Film and Television

Spotlight: A Semi-Definitive Ranking of Stephen Sondheim Musical Films

I think one of my all-time favorite lyrics of Stephen Sondheim comes from the title song of the cult show Anyone Can Whistle: “What’s hard is simple; what’s natural comes hard.” As someone on the autism spectrum, I think that sums up what it’s like eerily accurately. That’s probably what I like best about Sondheim- apart from his astonishingly smart rhymes- his ability to write songs that really do create portraits of real life. Now in his eighties, the notoriously secretive composer/lyricist has been in the business since the 1950s and shows little sign of stopping. He has worked in some form with pretty much every performing arts legend in the book. Heck, he’s become one himself.

Now as tends to occur with great visual media, Steve’s musical shows have been reproduced and adapted countless times over the years. Naturally, many of them have found their way onto the silver screen as well, with a very mixed bag of results. And that’s what this week’s blog entry is about, dear dilettantes: you and I will take a look at all of the Sondheim shows-turned-movies and determine which ones finished the hat…and which ones couldn’t put it together.

The Musical Film That Never Should Have HappenedA Little Night Music (1977) Ugh! I have several problems with the Night Music movie, but the two chief ones are Liz Taylor’s portrayal of Desiree Armfeldt and what happened to the gorgeous score of the stage show. While I understand the studio probably needed a big name to fill the leading lady role, Taylor was certainly an…um…inspired choice. She isn’t believable as the irresistibly troubled diva. Her “Send in the Clowns” is fairly forgettable- and while we’re talking about the music, this film cut some of the show’s best numbers, including “Liaisons” (reducing the great Hermione Gingold to a throwaway role) and “In Praise of Women” (which pretty much defines the Count’s entire character).

The Musical Film That Desperately Needs a RemakeA Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) The ONLY good thing about this film is the cast, led by most of the original Broadway roster plus silent film legend Buster Keaton. Otherwise, I find it to be a dramatic failure, missing much of the bite and wit that makes the stage show so much fun. While the score of Forum is not considered Sondheim’s best work, I adore it and detest that such a good cast was given so little to do here. Literally all but FIVE, six if you count the reprise of “Lovely,” songs ended up on the cutting room floor. But what’s hopeful about the piece is the fact that its classic roles (particularly that of Pseudolus) could easily be rocked to the core by some modern actors. That is why, I think, a director who understands the material and retains more of the original score could redo Forum as a cinematic musical masterpiece.

The Musical Film That Works, But Has Something MissingGypsy (1962) This legendary Sondheim-Styne collaboration has actually been adapted for film twice- the second being a straight-to-TV flick starring Bette Midler as Mama Rose. But I’m focusing on the first movie that featured Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood in the lead roles. I enjoy it, but it doesn’t really capture the magic of the stage show. Granted, Gypsy is such a theatrical story that it is not easy to make it work onscreen, and I appreciate that the filmmakers kept most of the original score. But Russell is far from the best Rose I’ve ever seen, and Wood’s transformation as Louise feels a bit out-of-the-blue. I’ve heard rumors that Barbra Streisand wants to take a crack at Madam Rose, which I think would be a complete disaster and could make this film really look like a definitive adaptation.

The Musical Films That Polarize the Entire Sondheim FanbaseSweeney Todd (2007) and Into the Woods (2014) Oh boy. Approaching my thoughts about these two movies is like opening a big old can of worms. Where do we begin? With the casts, I suppose? That is the one area where Sondheim fans do agree: both films had terrific Hollywood casts. Sweeney starred Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sacha Baron Cohen. Woods had Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and Johnny Depp again (albeit in a glorified cameo this time around). I think the directorial choices for these are what upset or thrill lovers of the original productions. For Sweeney, Tim Burton took a very dry and violent approach, cutting some songs and sapping the macabre humor of the stage show. I think his poorest decision was the cutting of the singing ensemble; the Ballads and choral parts in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and “God, That’s Good” were sorely missed and left a void in the storytelling. As for Woods, Rob Marshall kept more of the original music, but much criticism was launched at the changes and rushed nature of the second half of the story. However, both films have legions of fans and scored multiple Oscar nominations. So to say whether or not they succeeded largely depends on your personal preference, which you’re more than welcome to share in the comments.

The Musical Film That Can Actually Be Called a ClassicWest Side Story (1961) Out of every Sondheim musical movie on this list, this is the one that most people know and love, even non-theatre-maniacs. Heck, even my musical-hating stepfather loves it. The original score by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein is the only one mentioned here that was entirely preserved in its film, though two numbers were slightly altered. The movie also holds the distinction of having more Academy Award wins than any other musical film. Although Natalie Wood’s Maria voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, more notorious is the fact that she and romantic costar Richard Beymer did not get along well on the set. (They made their peace many years later, as Beymer recalls.) Also remarkable about the movie is that the original Broadway choreographer, Jerome Robbins, recreated his dance routines. Yes, I think we can safely say that West Side Story tops the cake that is Sondheim’s musical films- that is, until the next one comes along…

AND I BELIEVE IT WILL!

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