Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricist who died on Friday at the age of 91, has had an unprecedented influence on contemporary theater. Cover versions of two of his shows are currently on stage in New York – the Broadway version of “Company” and the off-Broadway star production of “Assassins” at the Classic Stage Company – and Steven Spielberg’s new film adaptation of “West Side Story ”will be released on December 10th.
But there are dozens of ways to experience Sondheim’s cunning wit, melodic meaning, and astonishing moral complexity from the comfort of your sofa. Not that he ever leaves you too comfortable. Unlike many of his peers, Sondheim has been served fairly well by film and video. Here are some of the best ways to look at the work of the man who gave us more to see.
“Original distribution album: Company”
Sondheim’s penetrating study of modern love and even more modern ambivalence is a classic. For a rich encounter with the material, try DA Pennebaker’s 1970 documentary, which details controversial attempts to record the original album for the cast at Church, a Columbia Records studio in Midtown Manhattan. A lifelong fun and a useful glimpse into a common creative process, the film turns electric as the camera captures Elaine Stritch trying and failing to establish the devastating track “The Ladies Who Lunch”.
Post it on the criterion channel.
Although sounded at the time for playing Rosalind Russell as stage monster Mama Rose – rather than Ethel Merman, who had created the role – the 1962 Mervyn LeRoy film offers a behind-the-scenes pass. bygone forms of American entertainment: vaudeville and burlesque. Moving nimbly through moods and styles, Sondheim’s lyrics range from utterly innocent (“Little Lamb”) to deliciously racy (“You Gotta Get a Gimmick”), with at least one number, “Rose’s Turn” , which suggests the radical revision of the musical that he will attempt later.
Take advantage, if necessary, of the exaggerated adaptation of Rob Marshall in 2014 of this chain of fairy tales. But the 1987 version, recorded for PBS’s “American Playhouse” and available on Apple TV, is a superb example of pre-“Hamilton” performance capture, preserving the indelible performances of Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleeson and Chip Zien. The kids will listen, so watch it with yours. The first act, anyway. Or for a more modern take, try the 2010 version, recorded live at Regent’s Park in London and broadcast on Broadway HD, starring “Ted Lasso” Hannah Waddingham as the witch.
Rent the 1987 version from Apple tv and Amazon prime.
Distribute the 2010 version from Broadway HD.
“A funny thing happened on the way to the forum”
A work of impeccable silliness and absolute froth, the 1966 film version of this meringue-like musical, assembled from a handful of Plautus comedies, stars Zero Mostel as an intriguing servant and Jack Gilford in addition to sweeter, with the future ghost Michael Crawford as the master in love. It is available on several platforms. The songs are flimsy compared to Sondheim’s later works, but they delight – from the affirmation of “Comedy Tonight” to the impertinence of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” and the jovial whimsy of “Lovely”.
Post it on Pluto TV and Tubi; rent it on Youtube, Apple tv, Amazon Prime Video, google play and Seen.
“Sunday in the park with George”
Incomparable study of the profit and the cost of artistic creation, this 1984 musical, vaguely inspired by the life of Georges Seurat, was captured in 1986 with Mandy Patinkin as a pointillist painter and Peters as the muse Dot. The filmic hues are blurred – a shame for an artist so obsessed with color and light. But Sondheim’s rigor and originality clearly resonates in songs like “Finishing the Hat”, “Children and Art” and “Move On”.
If your favorite form of tribute involves a generous payment, a good shout and an invitation to sing along, raise your voice to this online offering, assembled last year and available in full on YouTube. Hosted by Raúl Esparza, its quality is uneven, a consequence of the Zoom theater of the first wave. But he still moves deftly through and through his six-decade career, and delivers performances from unmatched performers, including Patinkin (“Lesson # 8” from “Sunday in the Park With George”), Donna Murphy (“Send in the Clowns “from” A Little Night Music “), Patti LuPone (” Anyone Can Whistle “), Bernadette Peters (” No One Is Alone “from” Into the Woods “) and the incomparable triad of Audra McDonald, Christine Baranski and Meryl Streep (“The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Business”). Everybody get up? Why not?
Post it on Youtube.