Musical theater icon Stephen Sondheim dies at 91

Stephen Sondheim, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning songwriter who became one of the nation’s most influential musical theater composers, died Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, according to multiple reports. He was 91.

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Rick Miramontez, a publicist for current Broadway production of Sondheim’s musical “Company,” confirmed his death to The Washington Post but did not give a cause. His lawyer and friend, F. Richard Pappas, told the New York Times that his death was sudden, and he had not been known to be ill recently.

In a career spanning more than six decades, Sondheim earned praise for his evocative, adventurous lyrics, The Associated Press reported. He won eight Tony Awards – the most of any single composer – eight Grammy Awards, an Academy Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

“As a composer and a lyricist, and a genre unto himself, Sondheim challenges his audiences,” President Barack Obama said in 2015 while presenting Sondheim with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. “His greatest hits aren’t tunes you can hum; they’re reflections on roads we didn’t take, and wishes gone wrong, relationships so frayed and fractured there’s nothing left to do but send in the clowns. … Put simply, Stephen reinvented the American musical.”

Sondheim’s work, which includes the lyrics for 1957′s “West Side Story and 1959′s “Gypsy,” as well as both the music and lyrics for 1979′s “Sweeney Todd,” influenced several generations of theater songwriters.

“Without question, Steve is the best Broadway lyricist, past or present,” playwright Arthur Laurents once said, according to the Post. Laurents worked with Sondheim on four productions.

“Steve is the only lyricist who writes a lyric that could only be sung by the character for which it was designed, who never pads with unnecessary filters, who never sacrifices meaning or intention for a clever rhyme, and who knows that a lyric is the shortest of one act plays, with a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Sondheim was born March 22, 1930, in Manhattan to Herbert Sondheim, the owner of a dressmaking company, and Etta Janet “Foxy” Fox, the Times reported. His parents divorced when he was 10 and he moved with his mother to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where one of his neighbors was famed playwright and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, according to NPR and the AP. Hammerstein became Sondheim’s first great mentor, the Post reported.

Sondheim published a pair of books including his lyrics and explaining his writing process, 2010′s “Finishing the Hat” and 2011′s “Look, I Made a Hat.” In 2010, he told WHYY’s “Fresh Air” that he always consulted a show’s script before writing his part so that he had something “to imitate.”

“I always write after the librettist has started to write a scene or two,” he said. “I always wait to get so that I can divine and imitate the style that the writer is using, both in terms of dialogue and approach and getting to know the characters as he is forming them.”

Sondheim is survived by his husband, Jeffrey Romley, and a half-brother, Walter Sondheim, according to the Post and the Times.

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