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Perfectionist. Genius. Icon. That was Stephen Sondheim

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NEW YORK (AP) — In 2010, the year he turned 80, Stephen Sondheim had to endure a public fuss when a Broadway theater was being renamed in his honor.

At a ceremony outside the 1,055-seat auditorium on West 43rd Street, the composer looked sheepish by the time he got to the podium following gushing words from admirers that included Patti LuPone and Nathan Lane. He also offered up a window into his psyche.

“I’m thrilled, but deeply embarrassed,” he said, tearing up as a mid-September sun fell over the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. “I’ve always hated my last name. It just doesn’t sing.”

The comment revealed how Sondheim’s brilliant musicality and his perfectionism went hand-in-hand. The theatrical giant, who died Friday at 91, was as complex as his lyrics, dogmatic in his rules and not generous with praise about his work.

A driven, obsessive purist, he was also a magician, creating lyrics and music to such towering shows as “A Little Night Music,” “Into the Woods,” “Company,” “Follies” and “Sunday in the Park with George.”

But he was also his worst critic. Take, for example, his feeling about the iconic song “America” from “West Side Story,” for which he supplied the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music.

“Some lines of this lyric are respectably sharp and crisp, but some melt in the mouth as gracelessly as peanut butter and are impossible to comprehend, such as ‘For a small fee in America,’ which smashes the l’s and the f’s together, making it sound like ‘For a smafee,’” he wrote in his autobiographical self-critique, which took two volumes.

To the rest of us, Sondheim was genius, whether with the simple lament, “The sun comes up/I think about you/The coffee cup/I think about you,” or the slightly paranoid, “Be careful the things you say/Children will listen,” or the sublime “Marry me a little/Do it with a will/Make a few demands/I’m able to fulfill.”

Six of Sondheim’s musicals won Tony Awards for best score, and he also received a Pulitzer Prize (“Sunday in the Park”), an Academy Award (for the song “Sooner or Later” from the film “Dick Tracy”), five Olivier Awards and the Presidential Medal of Honor. In 2008, he received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement.

He had been working on a new musical with “Venus in Fur” playwright David Ives, who called his collaborator a genius. “Not only are his musicals brilliant, but I can’t think of another theater person who has so chronicled a whole age so eloquently,” Ives said in 2013. “He is the spirit of the age in a certain way.”

Early in his career, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for two shows considered to be classics of the American........

© The Times of Israel

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