Sondheim on Screen

As a full musical theatre fanatic, I wanted to honor the late Stephen Sondheim.  Known for his groundbreaking work as composer and lyricist in a decades long career that earned him 8 Tony Awards, an Oscar, several Grammys, Pulitzer Prize, Kennedy Center Honor and Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The musicals he wrote of course work the best on the stage, but I wanted to feature the adaptations and songs written for films.  

West Side Story (1961)
Sondheim made his Broadway debut as lyricist in 1957, and became his first film adaptation.  With songs changing placement and censorship, several songs had lyrics adjusted by Sondheim.  It went on to be one of the highest grossing musical films of all time and winning 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture.    

Gypsy (1962)
Sondheim's work as lyricist returned to the screen with the faithful adaptation of the 1959 musical.  We get Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose and Natalie Wood as Gypsy Rose Lee.  It has some fans but it's not in the top of 1960s film musicals.  

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)
Sondheim's big Broadway break as composer & lyricist came to the screen directed by Richard Lester.  Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford reprised their roles as Pseudolous and Hysterium, respectively.  The film doesn't quite capture the farce of the Burt Shevelove/Larry Gelbart book.  Notably, the film cut around half of Sondheim's songs.  Ken Thorne's adapted score won the Oscar.         

Stavisky (1974)
Sondheim provided an original underscore for this French film directed by Alain Resnais.  This charming score (with great chamber orchestra orchestration by Jonathan Tunick) is full of 30's pastiche and waltzes.  Some of the cues are reused cut songs from his musical Follies (1971).

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)
For this Sherlock Holmes tale, Sondheim provided the song "The Madame's Song (I Never Do Anything Twice)".  The film was directed by Herbert Ross, who also directed The Last of Sheila (1973) which was co-written by Sondheim.  

A Little Night Music (1977)
Stage director and producer extraordinaire Hal Prince adapted the 1973 Broadway musical.  While it's close to the show, it lacks much of the charm and humor.  It does feature most of the songs, many original stage actors and a new version of "The Glamorous Life".  Jonathan Tunick won an Oscar for Adaptation Score.  

Reds (1981)
For Warren Beatty's historical epic, Sondheim was hired to score the film.  Instead, he wrote a moving love theme that was used through the score and as the song "Goodbye For Now".  Dave Grusin filled in the rest of the scoring duties.

Dick Tracy (1990)
Returning again to Warren Beatty, Sondheim wasn't interested in scoring the film, but wrote five new songs: "Back in Business", "Live Alone and Like It", "What Can You Lose?", "More" and "Sooner or Later".  Danny Elfman provided the heroic-sounding score.  The Madonna-led "Sooner or Later" won Sondheim the Academy Award.  

The Birdcage (1996)
Sondheim provided two original songs to be performed in the drag nightclub: "It Takes All Kinds" and "Little Dream".  The first song was cut entirely and replaced for the opening titles and we only get a snippet of Nathan Lane singing the latter.  During the film we also hear "Love is in the Air" cut from 'Forum' and "Can That Boy Fox Trot" cut from Follies.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Director Tim Burton managed to bring the horror and humor of the original musical.  Much was written about both leads' lack of musical strength but they still add a lot to the film.  The adaptation cut and reshaped a few songs, and cut the ensemble chorus.  Regardless, the film was a box office success and brought Sondheim's work to the mainstream.    

Into the Woods (2014)
Years after other attempts to bring the show to the screen, the film eventually was directed by Rob Marshall.  Much of the story was compressed, with a handful of songs cut and heard instrumentally instead.  A new song for the Meryl Streep's Witch, "She'll Be Back" was written an ultimately cut.  The film ended up being a box office success.

West Side Story (2021)
Always wanting to make a musical, Steven Spielberg turned to one of his favorite musicals.  With a new script by Tony Kushner, the film returns many aspects of the original production with some interesting new changes and sparkling performances.

In 1992, Sondheim wrote songs for an original musical film about making a musical film titled Singing Out Loud.  While some songs have been recorded the film never was filmed.  Considered unfilmable, a film adaptation of Follies was discussed in 2019 with Dominic Cooke at the helm.  That same year, Richard Linklater set out at an adaptation of Merrily We Roll Along with Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein - filming over the next years as the characters and actors age.

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