In Sondheim’s 90th Year, His Music on Film Remains as Resonant as Ever

Speak to any musical theatre aficionado, and Stephen Sondheim will come up in the first five minutes of conversation. The legendary writer and composer celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this week, and his six-decade career left an indelible mark on the way musicals have been approached on stage and screen. Beginning his career writing lyrics for more established composers’ musicals – including Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and Jules Styne’s Gypsy – Sondheim began composing his own scores with the critically mixed A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Breakout success followed with Company and Follies, and the rest – Into the Woods, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, Assassins, among others – is history.

From 1961’s West Side Story to the recently-announced ‘real time’ filming of Merry We Roll Along, Sondheim’s musicals have been adapted to film in almost every decade he has been working, though his repertoire is largely under-represented when compared to other prolific Broadway composers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber. These films have proved a mixed bag, skewing towards enjoyable if far inferior to definitive stage productions: the 1966 A Funny Thing Happened… is a delight lacking any depth, Tim Burton’s 2007 Sweeney Todd butchers the musicality while mastering a camp yet gothic aesthetic that perfectly accentuates the ghoulish proceedings, and the 2014 Into the Woods may have one of last decade’s best musical sequences but is too thoroughly Disney-fied to retain any bite.

Recently, however, Sondheim’s most notable presence in film has not been a new adaptation of a stage show but rather the prolific use of his songs – some iconic, some deeper cuts – in 2019’s film and television. It is far from the first time his songs have appeared isolated from their original context, but the explosion in these past six months is notable. So why Sondheim now? Is it the fact that his prolific compositions seem to provide a tune for every occasion? Is it the witty lyrics, familiar yet sophisticated tunes? Or is it the aching humanity that underlines the composer’s greatest moments?

Sondheim’s work is often shot through with extraordinary melancholy – there’s bawdy fun to be had in A Funny Thing Happened… and A Little Night Music, and some over-the-top gruesome deaths in Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, but the composer’s music and characters are most immediately associated with the terrifyingly mundane. He writes people who hide fears of commitment, boredom, and obsolescence behind petty squabbles and a devil-may-care attitude. This lends his fading actresses, New York bachelors, and (would-be) murderers an almost universal relatability regardless of their individual contexts. With his astute lyrics and melodies that never take the easy resolution, the inevitability of life’s disappointments, yearnings, and missed chances transcends each piece’s original context. This relatability makes the use of his songs in the Netflix original series The Politician and awards darlings Joker, Knives Out, and Marriage Story worth exploration.

Netflix’s The Politician wears its heart on its sleeve, having its high school campaigners participate in a production of Sondheim’s Assassins in the back half of the series. A musical about the people who tried – successfully and unsuccessfully – to kill presidents of the United States, it is possibly the most obvious choice to underscore Ricardo’s (Benjamin Barrett) attempted murder of Peyton’s (Ben Platt), withRicardo playing the role of  John Wilkes Booth on their high school stage. Due to the play-within-a-play context, the show may not get to the heart of the deeply messed up ‘I Am Unworthy of Your Love’, playing it as more of a straightforward love song than a troubling, fascinating ode from two would-be presidential assassins to the objects of their obsessions. However, it is a musically perfect performance by Ben Platt and Zoey Deutch and the tone fits a high school production to a tee.

‘Send in the Clowns’, from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, certainly is not the most revolutionary choice for Joker – especially when sung by the businessmen who attack Arthur Fleck on the subway. Thematically, however, the song fits Todd Phillips’ exploration of a system which drives one man to murderous insanity. ‘Don’t bother, they’re here,’ Sondheim writes; in Phillips’ Gotham, the fools and wise men are not as far apart as they paint themselves to be. While Joker is too heavy handed to succeed at this dialogue, Sondheim is on point with the commentary.  

Knives Out takes an opposite approach, as Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) croons along to Sondheim’s ‘Losing My Mind’ from Follies, one of the composer’s most recognisable and often covered songs. At first glance there is little thematic connection between Rian Johnson’s whodunit and Sondheim’s theatrical reunion – the song is a purely incidental appearance as the detective has his headphones in, awaiting Marta’s (Ana de Armas) return from an errand. That said, the song appears in Follies just as all principal characters, looking back on their lives, break into musical interludes expressing their deepest desires of lost love and human connection. Blanc’s carefree singalong, quite at odds with the song’s original context, becomes a breath of comedy between high stakes scenes but – more importantly – it underlines the fractured family in the twilight of their prosperity. As the Thrombeys struggle and squabble to retain their material wealth, ‘Losing My Mind’ proves an inspired choice to send off a different kind of deluded heyday.

This leads to the most prominent recent examples, found in Marriage Story. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) each get their own song from Company, the show that cemented Sondheim’s musical reputation. Actress Nicole performs ‘You Could Drive A Person Crazy’ with her mother and sister after she finds out that she has won the marginally better deal in her divorce. ‘Bobby is my hobby and I’m giving it up!’ she sings, effervescent in the spotlight and surrounded by supportive friends and family. From the rest of the film, Charlie is shown to be far more than a hobby – disentangling their lives was a bitter struggle. This juxtaposed flippancy and joy proves almost more telling than a more sombre piece would have been: Nicole is a consummate performer, and she is deliberately crafting her declaration of freedom.

Minutes later, the action cuts to Charlie, surrounded by a much smaller network on the other side of the country. He sings ‘Being Alive’ – Sondheim’s quintessential anthem of yearning – in a New York piano bar, at first mockingly, then with growing sobriety. It mirrors the show’s original delivery of the famous melody: Bobby – the thirty-five-year-old bachelor – starts dismissive of why anyone would want someone that sits in his chair and ruins his sleep, but then the longing for connection takes over. He knows that without these small sacrifices and discomforts, he will not find meaning in his life. Charlie also starts off sardonically, laughingly speaking the dialogue around Bobby’s solo. However, he comes at the song from the end of love rather than its possible beginnings, and the switch to sincerity becomes an ode to something lost forever. He knows what Bobby wants, and what it has cost him.

With West Side Story on the immediate horizon and Merrily We Roll Along in two decades’ time, Sondheim’s cinematic presence is far from waning.  However, even without the illustrious career (and lacklustre adaptations) that came before, Sondheim’s music could have quite easily proven its longevity and almost universal resonance in the back half of 2019 alone. If this is any indication, the musical adaptations may be the least interesting aspect of his filmed legacy: the creativity, excitement, and humanity of transposing a single song to a new story is far more enriching. 

Header image courtesy of Netflix.