Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Stephen Sondheim: A Little Zoom Music

Stephen Sondheim, the composer-lyricist of musical theatre masterpieces, is far more associated with Broadway than with Hollywood. Still, as “the other Steven” (Spielberg) acknowledged on last weekend’s Zoom Sondheim tribute, Sondheim surpasses even Spielberg himself in his passionate devotion to Golden Age movie trivia. He’s even an Oscar winner, for contributing a song, “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man),” to 1991’s Dick Tracy. And he’s the co-screenwriter, with actor Anthony Perkins, of The Last of Sheila, a 1973 non-musical film based on their mutual love of twisty murder mysteries.

So Sondheim’s definitely a movie fan. He’s become an active part of what might be considered Hollywood heresy: an upcoming remake of the classic 1961 West Side Story, for which Sondheim once wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s score. He also authorized the filming of respectable versions of two of his biggest hits. The delightfully macabre Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was filmed in 2007. Directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, the film version lost some of the stage show’s vocal richness but added some bizarre touches that Sondheim must have enjoyed. (I loved the staging of the “By the Sea” number, showing Sweeney on the sand at Brighton, still wearing his rusty black city clothes and dour expression.) And in 2014 there was a thoroughly delightful Into the Woods, Sondheim’s most fractured of fairy tales. A work of astonishing musical complexity, it reveled in the singing talents of such familiar Hollywood folk as Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Christine Baranski, and Meryl Streep.

The latter two showed up on that Zoom tribute, which celebrated Sondheim’s 90th birthday while raising funds for Actors Striving to End Poverty. Baranski and Street were joined on screen by Audra McDonald, all of them socially distancing, to get happily sloshed while warbling Sondheim’s acerbic “Here’s to the Ladies who Lunch,” from Company. I loved watching the three in their plush white bathrobes, wielding cocktail shakers like maracas, trying desperately to sing together while being far, far apart. There was also a foursome striving to bring off “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures, with one of the performers getting in character by recording his vocal from under a kitchen table. And somehow thirty musicians, led by a hardworking conductor, managed to coordinate on the jazzy overture from Merrily We Roll Along. 

It’s always a delight to hear Sondheim songs—both the familiar and the obscure—belted out by Broadway pros like Sutton Foster, Neil Patrick Harris, Kelli O’Hara, and Bernadette Peters. I also enjoyed change-of-pace performers like the wacky YouTube star Randy Rainbow, perhaps better known for his timely “Spoonful of Clorox” spoof of a certain political leader. And it was a pleasure to learn that Hollywood’s Jake Gyllenhaal really can sing.

Of course it’s no secret that non-singers have been starring in Hollywood musicals for years. At first secrecy surrounded the fact that Marni Nixon’s limpid soprano provided the singing voices for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, and Natalie Wood in The Side Story. Nowadays the trend is for performers to use their own pipes, however modest their vocal talent. Sometimes their limitations are a blessing in disguise. When Sondheim was first writing A Little Night Music, star Glynis Johns had a limited range. He kept this in mind while writing one of his best-loved ballads, “Send in the Clowns.” But when the play made a transition to film, Johns’ role was given to glamorous but not particularly musical Elizabeth Taylor, with painfully uncinematic results. 

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