The Musical Man
A silver-screen tribute to all-time greatest lyricist/composer Stephen Sondheim, who died last week at 91.
West Side Story (1961; rent from $3.99)
If you didn’t heed my call this summer, now it’s really time to reengage with Sondheim 101. As Sondheim fans mourn his passing, they’re also anticipating the arrival of the Tony Kushner-adapted, Steven Spielberg-directed remake of this canonical show, which hits theaters on December 10.
Gypsy (1962, HBO Max)
Rosalind Russell plays Mama Rose Hovick, the Kris Jenner of vaudeville, in this vintage adaptation of the Broadway hit. (Which makes Natalie Wood’s Louise the Kourtney Kardashian, though once you watch this one, you’ll see she’s more Laney Boggs from She’s All That.) Among my favorite trivia about Gypsy is that unlike in West Side Story, Wood does her own singing—which explains so much. The showstopper is “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” made famous on stage by Ethel Merman and performed here by Russell with a gusto Kris could surely get behind. But my personal highlight will always be the finale, “Rose’s Turn.” Just ask my 13-month-old, who has already heard me growl “Mama’s talkin’ loud. / Mama’s doin’ fine. / Mama’s gettin’ hot. / Mama’s goin’ strong” more times than she can count.
Sweeney Todd (2007, Hulu):
The movie version of the best slasher musical of all time stars Johnny Depp as the barber/serial killer and Helena Bonham Carter as his meat pie-making sidekick. This Tim Burton film is bloooooody, but Depp’s performance is A+ (like Edward Scissorhands grew up to be a homicidal hairdresser) and Sondheim’s tunes are, as always, killer.
Into the Woods (2014; Disney+)
As a fan of the stage musical, I can’t say I love Rob Marshall’s 2014 movie adaptation. Obviously Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt are delightful; Chris Pine’s and Billy Magnussen’s preening princes are a hoot; and was I happy to see Christine Baranski and Tracey Ullman? Of course. But the largest roles go to peak annoying Anna Kendrick and James Corden (as Cinderella and Baker, respectively), making the two hour-plus running time feel even longer. However, our theater-inclined middle-schooler L.B. ate up this version like she was creepy Wolf devouring good-intentioned Red.
Six By Sondheim (2013, HBO Max)
More of a superfan sampler than a Sondheim starter pack, the HBO doc deep dives into a half dozen of his most iconic songs, which Sondheim himself performs with shiny belters like Audra McDonald and America Ferrera. This one’s best for hardcore theater kids.
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (Netflix; 2016)
This shaggy documentary directed by Lonny Price—whom some of us will always know best as aspiring Broadway producer Ronnie Crawford from The Muppets Take Manhattan—is a love letter to Sondheim and the magic of Broadway. In it, the cast of Sondheim flop Merrily We Roll Along reunites 25 years after its Broadway bow. Though Merrily closed after just 16 performances, the movie follows the actors, including Jason Alexander, over the intervening years before getting the band back together again.
One fun Merrily fact that sticks with me is that Greta Gerwig loves the show deeply (her whole chat with Terry Gross is as good as you might expect)—so deeply that she made it a plot point in her wonderful coming-of-age movie Lady Bird (2017; Netflix), which our 15-year-old H.B. thanked me twice for recommending to him.
tick, tick… BOOM! (2021; Netflix):
Andrew Garfield’s got the Oscar buzz for the lead role of gone-too-soon composer Jonathan Larson, and as a Rent stan (I’ve seen it on stage just shy of 30 times), I’m totally on board for the hoopla. But the most winning performance in the movie is Bradley Whitford’s brief turn as Sondheim, Larson’s idol. In heavy makeup, the hammier-with-age Whitford really leans into the Sondheim of it all as he bestows upon Larson a little early-days encouragement. The result is candy for the musical-nerd viewer. I won’t spoil the rest.
Extra Credit: Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration (2020)
Sondheim’s 90th birthday occurred two Aprils ago, right as America went into Covid lockdown. But because the show must go on, the producers of his tribute concert scrambled, ultimately coming up with a celebrity-studded1 Zoomfest that due to tech difficulties only got going an hour late. Still, James and I watched the whole meandering shebang. Here, courtesy of EW, are a few highlights; plus, courtesy of Vulture, an investigation on who gets to call Sondheim “Steve.”
Bonus Reading: There’ve been dozens—probably hundreds?—of tributes to Sondheim published over the past week. My two favorites for those who want to spend more time thinking about the GOAT: Mark Harris’s “The Measureless, Omnipresent Influence of Stephen Sondheim” for Vulture, and Isaac Butler’s “Stephen Sondheim Solved the Puzzle to Being Alive” for Slate.
We’re talkin’ Bernadette, Meryl, Jake, Patti, Mandy, Audra, Lin-Manuel—stars of stage and screen!