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Sondheim reshaped musical theatre, placing it at the very heart of American culture

If you’ve ever used the phrases “everything’s coming up roses” or “the ladies who lunch”, you have Stephen Sondheim to thank. He coined them in his lyrics for Gypsy (1959) and Company (1970), two of his most celebrated musicals. But for all the felicitousness of his work as a lyricist, he saw himself as a composer. In truth, not only was he both, the combination catapulted him into a league of his own.

Within moments of news breaking of his sudden death in the early hours of Friday after a Thanksgiving dinner with old friends, shocked tributes began flooding social media. This wasn’t only theatreland in mourning. Sondheim’s remarkable influence across popular culture was startlingly current for an artist still working at 91.

Before the pandemic, his work was everywhere. In 2019 alone, Adam Driver sang Being Alive, his anthem of hope from Company, in the film Marriage Story; Daniel Craig hummed a few bars of his Follies torch song Losing My Mind in Knives Out; his biggest, Grammy-winning hit Send in the Clowns appeared to ironic effect sung by the ringleader of Joaquin Phoenix’s attackers in Joker; Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series The Politician used numbers from Assassins and Jennifer Aniston and Billy Crudup duetted his bittersweet love song Not While I’m Around from Sweeney Todd on AppleTV’s The Morning Show.

Related: 'His songs are like a fabulous steak': an all-star toast to Stephen Sondheim

His primacy within wider culture came from the widest possible acknowledgement that not only had Sondheim created a succession of groundbreaking hits, but that in the mostly reactionary world of the American musical, he was a revolutionary. It started with his Broadway debut, when he was hired aged 25 as lyricist by director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and bookwriter (Broadway’s term for librettist) Arthur Laurents for a show about New York gangland violence. It was originally called Gang Way but, mercifully, they changed the title to West Side Story.

Until its 1957 opening, no other Broadway musical had ended with a pile-up of dead bodies. Its success gave him a licence to continue in his chosen vein: creative rule-breaking. Although he was later unhappy with his work on it – he particularly inveighed against his decision to give ill-educated, Puerto Rican Maria (in I Feel Pretty) the line: “It’s alarming how charming I feel” – Broadway success and the 11-Oscar-winning movie that followed put him on the map and money in the bank. The original soundtrack album sat at No 1 in the charts for a record-breaking 54 weeks and was the biggest-selling album of the entire 1960s. From the word go, people were singing his songs.

Or, rather, his lyrics. Sondheim didn’t become a Broadway composer until 1962 with the uproarious Roman farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. With its riotously funny book by Sondheim’s friend Burt Shevelove and Larry M*A*S*H Gelbart, it ran for a hugely profitable three years, played in London starring Frankie Howerd. It formed the (unacknowledged) inspiration for Howerd’s hit TV series Up Pompeii!

But Sondheim’s score was overlooked and he spent the rest of the decade being notably aggrieved, grumbling to friends and toiling with little discernible success until the opening of Company, which changed everything, not least because it ushered in his landmark partnership withthe legendary producer/director and lifelong friend Hal Prince. Over the next 11 years, they created what is now routinely regarded as the most daring succession of iconoclastic shows – musical or otherwise – in American theatre history.

No one else would have had the gall to write the daringly plotless Company, the serial-killer-thriller musical Sweeney Todd (later filmed by Tim Burton) or, most audacious of all, Pacific Overtures, his musical about the opening up of Japan by the west. The last of those contained Someone in a Tree, which he often described as his favourite of his songs. Small wonder since it weaves several perspective into a richly complex song about doubt, about what people simultaneously see and don’t see.

Related: ‘I’m a great audience – I cry very easily’: Stephen Sondheim in his own words

His gorgeously scored 1981 show, Merrily We Roll Along, was radically structured (it was told backwards) and dealt with artistic hope wrecked by blind ambition. A thunderous flop, it managed only 14 performances and Sondheim retreated. He’d have been forgiven for returning three years later with something crowd-pleasing but Sondheim forever believed in safety last.

For the second half of his career, he became more, not less, experimental. Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods and Passion, all created with writer/director James Lapine, persistently reinvented musical theatre’s structural, thematic and dramatic possibilities. He believed his theatrical voice was most present in his distinctive, vividly dramatic use of harmony. But it was also present in his fascination with ambivalence, his music and lyrics in perfect balance to express conflicts coursing through character. Detractors claimed his clear-eyed vision was cynical, which he vehemently denied. He was actually a fascinating contradiction: a romantic moderated by realism.

Like British playwright Caryl Churchill, whose work he admired, each of his shows sounds and feels completely different while still bearing his hallmark. He loathed the idea of repeating himself. He was forever searching for and creating new forms with which to express ideas. It’s that which made widespread commercial success for much of his work elusive. Yet it also made him the most influential theatre artist of the second half of the 20th century. His expanding of theatrical possibilities paved the way for game-changers such as Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Only in September he announced the new musical, Square One, which he was writing with dramatist David Ives. It will now never be finished. Absurd though it sounds for a man of his age, it makes his death yet more untimely.

I asked him a few years ago if he feared death. “I think about it a lot now,” he mused. “I have to keep telling myself how close it is. You don’t feel that unless you’re ill. And, for the most part, I’ve been very lucky with my health. So I’m used to feeling like there’s plenty of tomorrows.” He looked at me and said, decisively: “I don’t mind the idea of death at all. I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to know that I’m dying.”

Mercifully for him, he got his wish.

David Benedict is the official biographer of Stephen Sondheim