Towering musical theater lyricist, composer, and legend Stephen Sondheim took the theater world by storm this week, following the news of his death at the age of 91. The Connecticut-native playwright who tackled emotive, dark themes never been done before in musical theater has theaters named after his legacy, both on West End in London and Broadway in New York.
Known for his massive, award-winning musicals, his credits include “West Side Story,” “Follies,” “Company,” “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd.”
His accolades span decades, dating back to the 1950s. Sondheim is the recipient of eight Tony Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, as well as eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award. In 2015, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for his significant contribution to American culture.
Like the rest of the world, UM students expressed their thoughts and feelings surrounding the Broadway icon’s death.
Anna Ward, a senior nursing student, talked about how Sondheim’s passing blew up on social media.
“The news of his death hit social media fairly quickly and that’s how I found out,” Ward said. “My Twitter and TikTok were suddenly full of people mourning and giving tribute to his work.”
She explained how influential Sondheim’s works were on her formative years.
“I grew up obsessed with ‘West Side Story,’” she said. “The lyrics Sondheim wrote captivated me and drew me into the world of musicals. I used to run around my house singing them to anyone who would listen. I found ‘West Side Story’ so much more interesting than the other more classical musicals my mom showed me like ‘South Pacific’ and ‘Oklahoma.’”
John Roberts, an alumnus of UM’s musical theater program, discussed the gravity of Sondheim’s passing.
“I was sad to hear about his passing,” Roberts said. “It is a shame he died. I heard he was writing a musical that would touch base on the times we’ve all been living in. I thought that was quite lovely considering his age and how much he has already contributed to the world. I would have placed a considerable amount of faith, trust and hope in him to quite literally capture exactly how we are all feeling.”
Roberts explained what makes Sondheim such a legend in the musical theater world.
“Sondheim is a triple threat,” he said. “He’s a composer, a lyricist and a genius. Sondheim combined his love for music and stories and created masterpieces. A master in his craft, Sondheim created legendary works of art that will live on forever in our minds, hearts and souls.”
Jenna Hochkammer, a senior musical theater student, agreed with Roberts and added that she was a big fan of Sondheim’s work.
“He is one of the most influential musical theater composers of the 21st century,” said Hochkammer. “His passing is sad, but I am also incredibly thankful for the beautiful work he left behind. Not only is his work perfectly crafted, but it is also incredibly artful and beautiful.”
Ward echoed the sentiments of Hockhammer and Roberts, describing the sadness that Sondheim’s death left her with.
“It’s especially sad knowing that the ‘West Side Story’ remake is less than a month away from premiering,” Ward said. “The new actress who plays Maria brings his lyrics to life in such a beautiful way, so I’m sad that he won’t be able to see a whole new generation fall in love with his work the way I did.”
Ward insisted that the legendary Broadway lyricist’s impact on modern-day musicals is clear and not to be forgotten.
“I think that Sondheim helped to break the stereotypical mold for what musicals can be,” she said. “He opened new doors through his work and inspired the creators of present day musicals to branch out from the typical musical genre.”