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Stephen Sondheim, lyricist and composer, 1930-2021

“The vital factor is to get one thing on paper,” Stephen Sondheim instructed me throughout a Lunch with the FT interview in 2010. “‘I like you, I like you, I like you, I like you.’ OK, it’s a cliché, I’ll repair it tomorrow. You get up within the morning and there it’s. It’s one thing to work on.”

The pre-eminent determine in fashionable musical theatre was discussing writing lyrics, which he discovered trickier than composing music. Any desk-bound wrestle was undetectable within the outcomes. Sondheim, who died on Friday aged 91, was feted for the sophistication, wit, intelligence and psychological depth of works resembling Firm and Follies. He took the cliché of the Broadway musical as a frivolous parade of hoofers and belters — and glued it for good.

Sondheim was born in New York in 1930. He grew up as the one little one in a Jewish household, dwelling in an residence overlooking Central Park. His father Herbert made high-end girls’s clothes for which his mom Janet offered the designs. It was a materially comfy however emotionally chilly childhood. After Herbert left for one more lady, he was taken by his mom to reside in Pennsylvania.

Janet, nicknamed Cunning, was an unloving presence in his life: she as soon as instructed Sondheim that she regretted giving delivery to him. He discovered a hotter surrogate guardian within the individual of the well-known Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, a close to neighbour. The co-creator of Oklahoma! and South Pacific turned his mentor after Sondheim developed an curiosity in musicals: he wrote his first aged 15.

Hammerstein, along with his composer accomplice Richard Rodgers, introduced a brand new diploma of complexity to musical theatre. Sondheim took the method a number of levels additional. His break got here when he efficiently auditioned to be the lyricist for Leonard Bernstein’s West Facet Story, which opened on Broadway in 1957. Its ballad “Maria” showcased his acute ear for the musicality of language. It’s a love music that finds “all the attractive sounds of the world in a single phrase” — the identify of the titular heroine.

He was the lyricist for one more Broadway hit, 1959’s Gypsy: A Musical Fable, composed by Jule Styne. Unwilling to be pigeonholed as a wordsmith, Sondheim started composing too. His first musical in each roles was the bawdy comedy A Humorous Factor Occurred on the Technique to the Discussion board. First staged in 1962, its vaudevillian jollity gave solution to riskier matters and a extra nuanced tonal vary in later works.

Stephen Sondheim in 2004: his composing fashion was versatile but additionally private; he prevented the pitfall of pastiche © AP

First staged in 1970, Firm dramatised the shortcoming of a middle-aged New Yorker to enter right into a romantic relationship. Follies (1972) was about infidelity and collapsing marriages. His storytelling vary stretched from Victorian melodrama (1979’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Avenue) to Brothers Grimm fairy tales (1986’s Into the Woods) and US political historical past (1990’s Assassins).

His audacity in taking the stylised, escapist format of the musical into the sophisticated realms of actual life was recognised early on: Firm was lauded by critics and received a Tony award. But it surely proved too daring for some. His work was mischaracterised as emotionally chilly and overly cerebral. “Too intelligent by half” was a recurrent objection, an idea he discovered inexplicable.

In 1981 Merrily We Roll Alongside closed after 16 performances, one of many largest flops in Broadway historical past; it has since been reassessed as a significant work. A tireless innovator, Sondheim now and again needed to look forward to the world to meet up with him.

His composing fashion was versatile but additionally private: he prevented the pitfall of pastiche. He might write showstoppers resembling Firm’s “The Girls Who Lunch”, which ends with its character singing the arms-flung-wide line “All people rise!”, in what Sondheim admitted was a pitch for a standing ovation. (The opening evening viewers didn’t oblige; later ones have.) However his use of melody was far subtler than the standard Broadway musical. His songs enact a sinuous synthesis between music and sung phrases.

A lover of puzzles and homicide mysteries, Sondheim delighted in a sort of rhyming brinkmanship; he as soon as made Cole Porter gasp with a bravura quadruple rhyme scheme. For all his verbal brilliance, nevertheless, he disdained displaying off. Phrases and music needed to be true to the character.

He got here out as homosexual in his 40s however most popular to maintain his non-public life to himself; he’s survived by his husband Jeffrey Romley. He had a beneficiant method in individual, in no way grand or self-smitten. Regardless of his estrangement from his mom, or possibly due to it, he wrote great roles for ladies. Though he defied the pat conclusion of joyful endings, an inquisitive sense of chance pulses all through his work. Within the phrases of “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Alongside: “That is the place we started, being what we will.”

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