Whether on stage or on screen, Sondheim has set the bar high
Much has been written about Stephen Sondheim since his death last week at the age of 91. He has been rightly celebrated for the sophistication of his work. Both musically and lyrically, Sondheim has set the bar high.
Much of the writing has drawn its oxygen from the thin air of Broadway productions such as Sunday at the park with George, Where We ride happily. Think: Elaine Stritch Singing The Bitter The ladies who have lunch, of Society.
I have a different point of view because I came to Sondheim through films.
I was introduced to his work from a young age: The soundtrack of the film by West Side Story (1961) played a lot in my house when I was growing up. While still in elementary school, I received further training in songwriting via Sondheim’s lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s music, which were primarily devoted to memory, from the satirical splendor of Gee Officer Krupke and America, to the plaintive sorrow of There is a place for us. It took about a decade to see the actual movie at a revival screening in the early ’70s, which was a thrill. But it was remarkable how well Sondheim’s words told the story so well.
Also on strong rotation in The King’s Family Playlist, Judy Collins’ rendition of Send the Clowns from the 1975 musical Sondheim A little night music, an adaptation of the 1955 comedy by Ingmar Bergman Smiles of a summer night. I saw Bergman’s film in the early 1970s at a screening at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, but didn’t see the Sondheim musical until much later, through the production of local music company Dry Cold in 2016.
The Broadway farce A funny thing happened on the way to the forum (1962) was Sondheim’s first crack to write words and music. Perhaps too daring for Rainbow Stage (he only played there in the 90s), it was more widely available via Richard Lester’s film version in 1966. Stylist Lester’s point of view was often at odds with the material, but it was still a pleasure to see Zero Mostel hammering him in turn from Tony as the shrewd slave Pseudolus. The musical remains a culmination of the bass comedy genre, which risks becoming a dying art.
Lifetime enigma lover Sondheim co-wrote the non-musical mystery film Sheila’s Last, released in 1973, starring Richard Benjamin, Raquel Welch, James Coburn and Dyan Cannon. It was a film dripping with the fun of a puzzle maker and flavored with a tangy Hollywood insider dish.
Sondheim’s dark humor would find other outlets, of course, in cannibalistic comedy Sweeney Todd: The Barber Demon of Fleet Street (with former Winnipegger Len Cariou handpicked by Sondheim to play the title role opposite Angela Lansbury, for which Cariou won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical).
Again, I missed the play, but saw the 2007 film, directed by Tim Burton starring Johnny Depp in a performance that was arguably anemic next to Cariou’s bloody interpretation. It was, alas, the same with In the woods (2014), Sondheim’s take on Grimm’s fairy tales with a decidedly adult twist.
Next week comes Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited remake of West Side Story, which comes at a time when the original film’s slim portrayal of Puerto Rican ethnicity can be approached. Sondheim confessed as he wrote the lyrics to WSS, he had never met a Puerto Rican.
Nonetheless, the film arrives in time for a renewed appreciation for Sondheim’s gifts. And if that happens in a movie theater instead of a performance hall, some of us will feel right at home in this place.