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  • Jonny Diaz

The Cinema of Sondheim


Originally published December 5, 2019.

It’s clear that Stephen Sondheim is having a bit of a moment at the movies this fall. It shouldn’t come as a surprise; the legendary Broadway composer-lyricist is no stranger to having his work adapted and repurposed for the screen. But with three major films in 2019 featuring his songs (to varying degrees of success), a revival adaptation of one of his most beloved musicals coming in 2020 and two more recently announced, it seems that, at age 89, Sondheim’s cinematic influence is as strong as ever. So why is it that Sondheim’s catalog remains so prevalent among modern filmmakers? It’s a testament to both his stature as musical theatre’s greatest living composer and decades of cross-pollination between his theatre work and the film world. ​ Sondheim wasn’t always the elder statesman of Broadway that he is today. In his youth, he was an innovator, broadening and deepening the language of musical theatre in ways that audiences couldn’t quite grasp--not unlike some of the iconoclastic filmmakers now incorporating him into their movies. But in his early career, it was Sondheim who took his influence from cinema, infusing his characters and lyrics with deep psychological introspection and experimental narrative structures that evoke the New Hollywood filmmakers of the 1970s. His formal relationship with cinema has been inconsistent, but he has long been admired by his peers in the theatre world and the critical establishment, ultimately evolving into the kind of artistic titan whose work can’t help but bleed across different forms of media.  Sondheim, a protege of legendary songwriter Oscar Hammerstein II (of that Rodgers and Hammerstein), began his career as a lyricist in the 1950s, working with established composers like Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne on West Side Story and Gypsy, respectively. Both are among the most successful and acclaimed musicals of all time, and both received successful film adaptations shortly after their initial Broadway runs.


West Side Story obviously needs little introduction. The stage production was groundbreaking in its use of dance, its fusion of jazz and classical musical styles, and its presentation of then-contemporary race relations and explicit violence. Even at this early stage, Sondheim’s lyrics possess a distinctive sophistication, which, when paired with Bernstein’s soaring score, elevates West Side to the level of its Shakespearean source material. The 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story won ten Oscars, including Best Picture, was the second-highest grossing film of its year, and remains among the most beloved movie musicals in history.  Gypsy may be less well-known than West Side Story by non-musical aficionados, but it’s no less of an achievement. A behind-the-curtain vaudeville drama about a domineering stage mother who pushes her children to stardom through sheer force of will, Gypsy has been hailed by critics as the pinnacle of the artform: musical theatre’s answer to Hamlet or King Lear. The list of theatrical luminaries who have taken on the lead role of Mama Rose is staggering: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, and Imelda Staunton have all taken swings at it on Broadway or the West End. Gypsy continues to be revived for the stage, and has been twice adapted to film: a 1962 theatrical version starring Rosalind Russell was a top ten box office hit in its year, and was nominated for three Oscars, and a 1993 TV movie won Bette Midler a Golden Globe and was nominated for a raft of Emmys. Barbra Streisand has spent decades threatening to produce a third version for herself. There’s a reason that stage and screen stars of this caliber have sought out this material with such vigor. With Gypsy, Sondheim showed early signs of another signature trademark--his lyrics reveal deep emotional and psychological complexities in his characters, rendering them such vivid dimension that generations of actors have tripped over each other for the chance to play them.


In addition to their own well-received adaptations, West Side Story and Gypsy also produced standards that have been repurposed and reused in countless other films--songs like ”I Feel Pretty,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Let Me Entertain You,” and “America” have populated the cinematic landscape for decades. But because Sondheim only contributed the lyrics to those musicals, working alongside other creative titans like director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, writer Arthur Laurents, and the aforementioned composers Bernstein and Styne, his legacy on screen feels less closely tied to them than later adaptations of musicals for which he is seen as the primary creative force. Following these early successes, Sondheim’s cinematic track record would become much spottier.  Sondheim’s first hit as both composer and lyricist was 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a bawdy comedy based on ancient Roman farces. It was adapted to film in 1966 with original star Zero Mostel and a supporting performance from Buster Keaton, in what would be his last film role. Forum was a moderate success at the box office, but it would mark the last successful film adaptation of a Sondheim musical for nearly four decades.

United Artists

After Forum, there would only be one more contemporaneous cinematic adaptation of a Sondheim musical: A Little Night Music, a romantic romp involving several mismatched couples, was itself an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s fantastic farce Smiles of a Summer Night. It premiered on Broadway in 1973 and was an artistic success, not least due to the inclusion of “Send in the Clowns,” which would become Sondheim’s most popular song after recordings by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins. (More on that one later). It was adapted to film by producer-director Hal Prince, the most awarded individual in the history of the Tonys and a major creative partner in much of Sondheim’s stage work.  Unfortunately, Prince’s golden touch was confined to the Great White Way, and the film version of Night Music, which starred Elizabeth Taylor (in the midst of a wildly inconsistent career slump) as actress Desiree Armfeldt, was a critical and commercial failure. The disappointment of A Little Night Music, along with the declining overall popularity of the movie musical, would lead to a long drought for Sondheim on the silver screen.

