Thespians from all walks of life are devastated by the passing of a great American musical legend. Here is a tribute piece by Ryan Flores, “In Memoriam: Stephen Sondheim“
It is the one tribute nobody wants to write. When an artist has built a body of work so integral to their chosen art form, he attains a unique form of immortality predicated on sheer belief. Wherein people just can’t imagine a world without you, incapable of grasping the immensity and scale of the void that will be left behind.
Stephen Sondheim passed away at the age of 91 years old in his residence in Connecticut today, November 26, 2021. The cause of death has not been disclosed as of this writing. The illustrious composer-lyricist has served as a pillar of modern American Musical Theatre since his first professional work writing lyrics for “West Side Story” (1957) and “Gypsy” (1959). His career went on to span the decades that followed, with award-winning musicals such as “Sunday in the Park With George” (1984), “Passion” (1994), and “A Little Night Music” (1973) among others.
His early years were heavily influenced by his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, who encouraged him to work as a lyricist on “West Side Story” with composer Leonard Bernstein, and “Gypsy” with composer Jule Styne, both immense hits which served as a springboard for his career on Broadway. His first musical, where he served both as lyricist and composer, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962) won the Tony Award for Best Musical and started a string of highly successful and innovative shows that bore the signature Sondheim wit. His lyrics, both meaningful and precise, has become the hallmark of his work, and has since been the gold standard in the industry. His music has been described as cerebral and sublime, capable of capturing a certain mood in such an instinctual, organic way, that you can draw a line of commonality between his first musical to the last.
The 1970’s and 80’s served as his most productive years with hits like “Company” (1970), “Follies” (1971), “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (1979), and “Into The Woods” (1987), established him as one of the legends of American Musical Theatre. His biting and thoughtful lyrics that seemed to work especially well with complex themes of love, marriage, friendship, and relationships have been embraced by audiences the world over.
His influence also extended beyond the stage, with his tireless commitment to the evolution of Musical Theatre, he has served as a brilliant mentor for scores of aspiring songwriters and lyricists through his involvement with masterclasses and different non-profit organizations focused on developing artists in the genre.
Stephen Sondheim’s legacy is perhaps best described as one that is truly ubiquitous. Not only has he left an indelible imprint on Musical Theatre, he has actually helped mold it into what it is right now. And as audiences around the world mourn his passing, his legacy lives on in works yet to come, from generations of artists who have been touched by his genius in one way or another.