Last Sunday was Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday. How did he celebrate it? By going to the Broadway opening, specifically timed for his birthday, of the transfer of Marianne Elliott’s groundbreaking London production of Company. Except, of course, he didn’t.
In its first week of previews, Elliott’s re-gendered Company was Broadway’s top show in terms of capacity. But that was in 2020 BC: Before Coronavirus. Thus with Theatreland going dark, Sondheim, like the rest of us, was left with a free evening.
He and his husband are spending time at their Connecticut home but, virus or no virus, the chances of him having spent his birthday revisiting past glories are zero. But for those of us who could not physically be with them (ie, everyone), yet wish to celebrate one of theatre’s most groundbreaking and original voices, there are favourite performances to savour. So, as Sondheim’s biographer, I present ‘My Utterly Personal List of Sondheim Jewels Available in Your Home’. Plus, as a bonus, warnings of ‘Sondheim Crimes: The Mind-blowing Musical Missteps’.
He only wrote the lyrics, but the 10-Oscar-winning thrill West Side Story remains legendary. However, if you want to be in Sondheim’s good books, be aware that he’s not proud of many of its lyrics and thinks that, largely, the movie doesn’t work. If you just want the score, skip the orchestrally bloated movie soundtrack and go for the dynamism of the never-bettered Original Broadway Cast Recording.
Sondheim Crime #1. The film of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum looks great – Zero Mostel reprises his stage performance in the leading role alongside Phil Silvers and a young Michael Crawford – but Richard Lester, director of the Beatles’ films Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, massively overplays the ‘zany’ card. Funny, almost wholly, it ain’t.
Of Sondheim’s six successive genre-busting shows created with director Hal Prince, from Company in 1970 to Merrily We Roll Along in 1981, one of the most original, least-revived and hardest to imagine from the cast recording is Pacific Overtures from 1975.
Sondheim Crime #2. Prince’s film of A Little Night Music arrived in 1977 and the word to describe it is ‘torpid’. The only thing it perfectly illustrates is the vast difference between work written for the stage and work written for the screen. Sondheim was barely involved aside from storyboarding the outstanding ensemble number A Weekend in the Country – which is about the only sequence that works.
Tim Burton’s film of Sweeney Todd horrified many Sondheim fans in quite the wrong way, but I’m with Sondheim in liking this flawed but fascinating screen version. Yes, the cuts to the score – including every note of the chorus – are savage, and no one in the film is a truly great singing actor, but it works as a film.
However, for the genesis of the show, see the South Bank Show documentary made when the original production began rehearsals for its sadly short-lived London run in 1980 starring Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock.
Another recommendation for behind-the-scenes-footage: The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, Lonny Price’s riveting documentary about the rise, fall and aftermath of Sondheim’s shocking flop Merrily We Roll Along is compulsory viewing for all Sondheim fans. Two warnings: firstly, Netflix has it virtually hidden – search under: Stephen Sondheim. Secondly, have tissues close by.
Since the movie of Into the Woods took a tidy $213.1 million at the box office, I’m guessing a lot of people love it. But the next time I want to see the show I’ll stream Timothy Sheader’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production via Digital Theatre, which pulls off the neat trick of going into the actual woods to perform Into the Woods. It also boasts a cast headed by the luminous Jenna Russell.
For years, love for Sondheim’s work was (wrongly) regarded as cultish. But seeing his songs in recent movies that are resolutely not musicals – The Joker, Marriage Story, Knives Out and, best of all, Hugh Grant’s riotously camp finale to Paddington 2 – shows that he has long been in the mainstream. And if that’s not something to celebrate in a 90-year-old, what is?
It’s almost half a century since his emotion-choked speech and tender performance on March 11, 1973 at Sondheim – A Musical
Tribute – the very first Sondheim gala – of Anyone Can Whistle.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict