Last year, it seemed like everyone was doing Sondheim somehow, in “Marriage Story,” in “Knives Out,” in “Joker,” on “The Morning Show,” on “The Politician.” It was quite a little run for Sondheim fans, but those are far from the only instances — his work is omnipresent television and movies.
Sondheim cameos on “The Simpsons,” sure, and there’s an episode of “South Park” that imagines him in a “bro-down.” Every “Desperate Housewives” episode title is a Sondheim lyric, and Andy does “Sweeney Todd” on “The Office.” On “BoJack Horseman,” a Stephen King musical opens next to a Sondheim revival, but don’t worry: “‘Misery’ loves ‘Company.’”
He comes up on “Reno 911!” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” “The Sopranos.” “Gilmore Girls.” “Taxi.” “Billions.” The Ryan Murphy oeuvre.
Grace sings, badly, from the Sondheim songbook on “Will & Grace,” and Penny’s absentee father on “Happy Endings” charms her with a story about a Sondheim encounter. Billy and Julie on “Difficult People” meet at a “strutting with Sondheim” dance class and later are sentenced to community service for protesting “Bazinga in the Park With George,” a production of “Sunday in the Park With George” starring the cast of “The Big Bang Theory.”
Then there are the homages and satires of Sondheim’s work. “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” has a few direct nods, and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has some, too. Maybe the best episode of “Documentary Now!” is “Co-Op,” a masterly spoof of D.A. Pennebaker’s essential documentary “Original Cast Album: Company.”
Theater nerdery isn’t a requirement to be a writer, but it probably doesn’t hurt, and the name “Sondheim” itself is shorthand for erudite musical theater in a way that no other writer or show is — there’s a reason Niles and Frasier bicker about whether he’s really “light opera.”
[Watch New York Times staff members sing “Broadway Baby.”]
The ubiquity of the allusions is particularly interesting in contrast to the relative scarcity of straightforward actual adaptations. (Or Sondheim’s own for-the-screen work, like the intriguing but obscure 1966 television one-off “Evening Primrose.”) You could watch “Sweeney Todd” or “Into the Woods,” fully fleshed out movies that were well regarded at the time of their releases. And in a pinch (or a punch), you could do a lot worse. But you could a lot better, too.
One reason lots of Sondheim adaptations don’t work onscreen is the same reason magic tricks and fireworks tend not to, either: the effort is part of the point, the shock of it all, the dazzle. Things are supposed to look good in movies, and Meryl Streep can recount the rooting of her rutabagas as many times as she needs to get it just so.
I want a witch who works for it in front of me, without a net, without cuts and do-overs. Movies can’t — or at least typically don’t — convey the unmediated, vivid wretchedness of life, and stage actors and theater audiences have a different pact than screen actors and at-home or cinema audiences. A transcendent feat of strength onstage is just another glassy token onscreen.
You need another layer. That’s why some of the better on-screen performances aren’t direct adaptations but rather characters doing the performance — it’s not Adam Driver as Bobby, it’s Adam Driver as Charlie as not really Bobby in “Marriage Story.” I can’t imagine a successful all-teen production of “Company,” but Anna Kendrick as the vindictive Fritzi doing “The Ladies Who Lunch” in “Camp” has its own clash-of-worlds kind of greatness. Maybe a “Follies” movie will be good … or maybe we’re best off with Hugh Grant as the villain in “Paddington 2” doing a high-glitz prison version of that show’s “Rain on the Roof.”
Richard Linklater is making a movie of “Merrily We Roll Along” that will film over 20 years, à la “Boyhood,” starring Beanie Feldstein, Blake Jenner and Ben Platt. In the meantime, there is already a near-perfect “Merrily” movie, the thorough documentary “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.”
Talk about adding layers back in: “Merrily” is about youthful optimism that, pickled in uneven showbiz success, turns into middle-aged bitterness and alienation. The documentary is about youthful optimism met with rude, shocking failure that becomes middle-aged wisdom and acceptance. The show moves in reverse chronology, and in some ways the film does, too, hagiography and canonization in one, the flop that became beloved becomes the movie about the flop.
“Best Worst Thing” is about everyone involved in “Merrily,” but for a more focused biography, there’s “Six By Sondheim,” an HBO documentary from 2013 that uses six songs — “Opening Doors,” “Being Alive,” “I’m Still Here,” “Something’s Coming,” “Send In the Clowns,” and “Sunday in the Park With George” — as its tent poles. The new arrangements for some of the songs are fresh and intriguing, and if you can’t be charmed by Sondheim himself singing Joe in “Opening Doors” and humming “Some Enchanted Evening,” I’m not sure why you’re even finishing this article.
As his books demonstrate, Sondheim has plenty to say about his own thoughts and processes, which is why his appearance on “Inside the Actors Studio” is such a potent episode. (Performances from Liz Callaway and Jim Walton don’t hurt.)
Sondheim and the host James Lipton geek out briefly about their favorite thesauruses — “you work with tools over a period of time, and they become important,” Sondheim says, cutting through audience giggles — and lament the paucity of words that rhyme with “love.” His favorite word is “pioneer,” he says, and his least favorite is “celery.”
Not for nothing, Sondheim also says in that interview that if he had to have a different job, he’d pick teacher. His classroom skills are evident in what for my money is the most important Sondheim viewing anyone can do: “The MTI Conversation Piece With Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine,” a video for those staging their own productions of “Into the Woods.” (There’s a similar one for “Assassins,” but I like the “Into the Woods” one better.) Much of it is Sondheim sitting at a white piano, offering background and deconstruction of motifs, as well as tips on acting, directing and conducting.
When it comes time to educate viewers on “No One Is Alone,” Sondheim squirms on the bench. “I have read criticisms and heard criticisms of the idea of this song by people who say it’s nonsense, we are all alone,” he says. “But the point is, that’s not the kind of alone this song is about …. Of course we are all in a sense profoundly alone, but not when we are connected with each other. And if you were with a child in a terrible situation, you would not say, ‘Well, let’s face it, we are all terribly alone.’ Not at all.”
To see Sondheim flex in a genuine classroom setting is one reason to be grateful for YouTube. He taught a master class at the Guildhall School in London in 1984, and excerpts from it are online.
He says to think of K-sounds like keys in locks, tells singers when to back off the phrasing a little, to break up the consonant sounds in “love farce.” It’s illuminating as a fan, but nerve-racking. Some of the students do great, but others struggle, maybe from a lack of skills but seeming more from nerves. (Sondheim reflects on the experience in a later interview.)
It’s a nervous quiver you can hear even from Stephen Colbert on his own show, when he serenades Sondheim with his own rework of “Send In the Clowns.”
Isn’t it rich?
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