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Arts world farewells songwriter Stephen Sondheim

2021-11-27 HKT 10:30
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  • Stephen Sondheim was involved in musical theatre from an early age. File photo: AP
    Stephen Sondheim was involved in musical theatre from an early age. File photo: AP
Legendary Broadway songwriter Stephen Sondheim, widely credited with revolutionizing American musical theater, died on Friday at the age of 91.

Rick Miramontez, the publicist for the ongoing Broadway production of Sondheim's musical "Company," confirmed to AFP that the musical theater titan had passed away.

Sondheim's attorney F. Richard Pappas said Sondheim -- known for works including "West Side Story" and "Sweeney Todd" -- died suddenly in his Roxbury, Connecticut home the day after celebrating Thanksgiving with friends.

"There are no words. He had them all. And the music. He was incomparable," the UK-based Stephen Sondheim Society, which is dedicated to promoting and studying his work, tweeted along with three heart emojis, one of them broken.

Born on March 22, 1930 in New York City, Sondheim was involved in musical theatre from an early age, even though both of his parents worked in the fashion industry.

He started playing piano at age seven and was family friends with Oscar Hammerstein II, half of the famed musical theater writing duo Rodgers and Hammerstein who wrote shows including "Oklahoma!" and "The Sound of Music."

Sondheim's first professional writing job was for the television comedy "Topper" in the 1950s. He also wrote crossword puzzles for New York magazine from 1968 to 1969, which contributed to his writing style and sense of theatrical misdirection in his plays.

His major breakthrough on Broadway came with "West Side Story" in 1957, quickly followed by "Gypsy" two years later.

Throughout his more than five decades-long career, Sondheim won eight Grammy awards, eight Tony awards -- including the special Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre -- one Academy Award and a Pulitzer. He was nominated for many more Grammys and Tonys, as well as two Golden Globes.

Two of Sondheim's shows, "Company" and "Assassins," were revived on Broadway this fall.

In 2015, then-US president Barack Obama presented Sondheim with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, for his life's work.

The composer and lyricist's repertoire includes much-loved shows such as "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Into the Woods" and "Sweeney Todd."

Sondheim, who was gay, reportedly lived alone until his 60s, keeping his sexuality under wraps. In 2017, he married his partner Jeffrey Romley, who survives him.

"Thank the Lord that Sondheim lived to be 91 years old so he had the time to write such wonderful music and GREAT lyrics!" tweeted singer Barbra Streisand.

"Thank you for everything Mr Sondheim," tweeted Broadway actor Aaron Tveit, who recently won the Tony for best actor. "We are so lucky to have what you've given the world."

Actress and singer Lea Salonga, who was the first Asian woman to win a Tony for originating the lead role of the musical "Miss Saigon," thanked Sondheim for his "vast contributions to musical theater."

"We shall be singing your songs forever. Oh, my heart hurts," she wrote on Twitter. (AFP)