Friday, December 24, 2021

Send in the Crowns: Stephen Sondheim, King of Musical Theatre

“Not A Day Goes By” is the title of one of my favorite Sondheim ballads. This haunting tune doesn’t hail from one of the master’s greatest hits, like Into the Woods or Sweeney Todd. Instead it was introduced in a rare late-career flop, 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along. This is hardly among Sondheim’s most bravura shows: no murderers, no witches, no giants, no exploration of the history of modern art. Still, as a musical pinpointing what career success can do to a young composer, it perhaps may be one of his most personal. Or not: Sondheim doesn’t easily give himself away.

 I start with “Not A Day Goes By” because I’m guessing that every single day there is someone, somewhere, parsing a Sondheim lyric or humming a Sondheim tune. I know that, especially since his recent death at age 91, my own head is full of them – “Pretty Women,” “The Miller’s Son,” “Children and Art,” “Someone in a Tree,” “No One is Alone.” And Sondheim’s lyrics (along with Leonard Bernstein’s tunes) are an integral part of West Side Story, which is now enjoying its second go-round as a major motion picture.

  I’ve just discovered that Merrily We Roll Around too has been tapped for the movies, with Richard Linklater set to adapt and direct the Sondheim/George Furth play. Ben Platt (of Dear Evan Hansen fame) and Beanie Feldstein are solid choices to play two of the story’s three central characters, and I’m hoping for the best. But this is a play in which chronology works backward, and Linklater (who famously made Boyhood over eleven years to capture the ageing process) apparently wants to shoot off and on for two decades, so don’t expect a premiere anytime soon.

 For a man devoted to the Broadway stage, Sondheim always loved movies. That’s why some of the best of his musicals have—successfully or not—ended up on screen. I don’t have much to say about the 1977 film adaptation of A Little Night Music, a musical that was itself based on an Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night. Even though it was distributed (incredibly enough) by my former boss, Roger Corman, I haven’t seen it. But the snatches I’ve found on YouTube of Elizabeth Taylor, as the glamorous Desiree Arnfeldt, singing Sondheim’s indelible “Send in the Clowns” are hard to take. It’s not the singing (the song was originally crafted for non-singer Glynis Johns) that’s the problem. But Taylor is so stiff!

 More recently (2007), Tim Burton directed an all-star version of perhaps Sondheim’s most popular musical, the gruesome but somehow delightful Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Featured in the cast of this London-set extravaganza are some of Britain’s finest: Alan Rickman as the evil Judge Turpin, Timothy Spall as his sinister sidekick, Beadle Banford, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the huckster Pirelli. Burton’s own love interest, Helena Bonham Carter, made a suitably bedraggled Mrs. Lovett. But the title role went to an American, Johnny Depp, whose generally dour demeanor worked surprisingly well for the haunted barber. (I’ve heard his performance as Sweeney was one of Sondheim’s favorites.) The most memorable moment for me? The “By the Sea” fantasy number, in which Sweeney sits with Mrs. Lovett on the beach at Brighton, still wearing his black suit and his sour expression.

 Then there’s 2014’s lovingly adapted Into the Woods, for which Sondheim and book writer James Lapine approved all plot changes. In the big ensemble cast, I’ll remember most fondly Meryl Streep (The Witch), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), and Emily Blunt as the plucky Baker’s Wife.







  1. Dear Beverly, You wrote a beautifully heartfelt, exhilarating and quite touching homage to Stephen, a man whose loss cannot be calculated-how many eternal songs will NOT be written now that he’s gone? I LOVED the Broadway version of “Into The Woods,” so much so that I spent all my rent money on tickets for my son and myself-during my divorce-so that my son could see it LIVE (I hate that “No More” wasn’t in the movie, it reaches so deeply into my heart AND soul). And Pennbaker’s documentary of the cast recording of “Company,” with Elaine Stritch’s meltdown-my God! On your door opening info I just watched Taylor’s destruction of “Send In The Clowns,” unsalvageable-we’re all better off sticking with Bernadette and Judy, thank goodness THEY’RE here. Bob

    1. Thanks, Bob, for your own soulful tribute to the great Sondheim. I guess we need, at this time of troubles, to focus on the fact that most of us are STILL HERE.