Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Sunday in the Park Without Stephen

Oh, the joys of a Sondheim musical! But I’m actually talking about another Stephen. You see, I’m newly back from a writers’ conference in New York City. On a beautiful  Sunday afternoon, I waited in Bryant Park for two hours to meet with  a fellow writer. Alas, he never showed. (Later I found out he’d been hospitalized. Of course I hope he gets well soon!)

 But Sondheim is much in my mind right now because I’ve just seen a terrific revival of the great man’s waltz operetta, 1973’s A Little Night Music, at the Pasadena Playhouse. What does this have to do with movies? Quite a lot, actually. This complicated story of thwarted and consummated love was based by Sondheim and book author Hugh Wheeler on the rare Ingmar Bergman romantic  comedy, 1955’s Smiles of a Summer Night. As in the Bergman film, events transpire on  the midsummer evening when, in the Swedish countryside, darkness never quite comes, but lovers strongly feel the urge to merge. Once Sondheim’s musical version became a worldwide stage hit, Hollywood came calling. Sondheim, a great lover of film, was all for it.

Stage director-producer Harold Prince signed on to direct the 1977 film version, which was distributed by my former boss, Roger Corman, a B-movie guy who in that era was looking to participate in classier projects. 

 Unfortunately for filmgoers, much of the casting tried a bit too hard for Hollywood pizzazz.. While male actors like Len Cariou reprised their stage roles, the all-important women’s parts were given to actresses popular with TV  and movie fans. That’s why Diana Rigg, well known in that era for playing Emma Peel on TV’s The Avengers, was given the key supporting role of  Countless Charlotte, the bitter wife of a philandering dragoon. And the leading part, that of a glamorous but ageing actress who has discovered she longs for true love (and who gets to sing “Send in the Clowns”) went to no one but Elizabeth Taylor. I’ve never managed to see the whole movie, which was roundly panned by critics and shunned by audiences. But the YouTube clip of Taylor stiffly talk-singing through that dazzling song (see below) is easy to ridicule.

 A Little Night Music was not the only Hollywood film based on a Sondheim musical, but it was one of the first. In the Sixties, two Broadway musicals for which he’d provided lyrics, West Side Story and Gypsy,  became big-budget films, with varying degrees of success. His knockabout musical comedy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, became a frenetic Zero Mostel vehicle in 1966.  Seven years later, Sondheim—a great fan of mysteries and word games—collaborated with actor Tony Perkins on the script for a twisty, bitchy non-musical called The Last of Sheila. For Warren Beatty’s comic-strip spinoff,, Dick Tracy (1990), Sondheim was hired to contribute five songs. One of then, “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” was seductively sung by Madonna, in the role of Breathless Mahoney: it ended up winning Sondheim his one and only Oscar.

 Of the two major Sondheim musicals that have been made into movies thus far,  Sweeney Todd (a 2007 film starring a well-cast Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter) has its moments, notably a deadpan droll “By the Sea,” with a scowling Sweeney on the sand at Brighton, fully dressed in his funereal black suit. An all-star Into the Woods (2014) , with Meryl Streep as the Witch, approaches the power of the original. But fantasy, which works beautifully on stage, is much harder to carry off at the movies. 


 With best wishes to S.M. Silverman


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