Reel Streaming: Stephen Sondheim Goes to the Movies
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 61
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
The great American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, whose repertoire stands as the most influential, respected and beloved in musical theater, died on November 26 at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 91.
With more than a dozen major musicals and hundreds of songs to his credit, Sondheim was active for nearly 70 years in a career that garnered him an astonishing collection of accolades: eight Tony Awards (one for Lifetime Achievement), eight Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, an Olivier Award, a Pulitzer Prize, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Broadway theater officially renamed in his honor (the former Henry Miller’s Theater on West 43rd Street).
But it was lovers of musical theater who received the real awards—make that rewards—which came in the form of the remarkable music and lyrics Sondheim crafted. His rich, varied and innovative creations redefined the nature of Broadway musicals, which up until the late-Forties, were primarily the straight-ahead stuff of love stories and comedies. With the arrival of Sondheim, the complexities and shadings of real life and human nature came to the fore—in song!
From the spirited (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; 1962) to the savagely spectacular (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; 1979) to the superlative (West Side Story; 1957), Sondheim’s works gamely reflected his goal to take on a wide mix of subjects—from wisecracking’ ancient Greeks to blood-thirsty Victorian barbers to a forbidden romance on the Upper West Side of New York City in the Fifties. While a number of his musicals were made into films (like the above trio), it’s not really a surprise that nearly as many never made the jump to the big screen. Honestly, it had to be tough for prospective producers to imagine film versions of musicals like 1974’s The Frogs, a bizarre metaphorical comedy adapted from a play by Aristophanes about a plot to resurrect George Bernard Shaw from Hades. Or 1976’s Pacific Overtures, which concerns the Westernization of Japan in the 19th century as told from the Japanese point of view.
Though Sondheim’s relationship to the movies wasn’t really a symbiotic one, it’s worth noting that a pair of his most romantic and personal works—1973’s A Little Night Music and 1994’s Passion—were inspired by foreign films. The former was sparked by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 romantic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, and the latter by the 1981 drama Passione d’Amore by Italy’s Ettore Scola. Over the past couple of decades, Sondheim also fiddled around with a never-produced musical combining two movies by surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, 1962’s The Exterminating Angel and 1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Another of his foreign affairs was with French New Waver Alain Resnais’s 1974 crime drama Stavisky, for which he composed the sumptuous score.
Still, even as Sondheim’s vocation was primarily fulfilled onstage in the theater, his involvement with the movies—apart from film versions of his Broadway musicals—did yield a few interesting results.
Sondheim’s one and only screenwriting credit is for the lively 1973 murder mystery The Last of Sheila, which he cowrote with Anthony Perkins. Featuring an ensemble that includes Richard Benjamin, Raquel Welch, James Mason, Ian McShane and Dyan Cannon, the film is set aboard a yacht in the Mediterranean where a group of well-heeled guests engage in a puzzle-filled scavenger hunt over the course of a weekend. But what begins as a game quickly become a little deadlier than expected.
Inspired by a series of elaborate, real-life scavenger hunts devised by buddies Sondheim and Perkins for their circle of Manhattan friends, Sheila was helmed by Broadway director-filmmaker Herbert Ross. The setup and ensemble are a lot of fun, particularly Ms. Cannon, whose brassy character was based on the well-known Hollywood super-agent Sue Mengers. It plays like a drawing room mystery, albeit one set on the water that is more intricately scripted and complicated than your average whodunit. Years earlier, Sondheim actually launched his professional career writing drawing room-styled teleplays for the 1953 fantastical drawing-room sitcom Topper, starring Anne Jeffreys, Robert Sterling and the great Leo G. Carroll.
In the late Seventies, Sondheim was conscripted by no less a Hollywood powerhouse than Warren Beatty to compose the score for his 1981 historical epic Reds. It didn’t wholly work out; Dave Grusin ultimately came in and wrote the majority of the score. But Sondheim did contribute the film’s recurring love theme, the very beautiful “Goodbye For Now,” which winds its way through the picture as Beatty and leading lady Diane Keaton’s characters find themselves separated by their beliefs (political) and borders (geographical). It’s at its most lovely when the two are reunited in a Moscow train station at the film’s climax.
Several years later, Sondheim wrote five songs for Beatty’s 1990 colorful comic book fantasia Dick Tracy, four of which are sung by Beatty’s co-star and then-girlfriend Madonna. One of them, the Thirties-styled, bluesy torch song “Sooner or Later” won Sondheim his Oscar that year.
Along with presenting Madonna a clearly challenging vocal workout—she sings in a lower register than she’d ever attempted before–“Sooner or Later” contains one of my favorite Sondheim lyrics. The deceptively simple words and wit of the verse find Madonna’s slinky Breathless Mahoney character sizing up her future with the titular cartoon-inspired cop:
It's just a question of when
When I get a yen
Then baby, amen
I'm counting to ten
So now, the week of his passing, Stephen Sondheim is as busy as ever. A revival of his 1990 musical Assassins is currently running Off-Broadway at the Classic Stage Company (he attended the opening on November 14) and a Broadway revival of 1970’s Company is currently in previews and is opening on December 9. (Check out D.A. Pennebaker’s 1970 short documentary Original Cast Album: Company, an outstanding chronicle of the original production.) And on December 10 comes the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s hotly anticipated new film version of the glorious West Side Story, the lyrics of which Sondheim wrote opposite Leonard Bernstein’s music.
The fact that Sondheim’s legacy is everywhere and thriving like a Broadway hit even as I write this tribute is the kind of morbidly shticky joke one might find in a darkly brilliant Sondheim musical like Sweeney Todd or Assassins.
In keeping with that tone, I’ll leave the final word with Krusty the Clown of The Simpsons. In “Yokel Chords,” a 2007 episode of the venerable TV show, the half-baked harlequin approaches guest star Sondheim to write new songs for his children’s television program—with mixed results.
“Complex harmonies, sophisticated lyrics, pithy observations on everyday life—what is this crap?,” groans Krusty as he listens to Sondheim’s efforts. The legendary composer quickly moves on to craft a jingle for the show’s popular Buzz Cola soft drink:
President or Ayatollah
Everyone loves new Buzz Cola!
The first two phrases are exactly the kind of “peppy vamp” that Krusty was imagining. That it’s countered by a final, sour flourish makes it pure Sondheim.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.