Gay lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim died at the age of 91 on November 26, 2021, at his home in Connecticut. He was working up until the end, having recently participated in an interview with the New York Times on the Sunday before he died. In the interview he talked about upcoming projects and, in a poetic twist of fate, about the upcoming remake of one of his earliest and most famous works, West Side Story. The musical was turned into a movie in 1961, and the highly anticipated Steven Speilberg remake is set for release on December 10.
Over the course of his storied career, Sondheim reshaped the musical theater. He received nine Tony and eight Grammy awards. President Barack Obama awarded the genius with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Sondheim came out as gay at the age of 40, and was married to Jeffrey Scott Romley, 41. In a 2017 OutSmart interview, Houston singer Jim Sikorski recalled working with Sondheim in 1984 when the composer was in Houston to work on a production of his musical Sweeny Todd, one of Sondheim’s many masterpieces.
“It was exciting seeing him work with the performers,” Sikorski said. “It was like watching a kid in a candy store. He would hear things, and it would just come alive for him. He was also out at the leather bars every night.”
Sondheim was prolific. People throughout the world hear his songs without even knowing it. At age ten, he formed a close friendship with the son of Oscar Hammerstein II (of Rodgers and Hammerstein), and Oscar soon became like a surrogate father to the burgeoning artist.
“Send In the Clowns,” from his musical A Little Night Music, has been performed by artists like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and, perhaps most notably, by Judy Collins.
In addition to West Side Story, many of his other musicals have been turned into big-budget films. Most recently, Into the Woods starring Meryl Streep and Sweeny Todd starring Johnny Depp were adapted for the silver screen.
Sondheim was always open to adapting his works to bring them into modern times. Currently on Broadway is the reboot of his classic musical Company. The original production told the story of marriage through the eyes of a single, straight bachelor and his bevvy of married friends. Sondheim updated it to make the main character female, and also layered in queer representation via a gay couple about to be married. He adapted one of his more playful (and fast) songs, “Getting Married Today,” to reflect the struggles of that particular couple.
Sondheim also found inspiration in the bizarre, and his 1990 musical Assassins is an example. The characters were based on real American assassins who tried (and sometimes succeeded) to kill American presidents. Although not widely popular, it grew a cult following among self-described “theater nerds.”
Sondheim eagerly returned to the theater as soon as the curtain went back up following the COVID-19 shutdown. On November 14, he attended the off-Broadway opening of Assassins in lower Manhattan. The next night he was watching Company, which has resumed its previews after the COVID hiatus.
Sondheim had celebrated Thanksgiving with several friends shortly before his sudden death. He was not known to have been ill.