By Alan Hurst
The passing of Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim last Friday at the age of 91 marked the end of an era for musical theatre. Although his musicals often struggled for financial success, their impact was undeniable – both at the time of their debut and in the numerous revivals since. He made a difference by tackling complicated, daring subjects that didn’t seem like they could be musicalized, but he knew what he was doing.
The list of his stage credits is staggering: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, and Passion. And those are just the musicals where he served as both composer and lyricist. He also provided the lyrics for two major musicals of the late 1950’s – West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein) and Gypsy (music by Jule Styne). A few years later he worked with the legendary Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz, an adaptation of the play The Time of the Cuckoo and the 1955 Katharine Hepburn film Summertime. A wonderful score, but not a hit. Along the way he won multiple Tonys, Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and he was a Kennedy Centre honoree.
Sondheim was also an Oscar winner, winning for Best Song for “Sooner or Later”, the torch song from Dick Tracy (1990) that even Madonna couldn’t ruin with her shaky vocals. But Sondheim’s success in film was more fitful than sustained. I think there are a couple of reasons for that: Sondheim’s rise unfortunately coincided with the decline of the Hollywood musical and, more importantly, some of his creations may just not lend themselves to film.
These are the key representations of Sondheim’s art on film:
WEST SIDE STORY (1961) – It was a controversial hit on Broadway in the 1957-58 season, but most of the attention went to Jerome Robbins’ staging and choreography and Leonard Bernstein’s stunningly orchestrated compositions. Sondheim’s lyrics seemed to get short shrift, at least initially. But with the Oscar winning film adaptation, the smart, biting and romantic lyrics are preserved forever and ensured that many of these songs – “Somewhere”, “America”, “Something’s Coming”, “Tonight” and “Maria” – became part of the American songbook. Co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, this is one of the best film adaptations of a Broadway musical to hit the screen.
GYPSY (1962) – Gypsy is regarded by many as the best Broadway musical ever written. I’m in that camp. It has a staggeringly perfect score, a tight, we’ll structured and moving book, and it’s lead role is probably the best showcase there is for an actress who can sing. On Broadway it starred Ethel Merman as Rose, the aggressive stage mother of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, pushing her kids to stardom. The film, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is a faithful if uninspired adaptation of the musical that made the mistake of casting Rosalind Russell in the lead. Too strident, too mechanical, and just too loud, Russell struggles. It also doesn’t help that her voice is dubbed. The character of Rose gets some of the best songs ever written, so why cast someone who can’t sing the songs? Well, the answer to that is because Russell’s husband bought the film rights. But it doesn’t do the score any favours. The film’s most pleasant surprise is the performance of Natalie Wood as Gypsy. Wood, who had the lead in the film West Side Story where she was dubbed, does he own singing here and she’s perfect as the young woman with no illusion about her talent. It’s one of Wood’s best performances.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (1966) – This is one of the funniest musicals in Broadway history. It was inspired by the farces of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus and tells the story of Pseudolus and his attempts to win his freedom by helping his young master get the girl next door. It’s probably Sondheim’s most comical score as well as most broad. Richard Lester, fresh off A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), directed. He cast both Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford from the original cast and included comics Phil Silvers and Buster Keaton. The movie is fun, but Sondheim’s score and the burlesque inspired book play better on stage.
THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973) – Sondheim and actor Anthony Perkins were good friends in real life and fascinated by games. They turned that interest into a screenplay, a murder mystery set aboard a yacht with a group of not very likeable characters culled from the Hollywood of the 1970’s. Herbert Ross was the director and the cast included Dyan Cannon, James Mason, Raquel Welch, and James Coburn. It’s both a witty and nastily clever take twist on a well trod genre.
STAVISKY (1974) – Sondheim provided the acclaimed background score for Alan Resnais’ film about a swindler whose actions were a catalyst for a political crisis in France in the final years of WWII. This film came along in the midst of Sondheim’s most productive period on Broadway, just after his latest Tony for A Little Night Music. The film marked one of Charles Boyer’s final performances.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1977) – This movie is so frustrating. It’s an adaptation of one of Sondheim’s best musicals, which itself was an adaptation of the superb and comical Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). Both the film and the musical are as near perfect as possible. But this 1977 film ends up being an unfortunate example of how bad an adaption of a Broadway musical can be when people behind the camera don’t have a clue about what they’re doing. Directed by Hal Prince, who directed the Broadway production, it’s a mess. Set in 1900 Austria, it should be visually stunning film but it’s not. The film looks muddy, the staging and pacing are off, there are cuts to the songs that don’t make sense. At the time critic Paul Kael said it was directed as if Hal Prince had never seen a movie. The performers do what they can, but Prince’s shortcomings as a film director do not help Elizabeth Taylor, cast as the aging actress Desiree. The cinematography is not flattering, her costumes make the actress seem shorter and plumper than she is and, try as she might, she cannot deliver the films signature tune, “Send in the Clowns”.
