Kennedy Award recipient, Stephen Sondheim has Pulitzer Prize, Oscar, Grammy, and 8 Tonys, the most won by any composer in history, among his myriad awards. Six Sondheim plays have been adapted into motion pictures. Sondheim has written a screenplay as well as composed music directly for the movies and TV. A London performance of a Sondheim musical has been streamed worldwide. With this celebrated musical catalog, Sondheim has been the frequent—almost continual—subject of revivals, concert presentations, theatrical tributes, and documentaries. All these Sondheim projects—and more—are now digitally available.
James Lapine’s 2013 Peabody Award-winning documentary, Six By Sondheim, features Soundheim’s songs at its core. Each song is presented differently, that is, “Sunday” is presented in costume as staged on Broadway; “Something’s Coming” is sung by the original Broadway lead; “Opening Doors” is re-staged autobiographically; Sondheim’s most popular song, “Send in the Clowns,” is interpreted by a collage of stars who recorded it; “Being Alive” is presented in archival footage of the 1970 Broadway original cast album recording session; and “I’m Still Here” has been completely re-imagined for the camera. These six different portrayals allow each Sondheim song to illustrate specific aspects of his aesthetic.
“I’m Still Here” is dramatically re-imagined by movie director Todd Haynes. Jarvis Cocker’s 3-minute solo performance becomes the musical-movie equivalent of last century’s “6 Word Story” — a writing exercise gaining traction as a genre in 21st Century publishing.
The legendary Company cast recording session was already the subject of a documentary (Original Cast Album: Company), the pilot for an unproduced series. Seeing footage of this historic session a second time comes at you with both barrels because “Being Alive” brings home how overwhelming this closing song was as sung originally by Dean Jones who would almost immediately leave the Company production.
The 2006 Tony-winning Company revival (the John Doyle production with everybody in the cast playing a musical instrument) is also on DVD. So too the PBS Great Performances telecast of the New York Philharmonic concert version of Company shot at Lincoln Center April 7-9, 2011. The impact of seeing the recording session, revival, and concert again in tandem illuminates that making further electronic comparative sweeps of all these productions might better serve one’s appreciating Sondheim today than would seeing yet another revival of the 1970 play.
Like Lapine’s documentary, the Company concert on film continues to illuminate elements not so obvious in either the original production or stage revival. Forty years after its opening on Broadway, albeit “of its time,” Sondheim’s biting music still sounds boldly youthful. George Furth’s landmark book, on the other hand, with sexual identity, recreational drugs, and living together before marriage as subjects has become charming, even nostalgic, in middle-age. This concert interpretation by a cast of TV stars (including some unappealing television personalities) along with lesser-recognized stage stars offers competent performances across the boards. However, unlike the cast of Doyle’s version on DVD, this cast does not succeed in morphing this 1970s ensemble show from revival into a new presentation. With one very telling exception...
The concert is quietly rocked by the star-power performance of Christina Hendricks as the dim-witted stewardess, April. Hendricks elevates the play’s slow-witted bimbo to an endearing screen bombshell and consequently catapults Company into the 21st Century.
When Hendricks leads Anika Noni Rose, and Chryssie Whitehead (both also excellent) confidently through their spin on Sondheim’s delightful “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” a plot device trio of minor characters singing an amusing patter song explodes on stage. Suddenly, three savvy women are lead into the center of the plot by a very self-aware sex goddess. Hendricks appears so vulnerable and tentative at first that you fail to notice her subtly chewing up the scenery. Not for long. Hendricks makes April pivotal to the plot and puts today’s sexual politics plainly on the table.
Sondheim employed a two-one-acts structure for Sunday in the Park With Georges, giving us the most moving first act curtain in Broadway history and adapted an Ettore Scola movie as his source for the compelling musical play, Passion. Thus, the idea of a Sondheim new 2017 musical, a two-part Sondheim musical pairing based on two Luis Buñuel’s films, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Exterminating Angel, is uniquely promising.
Could there be anything more welcome than a new Sondheim play? Casting the Buñuel musical suggests an actress formidable enough to be a dinner guest from hell in one act as well as the kind of girl you would definitely want to invite to dine with you in the other. It would be fun to see Christina Hendricks’s name on the marquee among the cast of Sondheim’s provocative new show.