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Stephen Sondheim, musical theater legend, has died at 91

Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim dies at 91
Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim dies at 91... 00:26

Stephen Sondheim, the songwriter who reshaped the American musical theater with his intelligent, intricately rhymed lyrics, has died, his representative confirmed to CBS News. He was 91.

Sondheim influenced several generations of theater songwriters, particularly with such landmark musicals as "Company," "Follies" and "Sweeney Todd," which are considered among his best work. His most famous ballad, "Send in the Clowns," has been recorded hundreds of times, including by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins.

The artist refused to repeat himself, finding inspiration for his shows in such diverse subjects as an Ingmar Bergman movie ("A Little Night Music"), the opening of Japan to the West ("Pacific Overtures"), French painter Georges Seurat ("Sunday in the Park With George"), Grimm's fairy tales ("Into the Woods") and even the killers of American presidents ("Assassins"), among others.

"The theater has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers. Sadly, there is now a giant in the sky. But the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim will still be here as his legendary songs and shows will be performed for evermore," producer Cameron Mackintosh wrote in tribute.

A film version of "West Side Story," its second adaptation to the big screen, is set to hit theaters on December 10. A revival of his 1970 musical "Company" is set to open December 9 after being postponed from March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. And Sondheim had a voice-only cameo in Lin Manuel Miranda's film version of "Tick, Tick ... Boom," released earlier this month, in which he is played by Bradley Whitford. 

Six of Sondheim's musicals won Tony Awards for best score, and he also received a Pulitzer Prize ("Sunday in the Park"), an Academy Award (for the song "Sooner or Later" from the film "Dick Tracy"), five Olivier Awards and the Presidential Medal of Honor. In 2008, he received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement.

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U.S. President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim at the White House on November 24, 2015. Carlos Barria/Reuters

"Stephen's music is so beautiful, his lyrics so precise, that even as he exposes the imperfections of everyday life, he transcends them. We transcend them," said former President Barack Obama at the Medal of Freedom ceremony in 2015. "Put simply, Stephen reinvented the American musical. "

Sondheim's music and lyrics gave his shows a dark, dramatic edge, a change from the largely frothy and comic musicals that came before him. He was sometimes criticized as a composer of unhummable songs, a badge that didn't bother Sondheim. Frank Sinatra, who had a hit with Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns," once complained: "He could make me a lot happier if he'd write more songs for saloon singers like me."

He offered the three principles necessary for a songwriter in his first volume of collected lyrics — Content Dictates Form, Less Is More, and God Is in the Details. All these truisms, he wrote, were "in the service of Clarity, without which nothing else matters." Together they led to stunning lines like: "It's a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension."

Sondheim was born March 22, 1930, into a wealthy family, the only son of dress manufacturer Herbert Sondheim and Helen Fox Sondheim. At 10, his parents divorced and Sondheim's mother bought a house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. One of their Bucks County neighbors was lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, whose son, James, was Sondheim's roommate at boarding school. It was Oscar Hammerstein who became the young man's professional mentor and a good friend.

Sondheim attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where he majored in music. After graduation, he received a two-year fellowship to study with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt.

One of Sondheim's first jobs was writing scripts for the television show "Topper," which ran from 1953 to 1955. At the same time, Sondheim wrote his first musical, "Saturday Night," the story of a group of young people in Brooklyn in the 1920s. It was to have opened on Broadway in 1955, but its producer died just as the musical was about to go into production, and the show was scrapped. "Saturday Night" finally arrived in New York in 1997 in a small, off-Broadway production.

An HBO documentary directed by collaborator James Lapine, "Six by Sondheim," aired in 2013 and revealed that he liked to compose lying down and sometimes enjoyed a cocktail to loosen up as he wrote. He also revealed that he really only fell in love after reaching 60, first with the dramatist Peter Jones and then in his last years with Jeff Romley.

In September 2010, the Henry Miller Theatre was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. "I'm deeply embarrassed. I'm thrilled, but deeply embarrassed," he said as the sun fell over dozens of clapping admirers in Times Square. Then he revealed his perfectionist streak: "I've always hated my last name. It just doesn't sing."

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