REDS (1981) – This is one of the great epic films of all-time and Sondheim’s first collaboration with Warren Beatty. Sondheim’s background score is a pastiche of the music of the period and a subtly effective and evocative way to transport the audience back to the early 1900’s, without undercutting the politics and the romance that Beatty has as the film’s anchor.
DICK TRACY (1990) – Sondheim provided the songs for Warren Beatty’s colorful, entertaining film based on the comic strip character Dick Tracy. They’re good songs, particularly “Sooner or Later” (which won him an Oscar) and “Back in Business”, but they’re minor Sondheim.
GYPSY (1993) – This was a TV film developed specifically to showcase Bette Midler. She’s brassy, funny, if just a little too overbearing as Rose, the mother of all showbiz mothers. What helps here, compared to the 1962 version with Rosalind Russell, is that Midler does her own singing and she’s terrific. She delivers in both the quiet and brassy moments and her version of the climactic “Rose’s Turn” is a stunner.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (2007) – Tim’s Burton’s version of Sondheim’s dark, bloody, macabre Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a visual masterpiece. 1840’s London has never looked so threatening or beautiful. The musical is the story of a barber who returns to London after being wrongfully imprisoned, determined to avenge the rape and death of his wife. He returns to barbering, with the sinister support of Mrs. Lovett, who runs a pie shop. Their devious partnership has him murdering his victims, who are then used as filling for her meat pies. When it opened on Broadway in the late seventies, critics and audiences were both shocked and enthralled by the score, production and performances of Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. It was a major hit, but it took almost 30 years for the movie to be made. Tim Burton was the ideal choice to direct and Johnny Depp was perfect as Sweeney, even handling the demanding vocals required by Sondheim’s score. The film’s only misstep is the casting of Helena Bonham-Carter as Mrs. Lovett. She acts the part beautifully and she and Depp make a terrific team but, and this is a big but, she’s not a singer. Her small voice diminishes all of Mrs. Lovett’s songs which need a passionate, big voice.
INTO THE WOODS (2014) – I saw the original production of Into the Woods in New York in 1988 just before some members of the original cast left the production. I remember being blown away by the performances of Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason as the witch and the baker’s wife, by the dizzyingly comic structure of act one and then the devastating repercussions of act two, and by the wit and incisiveness of Sondheim’s music. Rob Reiner tried to get a film version off the ground in the 1990’s with Cher, Goldie Hawn and Robin Williams, but it didn’t happen. Rob Marshall and Disney finally brought it to the screen in 2014 and it’s a very good adaptation of a musical that, over the years, has become one of Sondheim’s most popular. The film is a visual treat, if a times a little frenetic, but Sondheim’s score is handled beautifully and the impact of the second act – after everyone gets their wish – is still powerful. Meryl Streep surprised me as the witch – her vocals are stronger than I thought they would be and she’s nails the comedy, but I do admit to wishing they had been able to entice Barbra Streisand to try this one. Streisand singing Sondheim in a movie would have been perfect. Emily Blunt and James Corden are also very good as the baker and his wife.
WEST SIDE STORY (2021) – Did this need a remake? Steven Spielberg thinks so and we will soon see what he’s bringing to the screen, 60 years after the original film won 10 Oscars. Advance buzz is mostly positive, the casting seems right, but I’m slightly apprehensive. The trailer seems to downplay the score (the only reason for West Side Story to exist), but I’m hoping the film doesn’t. Fingers are crossed!
MORE TO COME – More film productions of Sondheim’s musicals are in the works. Merrily We Roll Along, a major flop from 1981 but still a wonderful musical, is slated to be directed by Richard Linklater and feature Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein. There are rumours that Follies may also finally be filmed. This is my favourite Sondheim musical, a story about a group of performers gathering at the theatre where they once performed, before it’s torn down. The score is astonishing. There were rumours in the 1970’s about this being filmed, transferring the setting to a Hollywood soundstage with a “wish list” cast of Henry Fonda, Gene Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley MacLaine in the leads, with supporting turns from Debbie Reynolds, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Ann Miller, etc. Again, fingers crossed.
There are also a number of taped versions of Sondheim’s Broadway productions you can watch on streaming services or DVD – Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods. There are also DVD’s of revivals of Sweeney Todd (one with Patti LuPone, one with Emma Thompson), A Little Night Music, Gypsy, Follies, Company and the revue Putting it Together with Carol Burnett. You can also track down Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall (1993) with spectacular musical performances from Liza Minnelli, Glenn Close, Betty Buckley and many others. And there’s also Sondheim! The Birthday Concert (2011) featuring a dazzling group of performers and songs in celebration of the composer’s 80th Birthday.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.