New World Pictures

Ironically, Sondheim’s relative absence from movie screens in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with his most prolific and successful period on Broadway. Over the 18 year period from 1970-1988, Sondheim produced much of his most celebrated work. He experimented with content and form, and his lyrics became increasingly characterized by a deep sense of psychological and moral introspection while his music developed a complexity virtually unparalleled by his contemporaries. As the decades progressed, he generated musicals focused on character dynamics and relationships, rather than plot-driven narrative arcs, a departure from what were then the dominant forces of the artform. His musicals often dealt with topics that could be charitably characterized as aggressively uncommercial, but his innovative ability to realize complex emotional truths through song led to the creation of some of musical theatre’s most daring accomplishments and indelible characters. Unfortunately, Sondheim’s artistic experimentation and willingness to embrace uncomfortable subject matter meant that Hollywood wouldn’t come calling again for some time. Unlike contemporaries like Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim’s musicals don’t often contain big, splashy production numbers or uplifting melodies. He endured some financial flops that wouldn’t have been adapted even by a film industry still investing in musicals (Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along) and his work often relies so heavily on utilization or subversion of the unique elements of the theatrical form that adaptation could prove difficult, if not impossible (Company, Assassins). It wouldn’t be until the post-Chicago movie musical revival period of the early 21st century that Sondheim musicals would return to cinemas, with Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 2007 and Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods in 2014. 

Dreamworks; Disney

Both Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods were moderate successes at the box office and received a smattering of awards attention, but neither is an unqualified triumph, and critically, neither is as artistically daring or inventive as their sources. The film adaptation of Into the Woods, produced by Disney, suffers from the watering down of its darker themes for a more family-friendly audience, and lacks the emotional punch that the stage version can pack when done right. Sweeney gets closer, but the limited vocal abilities of its cast and Burton’s reluctance to make a full-fledged musical (all of the stage version’s ensemble performances are cut) limit its effectiveness. Still, both films feature fantastic designs and gorgeous symphonic orchestrations of Sondheim’s scores, along with talented, if imperfect casts. Woods, in particular, has standout comedic and musical work from Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, and a sublime Chris Pine. Meanwhile, Burton regulars Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Alan Rickman lead a strong cast in Sweeney that succeeds despite their obvious vocal limitations.   Sondheim wasn’t completely absent from screens in the intervening decades between Night Music and Sweeney, though. Amidst his theatrical success, he intermittently composed for film as well, including for Alain Resnais’s Stavisky and a gorgeous, sweeping score for Warren Beatty’s epic Reds. Beatty, clearly a fan, called on Sondheim again to write songs for his 1990 adaptation of Dick Tracy. For the sultry club song “Sooner or Later,” performed by Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney multiple times throughout the film, he won the Oscar for Best Original Song, on his only nomination to date (the movie versions of Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods mercifully eschewed the common trope of transparently adding a new song to a stage musical just for awards attention). He followed up his Oscar win by writing songs for fellow Broadway luminary Mike Nichols in The Birdcage, and songs from his various stage musicals have continued to appear in films from Postcards from the Edge (“I’m Still Here”) to Paddington 2 (“Rain on the Roof”) to Lady Bird (“Everybody Says Don’t,” “Giants in the Sky,” an entire high school production of Merrily We Roll Along).


[Editor’s Note: Spoilers for Joker, Knives Out, and Marriage Story follow from here on out] Given Sondheim’s truly unparalleled stature in musical theatre, it’s difficult to identify a true analogue in the film world, but the closest may be Martin Scorsese. Both Sondheim and Scorsese shifted the paradigms of their artforms, accumulated countless industry accolades over the course of storied careers, and spawned numerous imitators--which brings us to Joker, the first 2019 release to incorporate Sondheim’s work.

Warner Bros.

Todd Phillips’s comic book adaptation, which contains numerous allusions to Scorsese classics like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, also prominently features Sondheim in one of its more pivotal sequences. At a critical turning point in Joker, Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, clad in full clown costume and makeup, encounters three drunk Wall Street-types on an otherwise empty subway car who mercilessly mock and beat him. In a truly bizarre turn, the businessmen soundtrack their assault by singing “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music at Arthur. Setting aside my skepticism that three drunk finance bros would all know the lyrics to the second verse of “Send in the Clowns”, the song makes basically no sense used in this context. Though it literally has the word “clown” in the title, “Send in the Clowns” is not, in fact, about clowns. It’s a contemplative ballad sung by an actress consumed by self-loathing and regret as she realizes she may have missed the opportunity to be with the man she now realizes she has always loved. The “clowns” in the song’s title are not clowns in the Joker sense, but fools, and the term is deployed self-referentially; Desiree is the fool she’s singing about. Because of that, the inclusion of this song in Joker feels woefully out of place. The Wayne Enterprises employees’ use of the song to mock Arthur as a clown is undercut by the fact that the entire song is self-deprecating. Fortunately, other 2019 movies incorporate Sondheim’s work to amplify their themes, rather than detract from them.


