How Stephen Sondheim's work did (and didn't) translate to the screen

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How Stephen Sondheim's work did (and didn't) translate to the screen
Stephen Sondheim, Aug. 30, 1999. This year, as pandemic deaths ebbed and flowed, a distinctive, eternal beat — that of artist’s deaths — played on as usual, bringing its own waves of collective grief. Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times.

NEW YORK, NY.- Stephen Sondheim, the unparalleled composer-lyricist who died in November, may have changed musical theater forever, but as a new program at the Museum of the Moving Image argues, he left his mark on film as well. Whether it’s Elaine Stritch’s screen-shattering performance of “The Ladies Who Lunch” in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary “Original Cast Album: ‘Company’” or Madonna’s slinking around and cooing “Sooner or Later” in “Dick Tracy,” Sondheim’s work has given film audiences memorable moments.

The museum program, See It Big: Sondheim, assembled by guest programmer Michael Koresky, film curator Eric Hynes and assistant curator Edo Choi offers a survey of adaptations of Sondheim’s work and other examples of his contributions to film, including a murder-mystery screenplay and the score to a French new wave film. I spoke with Koresky about Sondheim’s gifts to cinema and why it’s so hard to adapt his work. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Q: Sondheim let people adapt his work freely, which your program shows.

A: He said in many interviews that he is OK with someone massaging and changing and doing things for their own sake, and I think that just shows his generosity and his experimentation ability to allow others to be experimental. You can see that all the way through to 2021. With the Spielberg version of “West Side Story,” you could tell that he was sort of delighted to find that it had this new life.

I think it’s up to us, as Sondheim lovers, to [say] when something isn’t working. But because of that, it takes something really different and experimental and strange to be a truly successful adaptation, which is why I think that “Original Cast Album: ‘Company’” is probably the best “adaptation” of a Sondheim musical.

Q: What about that film is able to articulate the skill and artistry of Sondheim in ways that some other attempts do not?

A: I think with Sondheim, witnessing the artistic process is part of the whole experience, creation is baked into the actual production. When you’re really attuned to the lyrics and the melodies, you’re thinking about how this possibly could have come about. So you’re constantly aware of the richness of the text and the complexity. For a documentary to just be about that literally: You’re seeing people do things over and over again, you’re getting a glimpse into an aspect of musical production that you probably never would have the chance to see. Pulling the strings and looking becomes part of the text. His musicals are so much about their own construction, so I can’t think of a better film based on Sondheim.

Q: Was there a particular piece that you wanted to start this series as a kind of guiding ethos for what you wanted the program to say about his legacy?

A: For me, it was the 1966 television program “Evening Primrose,” which didn’t end up in the program, only because it was impossible to find. I grew to love “Take Me to the World,” which is a song I discovered in a piano book. That show typifies everything that I love about Sondheim: the melodies, the strange subject matter, the weird sources of adaptation, the really idiosyncratic, disturbing, bizarre and beautiful. I wanted that to be the discovery for people.

We started with the 2021 “West Side Story” because we want to give people the chance to see it on the big screen, since so many people missed seeing it last December.

Q: What is it that makes it so difficult to adapt Sondheim to the screen? There aren’t, with very few exceptions, great screen interpretations of his work that aren’t filmed theater productions.

A: He gives you something that you think you understand. Even with “Into the Woods” (the 2014 film), it’s like, “Oh, it’s a deconstruction of fairy tales.” But that’s really not enough to go on. There’s something really profound going on there about sadness and loneliness that is probably really hard to square with the genre trappings. They’re tricky because he’s always doing two things at once. And when you make a film, filmmakers often focus on the spectacle, not realizing that the spectacle has to be elided. That’s really hard to do in film.

I was thinking today about which Sondheim works I wish there were movies of. I never want “Sunday in the Park With George” to be a movie, just by virtue of what it is, how it’s produced, what it’s about. What it’s doing feels so New York stage, it would be so strange.

Q: Could you talk about Sondheim and Madonna’s cinematic work in “Dick Tracy”?

A: For me, as a little gay boy with his Madonna “I’m Breathless” cassette tape in 1990, it was the essential thing. Period. “Dick Tracy,” the gruff lantern-jawed masculine comic book detective, just does not interest me. But I remember those songs. It’s one of those things that’s a queering agent. “Dick Tracy” really feels like a hybrid of a lot of different sensibilities. I like the way that Sondheim and Madonna’s contributions help to negate the uber-masculinity of the text.

Q: And we have to talk about “The Last of Sheila” (1973), which he co-wrote with Anthony Perkins.

A: That’s a tricky one. It’s interesting that they chose an intricate, whodunit murder mystery plot, because how else would you intelligently funnel this Sondheim complexity and idea of overlapping narratives, characters, themes into a genre film? I think that’s what makes it delightful. With Sondheim you see the gears working without it taking you out of the film. It’s a movie about game playing, in which you’re constantly being asked to size up the people involved. It’s very mechanical in a fun way.

Q: And in a nasty way that I love, too.

A: One of the game cards in the film reads, “You are a homosexual.” And the way they talk about it is surprisingly casual and sort of progressive. There’s the idea that this is an accusation. But when it’s revealed, there’s a real casualness about it. It’s surprising for “closeted” — at the time — gay men to write.

See It Big: Sondheim runs through May 1 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. For more information, go to

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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