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Something familiar, something peculiar: Stephen Sondheim at the movies

Stephen Sondheim, from the 2013 HBO documentary "Six by Sondheim."Jerry Jackson/Courtesy of HBO

What was it about 1930, maternity wards, and movie theaters (longevity, too)? Famous film people who are celebrating a 90th birthday this year include: Gene Hackman, Joanne Woodward, Clint Eastwood, Gena Rowlands, Sean Connery, Jean-Luc Godard, and Stephen Sondheim, Oscar winners all.

Wait, you say, Sondheim won an Oscar? Yup, best song: “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)," one of five he wrote for Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy" (1990). Also, what’s he doing on this list? Well, first, he turns 90 on March 22; and, second, one of musical theater’s greatest composers — maybe the greatest — also has a long, if eccentric, screen history.


Sondheim songs have been featured in more than 300 movies and television shows. Last year, did you notice “Send in the Clowns” in “Joker” or “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and “Being Alive” in “Marriage Story”?

He’s composed two original scores: for Alain Resnais’s “Stavisky” (1974) and Beatty’s “Reds” (1981). Sondheim co-wrote a script, with Anthony Perkins: the stylish thriller “The Last of Sheila” (1973). As a teenager, he even worked as a clapper boy, uncredited, on John Huston’s caper spoof, “Beat the Devil” (1953).

Joaquin Phoenix in "Joker."Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

The more interesting issue with Sondheim and cinema isn’t what he’s done but what he hasn’t. Of his 18 musicals, either as lyricist or, more often, composer-lyricist, only six have been made into films: “West Side Story" (1961), “Gypsy” (1962), “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1966), “A Little Night Music” (1977), “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007), and “Into the Woods” (2014).

That filmography will be increasing. Steven Spielberg’s version of “West Side Story” has a tentative release date of Dec. 18, and Richard Linklater is filming “Merrily We Roll Along.”

It’s true that prime Sondheim has largely coincided with the decline of the movie musical. And the complexity of his work — thematic, musical, theatrical — hasn’t exactly made it a natural for Hollywood. “Pacific Overtures,” about the opening of Japan to the West, and “Assassins,” about presidential assassinations, were never likely to come soon to a theater near you.


In a 2007 interview with the English newspaper The Observer, Sondheim pointed to a fundamental problem with transferring musicals from stage to screen — particularly musicals constructed like his.

“On stage, generally speaking, the story is stopped or held back by songs, because that’s the convention. Audiences enjoy the song and the singer, that’s the point. Static action — if that’s not an oxymoron — is accepted. . . . It’s fine if the songs [on screen] are presentational, as in a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers-style movie where you watch them for the fun of it, but not with storytelling songs. When the song is part of the action and working as dialogue, even two minutes is way too long.”

A Sondheim musical that originated as a movie demonstrates the problematic history of adapting him. “A Little Night Music" is based on Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of Summer Night” (1955). The musical includes what’s likely Sondheim’s best-known song, “Send in the Clowns.” It’s also probably both his most-loved and most-hated, too. In Harold Prince’s 1977 film, it’s sung by Elizabeth Taylor, although“sung” may not be the right word. (In fairness to the song, a particularly fine rendition can be heard here.)


Meryl Streep in "Into the Woods." Peter Mountain

Even stranger than how few Sondheim movie adaptations there have been is how often non-singers have been cast in them. Taylor is just the most painful example: Natalie Wood in “West Side Story”; Wood and Rosalind Russell and Karl Malden (!), in “Gypsy”; Johnny Depp, in “Sweeney Todd”; Depp and Meryl Streep, in “Into the Woods.” Can Ansel Elgort sing? We’ll find out, since he plays Tony in Spielberg’s “West Side Story.”

Even if the movies haven’t done well by Sondheim, he’s done well by them. It’s not just that he based “A Little Night Music” on one and “Passion” on another (Ettore Scola’s “Passione d’amore,” 1981). Or that he confessed of another of his musicals, "What ‘Sweeney Todd’ really is is a movie for the stage.” It’s also that Sondheim grew up a passionate movie fan and has called film his “basic language.”

“I liked theater,” he writes in “Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics,” "but I loved movies of every kind: dramas, comedies, short subjects and especially trailers — everything in fact except musicals, which with the exception of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ I either tolerated if I enjoyed the songs or was bored by if I didn’t. My particular favorites were romantic melodramas and suspense pieces like ‘Casablanca’ and the Hitchcock movies of the period, movies in which the music was as important to the storytelling as the actors were.”

In 2003, Sondheim was guest director at film lovers’ favorite festival, Telluride. Two years later, he was Turner Classic Movies programmer on the day of his 75th birthday. He chose six films: two classics (Vincente Minnelli’s “The Clock,” 1945, and “Smiles of Summer Night”); one near-classic (“Night Must Fall,” 1937); a pretty good crime drama starring John Garfield and Ida Lupino (“Out of the Fog,” 1941), and two curios (“The Mind Reader,” 1933, and “Torchy Blane in Chinatown,” 1939). In his movie preferences, as in his own work, Sondheim is nothing if not unpredictable.


Maybe the biggest curio in Sondheim’s relationship with the movies isn’t his fondness for “The Mind Reader” (a Warren William drama about a fake clairvoyant) or “Torchy Blane” (a B-movie series starring Glenda Farrell as a newspaper reporter). It’s in “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977). Yes, that “Smokey and the Bandit”: Burt Reynolds as a Trans Am-driving good old boy trying to win a bet by getting from Texarkana to Atlanta right quick. Along the way he picks up hitchhiker Sally Field.

“You know who I feel has really revolutionized the American musical theater," Field asks. "That’s Stephen Sondheim.”

“Yeah,” Reynolds says, giving her a blank look. That “yeah” isn’t really a question. It’s more a way of asking, “Who is this crazy person sitting next to me?”

Field: “Yeah."

Reynolds: “Who’s that?”

Field: “Stephen Sondheim?”

Reynolds: “Yeah, does he do a lot of musicals and stuff?”

Field: “Yeah.”

Reynolds: “Does he ever do anything with Brenda Lee?”

In fairness, Yvonne De Carlo did steal the show in the original Broadway production of “Follies,” but Brenda Lee was no Yvonne De Carlo. Either way, “Smokey” came out the same year as “A Little Night Music”: 1977 was not a good year for Stephen Sondheim at the movies.


Stephen Sondheim, at the piano, circa 1935.Paul Parker Photo

Mark Feeney can be reached at