There is a brief moment in Knives Out when Daniel Craig’s deep-fried detective Benoit Blanc is sitting in a car waiting for another character to meet him. The camera cuts back to him and discovers him sitting in the driver’s seat, earbuds in, belting out “Losing My Mind” from Sondheim’s Follies in hilariously overwrought fashion. “Losing My Mind” is a beautiful, introspective ballad about facing regrets and unrequited love, and is among Sondheim’s most haunting and moving numbers. Johnson, a self-professed Sondheim fan, did not stumble on to this reference by accident. Watching Craig tear into it with his unplaceable Southern accent is incredible just as a throwaway joke, but it’s equally impressive as a deep cut reference to Follies, a musical which, like Knives Out, features a group of characters consumed by insecurity and self-delusion. It’s also a clever reference to Sondheim the man, who became famous in New York social circles for his love of mysteries and puzzles. In fact, his only produced non-musical screenplay is The Last of Sheila, a fantastic whodunnit directed by Herbert Ross (The Goodbye Girl, Footloose) co-written with the great Anthony Perkins (Psycho), with whom he was known to throw elaborate murder mystery parties. Sondheim’s affinity for mystery was so legendary that the main character of the play Sleuth, played onscreen by Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in its two film adaptations, was partially inspired by Sondheim himself. Johnson’s facility with crafting elaborate, overlapping plots is reminiscent of some of Sondheim’s most complex work, and his clever use of this mournful ballad for simultaneous comedic, thematic, and metatextual effect makes him an obvious candidate for future adaptations of Sondheim’s work.


​Finally, we may never get a true adaptation of Company, but Marriage Story might be the next best thing. Noah Baumbach’s latest film is a nuanced examination of the ups and downs of marriage and divorce. Like Sondheim in Company, Baumbach subjects the entire marital institution to a rigorous examination and ultimately arrives at the same conclusion: finding meaning and connection through romantic partnership with one person is as elusive as it is essential. Over the course of the film, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are forced to reflect on their relationships not only with each other, but with the very idea of commitment.  The film culminates in two post-divorce performances of songs from Company, each one utilized in a different way. First, Nicole performs “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” with her mother and sister (Julie Hagerty and Merritt Weaver, an incredible pair) at a party. The song, performed in Company by the protagonist’s three girlfriends, is basically a laundry list of all the ways in which he is not a suitable partner, and ends with a declaration that they’re collectively giving him up. Performed joyfully here, it represents a sort of liberation for Nicole, who is free to pursue her life on her own terms without the pressures that her marriage and divorce had placed on her. On the opposite end of the spectrum, in the climactic moment of Marriage Story, Charlie sings “Being Alive” at a karaoke bar with his theatre company. He begins the song comedically, humorously adding in the lines spoken by the ensemble in the stage version, and not appearing to take it at all seriously. However, as the song builds, Charlie is drawn into its emotional arc and Driver puts an exclamation point on what has to that point already been an incredible performance. Like Company’s Bobby, Charlie ultimately comes to accept that he does want someone to “help [him] survive being alive,” but unlike Bobby, Charlie knows that he already had that, but lost it. Baumbach’s use of these songs (and the cast’s performances of them) add even more emotional heft to Marriage Story and add further dimension to its characters.  So what’s next? As Sondheim approaches his 90th birthday, his presence on our movie screens doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. First, three newcomers named Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, and Rita Moreno are bringing us a new adaptation of West Side Story in 2020. They’ve got big shoes to fill, but it’s hard to imagine a more pedigreed team to give it a shot. More indirectly, 2020 also brings us a film version of In the Heights, created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a notable Sondheim disciple and Spanish-language translator of his lyrics for the 2009 West Side revival.  Beyond that, two new Sondheim adaptations have been announced in recent months. First, producer David Heyman (of Harry Potter fame) has tapped stage director Dominic Cooke, who mounted a successful West End revival of Follies in 2017 starring the great Imelda Staunton, to bring his vision to the big screen. Meanwhile, cinematic time wizard Richard Linklater has announced a multi-decade project to film Merrily We Roll Along with Beanie Feldstein, Ben Platt, and Blake Jenner. Merrily, an infamous Broadway flop that became a cult favorite, chronicles three friends over twenty years as they chase artistic success and fall in and out of relationships. The story plays out in reverse, so Linklater will film it that way over the course of the next twenty years, essentially attempting a backwards Boyhood musical in which we’ll all get to watch his actors non-digitally de-age when it hits screens in 2039 (an analog Irishman, if you will).  And that’s just the direct adaptations we know about! Who knows how many other filmmakers will incorporate Sondheim songs into their work in the next few years? Maybe I’ll get the Barry Jenkins-directed Sunday in the Park with George I’ve been dreaming about for years. Or maybe Rian Johnson will find some way to make Assassins work. Either way, we can all look forward to Sondheim’s continuing influence on our movie screens for (hopefully) decades to come. 


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