Sondheim On-Screen

Stephen Sondheim in D. A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: “Company” (1970)

If all goes as planned, Richard Linklater will wrap his adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along in 2040, give or take a year or two. Based on the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Merrily follows three close friends backward in time over the course of twenty years, from the disillusionment of middle age to the bright idealism of youth. In Linklater’s film, Blake Jenner will play Franklin Shepard, a Broadway composer who becomes a Hollywood producer, and Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein are taking on the roles of Charley, a lyricist, and Mary, a theater critic.

Linklater began the project that will take nearly twice as long to complete as Boyhood (2014) in 2019, stating that he “first saw and fell in love with Merrily in the ’80s, and I can’t think of a better place to spend the next twenty years than in the world of a Sondheim musical. I don’t enter this multiyear experience lightly, but it seems the best, perhaps the only way, to do this story justice on film.”

Cinema is just one of many possible entry points into the dense and varied body of work that Sondheim, who passed away on Friday at the age of ninety-one, has left us. At Slate, Isaac Butler begins with his love of puzzles—crosswords, acrostics, and so on—to draw parallels between Shakespeare and “the greatest musical theater composer/lyricist of all time.” But in 2013, Frank Rich, the former chief theater critic of the New York Times, wrote an outstanding tribute to his good friend in which he mentions—in passing and between parentheses—that Sondheim “has always been more of a film buff than a theater buff.”

That may take some by surprise, but the evidence is plentiful. In 2005, Sondheim curated a film series for the Museum of Modern Art, and around the same time, the Sondheim Review ran what journalist Jeremy Fassler calls “a really fascinating and eclectic list” of forty films selected by Sondheim as favorites. Welles and Bergman make the list of course, but so do Lucian Pintilie and Krzysztof Zanussi. Julien Duvivier makes the strongest showing with three titles. Filmmaker and producer James Schamus recalls an evening twenty years ago when Sondheim shared “his love” of John Farrow’s The Big Clock (1948). “For twenty minutes, he walked me through every detail of the film, from [Charles] Laughton’s makeup to [cinematographer John] Seitz’s lighting; he knew every frame and edit. A joyful, loving, unexpected master class.”

Sondheim spent a bit of time in Hollywood in the midfifties writing for Topper, a sitcom about an uptight banker befriended by the ghosts of a young couple and their St. Bernard. With Anthony Perkins, Sondheim cowrote the screenplay for Herbert Ross’s The Last of Sheila (1973), a neonoir mystery that Rian Johnson cites as an inspiration for Knives Out (2019). “If you’re only going to write one screenplay,” tweets screenwriter Larry Karaszewski, “this is a master class of wit and construction.”

Sondheim scored Alain Resnais’s Stavisky (1974) and Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), and he won an Oscar for “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man),” the original song he wrote for Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990). The most popular film with Sondheim’s name on it, though, has to be West Side Story, the 1961 adaptation of the 1957 musical. Sondheim was initially reluctant to take the job. When he was ten, his parents divorced and he moved with his mother to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, near the home of Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist and librettist who, working with composer Richard Rodgers, had written the groundbreaking musical Oklahoma! (1943). Hammerstein became a mentor and something of a surrogate father, and when the opportunity arose to work with composer Leonard Bernstein and director Jerome Robbins, Hammerstein insisted that Sondheim take it—even if it meant that he would be working strictly as a lyricist.

Arthur Laurents’s book retells the story of Romeo and Juliet, setting it in the Upper West Side and pitting two street gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks and the white Jets, against each other in a series of dazzling numbers choreographed by Robbins. To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the film directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, Park Circus is currently giving it another theatrical run, and of course, Steven Spielberg’s version, with a new screenplay by Tony Kushner, will open next week. Sondheim got to see it, and he recently told Michael Paulson in the New York Times that the “great thing about it is people who think they know the musical are going to have surprises.”

Though he was eager to write words and music, Sondheim took one more job as a lyricist on “what may be the greatest of all American musicals,” as Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times in 2003. Ethel Merman starred in the original 1959 Broadway production of Gypsy as Rose, the mother of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee. The great Rosalind Russell took on the role in the 1962 adaptation directed by Mervyn LeRoy and costarring Natalie Wood.

Broadway audiences were often slow to come around to Sondheim’s later musicals, but he scored a rare immediate hit with the farcical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, first staged in 1962. Both on Broadway and in the 1966 film—directed by Richard Lester, shot by Nicolas Roeg, and featuring Buster Keaton in his final film role—Zero Mostel played a slave in ancient Rome who hopes to win his freedom by helping his master get the girl he’s fallen for.

