Stephen Sondheim could break your heart and make you hear the world anew

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Stephen Sondheim, who has died aged 91, was the towering genius of mid-late 20th century American musical theatre, whose reputation at home and abroad continued to grow in the new century. As a peerlessly talented composer, lyricist and theatrical visionary he revitalised the form, renewing and enhancing its status. His work will live on, his influence will endure. Whether anyone will come close to matching his achievements is debatable.

Andrew Lloyd-Webber far out-stripped Sondheim for ticket-sales on Broadway. But there’s no question which composer mattered more to American theatre or bestowed more prestige and legitimacy on the Great White Way as a crucible for new musicals.

Sondheim’s variable commercial fortunes in his native Manhattan flowed from his appetite for complexity and challenging material. He had his share of ‘flops’, most notoriously Merrily We Roll Along, which ran for 16 performances after opening in 1981, and almost saw him quit theatre for good. It has since been hailed as a classic.

His work blossomed at times in the West End but benefited most from London’s off-West End and subsidised stages. Many of his shows were given a new lease of life in the UK over the past few decades, some of them transferring to New York (most recently Marianne Elliott’s gender-flipped Company). An Anglophile, he penned Sweeney Todd, perhaps the most remorselessly thrilling (and the most gruesomely entertaining) British-set musical ever written, as a love-letter to London. The special relationship was confirmed with the renaming of the Queen’s theatre after him in 2019.

Above and beyond embodying a spirit of Anglo-American mutual admiration, Sondheim represented a crucial bridge between the so-called “golden age of the American musical” (c1925-1960, he suggested) and an era when Broadway’s cultural pre-eminence waned in the face of the proliferation of rock and pop, and growth of television. 

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