Earlier this week, Vulture – part of New York Magazine – ran a feature headlined: ‘Why is Stephen Sondheim Karaoke in All Our Movies Now?’ It was prompted by a spate of films including Joker, Knives Out and Marriage Story – as well as The Morning Show on TV – in which characters give their own spin on the celebrated composer’s work.
After interviewing several of the film-makers, the article concluded that, “no one knows exactly why this was the year movies and TV decided to honor the eight-time Tony winner in a stream of onscreen homages”.
Given the vagaries of film releases, the surface answer to Vulture’s question is sheer coincidence. Studios, TV stations and producers don’t consult with one another, so luck is the simplest explanation.
But shrugging this off as merely accidental overlooks something rather more meaningful. Sondheim references and homages are hardly new. While there happens to be a bit of a pile-up at the moment, that’s because Sondheim’s songs have passed into the public vernacular in a way that few theatre composers’ works manage to nowadays: they have become standards.
Finding a song from A Little Night Music in a dark and violent film like Joker is hardly the first such cinematic incongruity – it recalls Stanley Kubrick’s use of Singin’ in the Rain for a harrowing assault scene in A Clockwork Orange.
That Being Alive is belted out by Adam Driver in Marriage Story shouldn’t be a surprise in the same year that the mocumentary show Documentary Now! released its Original Cast Album: Co-op episode, which spoofs the Sondheim score and DA Pennebaker’s film of the cast album recording session simultaneously.
Send in the Clowns may be Sondheim’s single best-known song, having been recorded in the year of the musical’s debut by Frank Sinatra, two years later by Judy Collins, and a decade after that by Barbara Streisand.
Sondheim’s songs have passed into the public vernacular in a way that few theatre composers’ works manage to nowadays
But it has long been used as a gag as well – in one Simpsons episode, it is growled out by recurring character Krusty the Clown. Even earlier, Mel Brooks, in his remake of To Be or Not to Be, named a character after the composer in the theatre-set story in order to set up a joke in which “Sondheim, send in the clowns!” is issued as a command.
Almost in spite of those who early on derided Sondheim’s work as not having – to quote Merrily We Roll Along – “a tune you can hum,” the composer-lyricist’s 63-year stage career spans generations.
While his last new work in New York, Road Show, was 11 years ago, he remains an ever-present figure on stages around the country and in New York, with Broadway having seen revivals of A Little Night Music in 2009, Follies two years later, Sunday in the Park with George in 2017 and the upcoming 2020 productions of West Side Story and Company. That doesn’t include the anthology shows Sondheim on Sondheim or Prince of Broadway.
The same period Off-Broadway saw Into The Woods – in 2012 and 2015 – Passion in 2013, Sweeney Todd and Pacific Overtures in 2017, and Merrily We Roll Along this year.
Rock music has certainly provided soundtrack material for movies for years, yet it’s safe to say that when film-makers look for a song that represents the so-called Great American Songbook without wanting to seem hopelessly archaic, they turn to Sondheim. After all, the musical theatre genius rose to fame in the same era that rock’n’roll fully established itself as a cultural force.
Though he barely nodded to that style, Sondheim came of professional age alongside McCartney and Jagger (although the latter two are a decade younger than the first). So it shouldn’t be surprising that they have provided the soundtrack of our lives for the past half-century – they set the standards.
For those born since 1960, it seems like Sondheim has always been with us. For the foreseeable future, not just on stage but on TV and in films, even when people don’t know his name, his songs certainly will be there. We’ve got a good thing going.
Already announced for a Broadway opening, the stage musical of Mrs Doubtfire opens its pre-Broadway premiere tonight at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, with Rob McClure in the title role. The show has a book and score by Wayne Kirkpatrick, Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, the creators of Something Rotten!, and is directed by Jerry Zaks.
With a Monday opening, the utterly winning 2016 film Sing Street makes the leap to the stage at New York Theatre Workshop, home to hit musicals from Rent to Hadestown. The music and lyrics are by John Carney and Gary Clark and the book is from Enda Walsh; Rebecca Taichman directs.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/