By Cody Dericks
The theater and entertainment worlds were shaken on November 26th when it was announced that Stephen Sondheim had passed away. It’s not an overstatement to say that Sondheim was perhaps the most important figure in musical theater in the 20th century. Adding to the overwhelming number of tributes and reappraisals of the master songwriter is the release of “West Side Story,” the second film adaptation of one of his earliest works. Sondheim’s musicals have been brought to the big screen seven times. While their quality and faithfulness to the source material vary, Sondheim’s eternally clever and gorgeous music and lyrics are constant.
West Side Story (1961)
The first film of a musical that Sondheim worked on is a complete and total knockout. Indeed, it still stands as perhaps the greatest musical film of all time. Co-directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise bring vitality and beauty to this adaptation of the legendary stage show. Leonard Bernstein’s sweeping, breathtaking music and Sondheim’s youthful and romantic lyrics are performed with urgency and passion from both the film’s orchestra and its roster of actors – many of whom are dubbed. However, they still perform the hell out of the songs. Rita Moreno, in particular, is incredible, delivering a performance that remains one of the greater Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners. This film does what all cinematic versions of stage-bound material should aim to do – it elevates and reinterprets the piece for a different medium and, in the translation, brings new revelations to it. The dynamic camera captures both the stunning designs (some of the best use of color in American cinematic history) and Robbins’ invigorating, heart-stopping choreography, paired with editing that doesn’t hide the impressive dancing in the way that many modern musicals do. It is a nearly perfect film outside of some cringe-inducing racially inappropriate casting. From its dynamic dance-filled opening sequence to its daring, heartbreaking finale, it keeps its audience enraptured as only the best pieces of art can hope to do. “West Side Story” never feels anything less than bracing and vital, even over half a century later.
In this tuneful interpretation of famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoir, Sondheim penned the lyrics to composer Jule Styne’s music. This admittedly unassuming concept actually yielded what is now considered to be one of the biggest achievements in American musical theater, thanks in no small part to Sondheim’s smart words. His lyrics are authentic to the specific and varied characters’ intelligence and experience. For the 1962 film adaptation, Rosalind Russell is tasked with bringing the legendary leading role of Rose to movie audiences. Even though she was partially dubbed, she clearly isn’t the best singer with a vocal range closer to a baritone than a traditional Broadway belter. But she uses her famously equally matched comedic timing and dramatic abilities to sell Rose’s desperation and mania in ways that are both hilarious and shockingly upsetting. She consistently brings specificity and humor to Sondheim’s clever lyrics. Overall, the film is primarily content to merely capture the musical numbers with little cinematic flair. Still, once the title character comes into her own as a burlesque stripper in the final act, the film picks up steam and becomes something truly special. Capped off with one of the most famous eleven o’clock numbers in musical theater, “Rose’s Turn,” it sends the audience out on a literal high note.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)
This joke-a-minute musical comedy is the first noteworthy hit that Sondheim had as both a composer and lyricist. But even with his storied career that would follow, the lasting legacy of this musical is generally considered to be the zany plot, rapid-fire jokes, and hilarious characters rather than Sondheim’s score. Even so, his lyrics are clever, with surprising rhymes and wordplay aplenty. The film adaptation sees Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford reprising their roles from the original Broadway production, under the direction of Richard Lester, who was hot off the Beatles film “A Hard Day’s Night.” It maintains the wacky tone of the stage show with manic editing and over-the-top performances, but it sometimes gets so swept up in the hysteria that it can feel a bit unpolished. Not helping matters is how poorly sung the score is by the ensemble of comedic legends. Contrary to what is often expected of the genre, the actual musical aspect of this musical comedy is often painful to hear. The whole thing is a short and fast affair that’s easily one of the more inconsequential works of Sondheim’s esteemed canon. However, this is the point of the show, as one of the final lyrics underlines: “Morals tomorrow, comedy tonight!”
