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Stephen Sondheim, Legend Of The Broadway Musical, Dead At 91

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Legendary composer Stephen Sondheim, who was known by many as the father of the American musical, died Friday at age 91 at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.

CBS2's Dana Tyler has a look back at his remarkable career.

READ MOREFans Pack Theater District To Express Their Emotions Over The Passing Of Stephen Sondheim

Sondheim was only 25 years old when he penned the lyrics to the landmark musical "West Side Story."

Before it was a movie masterpiece, West Side Story opened on Broadway. The year was 1957. Sondheim was the young genius on the block surrounded by a Broadway brain trust that included Arthur Laurents, Hal Prince, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins.

Their work would forever change musicals and Sondheim's lush lyrics married to melodies, would live for generations to come.

In 1959, Sondheim wrote "Gypsy" for the legendary Ethel Merman. A musical about the ultimate stage mom and the perils of show business, Gypsy was a big hit and also a movie.

Sondheim's approach to musical theater was groundbreaking. He took risks and he wanted audiences to take notice. A self-described neurotic, he spoke to Charles Osgood of CBS Sunday Morning in 1995.

"You write because you want people to hear your work. You want people to hear your work and like your work," Sondheim said. "But if I had to take my choice, I'd rather they hear the work and dislike it than not hear the work."

Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born in Manhattan in 1930 and grew up on the Upper West Side. His childhood friend was the son of Oscar Hammerstein, who would become his mentor.

Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, sometimes both, for some of the most memorable shows in Broadway history and could make a song come to life.

"An awful lot of people have gone historically to musicals to forget troubles, come on get happy. I'm not interested in that," Sondheim said.

And his music sometimes had a darker side. In 1979, "Sweeney Todd" was as recipe for success.

One of his best known songs came from his 1973 Broadway show "A Little Night Music." The classic "Send in the Clowns" has been recorded by some of the biggest names in music, including Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Judy Collins.

Critical acclaim would follow for decades, and in 1991 Sondheim won an Academy Award for writing "Sooner or Later," sung by Madonna in the movie "Dick Tracy."

Adding to his accolades, Sondheim was the recipient of eight Tony Awards to match eight Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He also had a Broadway theater renamed in his honor.

But for this artistic genius, it all came down to one note -- teaching.

"I love teaching. It's a sacred profession to me. I hear the word 'teach' and I start to cry. My life was saved by teachers and it's the noblest of all professions," Sondheim said.

The Broadway musical "Company," starring Katrina Lenk and Patti LuPone, was scheduled to open on his 90th birthday in 2020, but the pandemic hit. Instead, there was a virtual all-star celebration of his songs.

His was a life in the theater for a musical master.

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