Company, which opened in 1970, was Sondheim’s “break from linear plot, tidy resolutions, and romantic platitudes,” writes Michael Schulman in the New Yorker. “It’s about a man who wants to be single and in love at the same time.” George Furth wrote the book, which centers on Robert, who debates the ins and outs of marriage with his married friends and with his three girlfriends. Writing for the Atlantic, Amy Weiss-Meyer quotes from a 2004 documentary in which Sondheim says that in the past, musicals “would always lead to the so-called happy ending. We were saying something ambiguous, which is, actually there are no endings—it keeps going on, is what, really, Company’s about.”

Adam Driver sings “Being Alive” in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019), but Company made its weightiest impression on cinema in D. A. Pennebaker’s 1970 documentary Original Cast Album: “Company.” The film captures “the effort, the frustration, the exhaustion, the struggle up the hill in the service of perfecting something that we can still rejoice in and argue about today,” writes Mark Harris in the essay that accompanies our release. “That is what the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, this movie’s main character and repository of stress, achieved with Company—and it’s also what Pennebaker, an eclectic documentarian who was at his very best when he followed his passionate curiosity about how things get made, did with the small masterpiece he crafted about the creation of the show’s cast album.”

In his remembrance for Vulture, Harris writes that Sondheim “would discover an old movie, fixate on it, and burn copies for friends, who would then obediently watch oddities like the 1945 murder thriller Hangover Square and wonder if they were seeing the source material for the master’s next musical. It felt unlikely, but then again, it had worked before. Why question the man who saw A Little Night Music in Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night, or Passion in an Italian movie adapted from an 1869 novel, or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in the 2200-year-old writings of Plautus?”

Harold Prince directed the original 1973 Broadway production of A Little Night Music as well as the 1977 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Rigg. The Italian movie Harris mentions is Ettore Scola’s Passion of Love (1981), and Sondheim’s musical was first staged in 1994. In his eighties, Sondheim collaborated with playwright David Ives and director Joe Mantello on a show tentatively titled Square One and based on Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Exterminating Angel (1962). “I don’t know if I should give the so-called plot away,” he told Michael Paulson, “but the first act is a group of people trying to find a place to have dinner, and they run into all kinds of strange and surreal things, and in the second act, they find a place to have dinner, but they can’t get out.” We can only hope that Ives and Mantello will be able to stage a production, however incomplete.

Dominic Cooke recently directed Follies, Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 musical about a reunion of aging performers in a crumbling Broadway theatre, at the Royal National Theatre in London. After the first preview, Sondheim “told me that this was the first time he had ever really understood the characters,” says Cooke. “I could have exploded with pride, but in truth, directing the show was unexpectedly easy. The relationship between form and content was so seamless that our task was simply to pay attention to what Steve had done and deliver it onstage. Every note, every pause, every musical shift told us precisely where the character was emotionally and psychologically in the scene.” Cooke is currently working on a film adaptation.

Meryl Streep, who was part of the chorus—along with Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang—in a 1974 production of The Frogs staged in the Yale University swimming pool, led the ensemble cast of Into the Woods (2014), directed by Rob Marshall and written by James Lapine, who wrote the book for the 1986 musical. Into the Woods was “the gateway Sondheim musical for most people born after 1980,” writes Michael Schulman, “a gateway to adulthood, really, just as its characters Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack (of the beanstalk) go into the woods as wishful storybook characters and come out understanding disappointment, regret, compromise, loss. ‘Isn’t it nice to know a lot?’ Little Red Riding Hood sings, having survived ingestion by a wolf. ‘And a little bit not.’ It was the apple from the tree of knowledge, that show. You couldn’t unbite it.”

Of all the adaptations of his musicals, Sondheim’s favorite was Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as the Victorian barber who murders his customers and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, who bakes the fresh corpses in meat pies. “I thought it would be fun to see if you could scare a contemporary audience the way movies can scare you,” said Sondheim in the 2004 PBS documentary series Broadway: The American Musical. “In this greatest of Mr. Sondheim’s works, which is, for many, the best American musical,” writes Jesse Green in the New York Times—everyone has their favorites—“we are forced to understand and, more perversely, root for some of the worst deeds ever imagined for the stage.”

In 2010, Sondheim told Fresh Air host Terry Gross that the score was an homage to Bernard Herrmann, the composer best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock. For all the comparisons with Shakespeare or, as Adam Gopnik proposes in the New Yorker, with “the great American songwriters” such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Sondheim always circled back around to the movies.

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