A Little Night Music (1977)
One of Sondheim’s more musically-lush scores got the big-screen treatment in 1977 under the supervision of Harold Prince, who directed the original New York production. It was only Prince’s second film and, although he’d work on Broadway up to his death in 2019, this would prove to be his final foray in film directing. And it’s understandable why – the film received negative reviews, didn’t make an impact at the box office, and its legacy is a disappointing one. Still, the bones of the stage production are strong enough that parts of the film remain enchanting. The score, in particular, sounds lovely and lavish, and it’s easy to understand why Jonathan Tunick won an Oscar for Best Adaptation Score. However, there are some odd cuts to the song list, and aside from the performances that were transplanted from the stage production, most of the singers struggle through their numbers. Elizabeth Taylor’s leading performance is odd; she sometimes brings surprising energy to the role, but she also looks bored for most of the film. She is particularly disappointing in her big number “Send in the Clowns,” wherein she appears lost as she wanders around the set, which must also be blamed on Prince’s purposeless direction. Diana Rigg’s performance is delicious despite the lack of a strong guiding hand behind the camera. She nails every cutting line reading her cynical character is given. If the film had had more of an impact, it’s exactly the type of performance that could have easily been nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Unfortunately, this film merely exists as a curiously stagnant adaptation of a ravishing, romantic stage show.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
When it was announced that Tim Burton would be bringing Sondheim’s bloody musical to screen, it seemed like the perfect pairing of director to material. And while his aesthetic interests may work well for this delightfully dark musical, he’s clearly out of his league when it comes to staging musical numbers. Throughout the film, the blocking lacks purpose, making it hard to become invested in the incredible songs. Even still, the performances are almost uniformly enjoyable. Notably, Alan Rickman is both charming and loathsome as the villainous Judge Turpin, and Helena Bonham Carter makes a perfectly spacey Mrs. Lovett, choosing to play her as a quietly scheming woman who uses her distance and vacancy to hide her wicked machinations. Sure, no one in the cast can really sing, but Sondheim himself always stressed the importance of casting actors who can sing rather than singers who can act. Unfortunately, all of these decent performances are undercut by a truly mystifying central performance from Johnny Depp in the title role. He goes somewhere past enigmatic to the realm of uninteresting – there is simply nothing there. He starts the film brooding and stoic and ends the film brooding and stoic. There’s no journey and no interiority to his performance, and he gives very little specificity to Sondheim’s character-based lyrics. Overall, Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” is a mixed bag, but one thing works uniformly well: Sondheim’s music sounds incredible. The orchestrations are impressively huge, giving his operatic score the gargantuan treatment it deserves.
Into the Woods (2014)
Director Rob Marshall helms this adaptation of one of Sondheim’s more popular shows. At this point in his career, Marshall had a spotty track record when it came to musical adaptations. “Chicago” was a massive success with audiences, critics and even managed to win Best Picture – the first musical to do so in over three decades. However, his version of “Nine” had quite the opposite reception. Here, “Into the Woods” falls somewhere in the middle. The source material is, obviously, exceptional, and for the most part, it’s one of the better-sung films on this list. But Marshall, possibly at Disney’s command, smooths out and flattens the dark ironies and moments of humor that make the stage show beautiful in a surprising, subversive way. On stage, it is a mature and tricky piece about the complexities of growing up and making one’s way in the world, told through overlapping fairy tales. The film version removes nearly all of the wit and rough edges that set the characters apart from the more traditional adaptations that Disney itself famously brought to life via animation throughout the 20th century. It’s a straight-faced, humorless film that’s content just to be a fairy tale mash-up rather than a restructuring and reinterpretation of these oft-told stories. The film is highly literal in its transfer from stage to screen, which leads to stylistic problems like Johnny Depp’s wolf character confusingly being simply a man with a tail. Meryl Streep and Chris Pine are the only ones that make it out unscathed. Both performers properly play into the hilarity and paradoxical intricacies of their characters. However, the film’s problems must be placed at Marshall’s feet, who either fundamentally misunderstands the intent of the musical or was powerless against the sanitizing directives of the Mouse House.
West Side Story (2021)
And here we are again, back where it all began. As director Steven Spielberg has fervently stated, the new “West Side Story” is not a remake of the original film but rather a new adaptation of the original stage show. Tony Kushner’s brilliant screenplay delights in taking diversions from the tried-and-true source material, reexamining and recontextualizing the characters and songs to unearth new revelations about societal problems that have yet to be mended. Regardless, it’s hard not to compare it to the 1961 masterpiece. Besides the script’s adjustments, perhaps the most significant change between the two films is the dancing. The 1961 version features choreography from co-director Jerome Robbins, recreating his work from the stage show and brilliantly bringing an athletic beauty to this tale of youthful gang violence. For the 2021 film, Tony-winner Justin Peck stages completely new dances. His work is less constantly dance-filled than Robbins’, opting instead to have his musical numbers feature a good amount of characters simply walking and singing before bursting into moments of frenetic dance. It’s energetic and enjoyable to watch, but Peck’s choreographic vocabulary is relatively repetitive and not very character-specific. But it’s hard to complain when the songs themselves are performed spectacularly. The dancers are dynamic, the singing flawless, and the orchestra is perfect. And in a nice contrast from most of Spielberg’s recent work, the designs and general look of the film are delightfully colorful. The gorgeously adorned world the characters inhabit externalizes the beauty the doomed lovers see in each other. For a master filmmaker like Spielberg, it is a bit surprising that he’s taken this long to make a musical, but it was worth the wait.
What’s your favorite film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s work? Have you seen the new “West Side Story” yet? If so, what did you think? Let us know your thoughts in in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Cody and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @codymonster91