Singing with the great musical composer Stephen Sondheim
Recently Stephen Sondheim celebrated his 90th birthday.
For anyone, such a milestone is an amazing accomplishment. For Sondheim, and the millions of fans who cherish his music and lyrics, the birthday is a reason to take a fresh look at what he contributes to our culture.
While the Broadway theater is, and will always be, his first love, Sondheim’s contributions to the movies are significant. And, as we stay at home, any of these can help us pass time in an enjoyable way.
Here are my seven favorite Stephen Sondheim contributions to film.
West Side Story (1961)
Sondheim was 27 when this legendary musical opened on Broadway; four years later, the film version won 10 Oscars including Best Picture. While Sondheim contributes some of his most touching lyrics, this musical is remembered more for the driving melodies of Leonard Bernstein and the striking choreography by Jerome Robbins. Almost 60 years later, the film still amazes with the energy in its movement and the depth of its emotional content.
On Broadway, Sondheim scored another huge hit in 1959 when Ethel Merman portrayed the ultimate stage mother in this musical based on the turbulent backstage life of Gypsy Rose Lee. For the movie, Hollywood cast Rosalind Russell in the role and, while the actress captures the nuance of the character, relying on vocals dubbed by Lisa Kirk dilutes the intensity of the musical sequences. Still, the lyrics soar, no matter who sings them.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)
While Sondheim experienced his first Broadway success as a composer and lyricist with this madcap comedy in 1962, the show suffered when adapted to the screen because director Richard Lester decided to cut a lot of music to exaggerate the humor. What he overlooked, though, is that a musical is all about music, and a musical without the necessary music doesn’t always make sense. Still, the songs are a joy and, at moments, we can still see a smart show.
Without relying on songs, Sondheim creates haunting melodies to underscore Warren Beatty’s epic drama about politics and romance at the time of the Russian revolution. The film - for which Beatty won an Oscar as Best Director - is a masterpiece of history, relationships and thought with Diane Keaton delivering the performance of her career. And Sondheim’s pitch-perfect score beautifully enhances the film’s dramatic power.
Dick Tracy (1990)
Clearly, Sondheim and Beatty were meant to work together and, nine years later, created a film about a famous cartoon character with more humanity than many might suspect. Despite the comic book origins, Sondheim creates a richly connected score that adds depth to the relationships that ground the film. And his song, “Sooner or Later,” won the Academy Award as the year’s best, performed on Oscar night by a dazzling Madonna.
Sweeney Todd (2007)
Leave it to Tim Burton - a surprising choice to direct a musical - to create a most effective screen adaptation of this tune-filled exploration of a man who seeks revenge in unusual ways. With Johnny Depp revealing surprising musical sense, and Helena Bonham Carter using her little voice in a big way, Burton creates a world that would make Sondheim proud. While the score had to be trimmed, the magic of the work shines through.
Into the Woods (2014)
Like Burton, Rob Marshall demonstrates a real respect for Sondheim, and an appreciation for what makes his work so special, in the film version of the fairy tale musical. On its inspired journey from stage to screen, this show retains all of its magic as it transforms into a rich visual experience. Rather than recreate the theatricality of the original, director Marshall reimagines the material. The result is a musical dream from start to finish.
Thank you, Stephen Sondheim, for making us want to sing.
And, from our homes, always giving us reason to savor the music and lyrics.