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Stephen Sondheim, master of musical theater, dead at 91

CNN logo CNN 11/26/2021 By Todd Leopold and Rob Frehse, CNN
American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, seen here in New York on March 9, 1994, died early Friday morning at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, according to the New York Times. He was 91. © Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times/Redux American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, seen here in New York on March 9, 1994, died early Friday morning at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, according to the New York Times. He was 91.

Stephen Sondheim, the renowned composer of "Into the Woods," "Sweeney Todd," "Gypsy," "Sunday in the Park with George" and other essential works of musical theater, died early Friday morning at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, according to the New York Times. He was 91.

He died suddenly, the Times reported, citing his lawyer and friend F. Richard Pappas. Sondheim had just celebrated Thanksgiving with a dinner and friends the day before, Pappas told the Times.

Rick Miramontez, who is a publicist for Sondheim's current Broadway production "Company," confirmed the death to the Washington Post.

As lyricist, songwriter, conceptual artist and creative force, Sondheim was perhaps without par in the modern American theater. His works encompassed astonishing range: the updated "Romeo and Juliet" romance of "West Side Story" (for which he wrote the lyrics), the travails of a modern group of friends and lovers in "Company," even the woes of presidential murderers (and attempted murderers) in "Assassins."

Over the course of his career, he won an Oscar, a Pulitzer, eight Grammy Awards, eight Tony Awards, a Kennedy Center honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Stephen Sondheim Theater in Manhattan's Theater District is named for him.

His song lyrics, in particular, were the gold standard of the theater art, whether defiant ("Rose's Turn"), sad ("Send in the Clowns"), ominous ("Children Will Listen") or simply clever ("Ah, but Underneath").

They were sometimes tricky -- filled with clever rhymes and challenging meters, perhaps natural for a man who once described himself as "a mathematician by nature." But they rarely failed to get to the heart of a character.

"What's funny about Steve's songs is you think, 'Oh, this is about something,' and then you start working on it, and you go, 'No, it's about SOMETHING,'" actress Bernadette Peters, one of Sondheim's leading interpreters, told ABC News in 2010. "It goes even deeper than you imagined."

Sondheim was particularly good at expressing romantic longing and loss. Songs such as "Send in the Clowns" (from "A Little Night Music"), "Losing My Mind" (from "Follies") and "Somewhere" (from "West Side Story") are heartbreaking in their emotion.

"For many theater lovers, there are musicals, then there are Sondheim musicals," wrote Garry Nunn in the Guardian. "The latter is a category of its own because with Sondheim, every single word, every rhyme has been labored over to the point that it's mellifluous and articulate (if a little garrulous)."

Indeed, though his work was sometimes criticized as glib, Sondheim said the joy of the theater was touching audiences.

"I'm interested in the theater because I'm interested in communication with audiences," he told NPR's "Fresh Air" in 2010. "Otherwise, I would be in concert music. I'd be in another kind of profession. I love the theater as much as music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh, making them cry -- just making them feel -- is paramount to me."

This story is developing...

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