Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, whose work transformed musical theater, dead at 91

FILE PHOTO: Stephen Sondheim poses as he arrives at a special screening at Paramount Studios in Hollywood
Stephen Sondheim poses as he arrives at a special screening of the DreamWorks Pictures film “Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in 2007.
Reuters file

By Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman

Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who helped American musical theater evolve beyond pure entertainment and reach new artistic heights with such works as “West Side Story,” “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd,” died early Friday at the age of 91, his publicist said.

The musical great died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, spokesperson Kathryn Zuckerman told Reuters by email, saying she had little additional information. The news was reported earlier by the New York Times.

Sondheim’s eight Tony Awards for his lyrics and music surpassed the total of any other composer. In 2008 he also won a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.

He started early, learning the art of musical theater when he was a teenager from his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, the legendary lyricist behind “The Sound of Music.”

“Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was in turn mentored by Sondheim, has called him musical theater’s greatest lyricist.

Sondheim’s most successful works included “Into the Woods,” which opened on Broadway in 1987 and used children’s fairy tales to untangle adult obsessions; the 1979 thriller “Sweeney Todd,” about a murderous barber in London whose victims are served as meat pies; and 1962’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” a vaudeville-style comedy set in ancient Rome.

He also wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s score for “West Side Story,” inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and collaborated with fellow composer Jule Styne as lyricist for “Gypsy,” loosely based on the memoirs of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee.

“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,” Sondheim said in a 2013 interview with National Public Radio.

Several of Sondheim’s hit musicals were turned into movies, including the 2014 film “Into the Woods,” starring Meryl Streep, and the 2007 “Sweeney Todd” with Johnny Depp. A new film version of “West Side Story,” directed by Stephen Spielberg from a screenplay by Tony Kushner, opens next month.

During a guest appearance in September on the CBS “Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Sondheim said he visited the set of Spielberg’s adaptation, and endorsed the film “as really first rate.”

Sondheim’s songs were celebrated for their sharp wit and insight into modern life and for giving voice to complex characters, but few of them made the pop charts.