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 its Elaine Stritchs screen-shattering performance of The Ladies Who Lunch in D.A. Pennebakers documentary Original Cast Album: Company or Madonnas slinking around and cooing Sooner or Later in Dick Tracy, Sondheims 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 Sondheims 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 Sondheims gifts to cinema and why its 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 its up to us, as Sondheim lovers, to [say] when something isnt 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 youre really attuned to the lyrics and the melodies, youre thinking about how this possibly could have come about. So youre constantly aware of the richness of the text and the complexity. For a documentary to just be about that literally: Youre seeing people do things over and over again, youre 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 cant 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 didnt 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 arent, with very few exceptions, great screen interpretations of his work that arent filmed theater productions.
A: He gives you something that you think you understand. Even with Into the Woods (the 2014 film), its like, Oh, its a deconstruction of fairy tales. But thats really not enough to go on. Theres something really profound going on there about sadness and loneliness that is probably really hard to square with the genre trappings. Theyre tricky because hes 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. Thats 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 its produced, what its about. What its doing feels so New York stage, it would be so strange.
Q: Could you talk about Sondheim and Madonnas cinematic work in Dick Tracy?
A: For me, as a little gay boy with his Madonna Im 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. Its one of those things thats a queering agent. Dick Tracy really feels like a hybrid of a lot of different sensibilities. I like the way that Sondheim and Madonnas 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: Thats a tricky one. Its 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 thats what makes it delightful. With Sondheim you see the gears working without it taking you out of the film. Its a movie about game playing, in which youre constantly being asked to size up the people involved. Its 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. Theres the idea that this is an accusation. But when its revealed, theres a real casualness about it. Its 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 movingimage.us.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.