Milton Babbit in New York City. 

Sondheim transitioned from a script-writer to a lyricist in the early 1950s. His first major success was as a lyricist for Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” To date, the musical has made one of the biggest impacts in the world of musical theater, especially at a time when its themes of immigration, gang violence, racial tension and altercations with police were considered to be more taboo. The most recent movie adaptation of the musical is directed by Steven Spielberg and is set to hit theaters on Dec. 10, 2021.

Photo from Vanityfair.com

The Broadway giant went on to work on shows such as “Gypsy” (1959), “Company” (1972), “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (1979; film 2007), “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984), “Into the Woods” (1987; film 2014) and many more.

Sondheim’s work has hit everything thematically from being candy-sweet to downright dark and unnerving. His work, whether critiqued or praised for its camp, has gone on to win countless awards and accolades including a Pulitzer Prize (1985), eight Tony Awards, a 2008 Lifetime Achievement award for his work on Broadway, an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards and the 2011 Olivier Special Award.

In 2015, Sondheim was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When asked about revivals of his shows he’d like to see next, Sondheim told The New York Times, “What would I like to see again that I haven’t seen in a while? I’d have to think about it, because an awful lot of the shows I’ve been a writer of have been done in the last few years.” He added, “I’ve been lucky. I’ve had good revivals of the shows that I like.”

The world of musical theater has certainly been lucky to have known the genius of Stephen Sondheim.

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