The film was a very British Guignol called Hangover Square, the story of a composer with a tendency to commit murder when stressed. The climax of the film is a performance of the composer’s concerto (actually the work of the legendary Bernard Herrmann), which culminates in his death in a cataclysmic inferno, still banging away at the piano. It’s not subtle.
For the adolescent watching this tale unfold, it was a formative experience. He was so captivated by the dark story and Herrmann’s score that he rushed back to the moviehouse to watch the whole thing again in hopes of memorizing the sheet music to the villain’s composition. He wrote Herrmann a fan letter, which the recipient acknowledged was an unusual treat for a film composer. And years later, that young man had the opportunity to pay homage to his inspiration by using a familiar Herrmann chord throughout the score of a musical he had written, which just so happened to be about a murderous barber whose victims become the main ingredient in meat pies.
Stephen Sondheim was a noted cinephile, so it makes sense that movies would have a prominent role in his career. He was, of course, primarily a figure of the stage; long before his passing at the age of 91, he had cemented his reputation as perhaps the most significant creator in the history of American-style musical theater. But he got to indulge his love of film directly more than once; he won an Oscar for the song he contributed to the mélange of color and makeup that was Dick Tracy, he co-wrote the all-star puzzle box The Last of Sheila, and six of his shows made the jump to the silver screen, albeit none entirely successfully. He also made an impression on other filmmakers; audiences were treated to surprise appearances recently in films as diverse as Lady Bird, Knives Out, and Marriage Story. So although not a creature of film, he certainly made his mark.
But what am I doing here, talking about a Broadway composer on a weird movie website? Well, I think Stephen Sondheim has something to teach us about the role that personal vision and committed interest play in making a thing weird. Because while his reputation as the giant of American musical theater may rest on a foundation of rich, adventurous melodies and breathtakingly gymnastic and insightful lyrics, the thing that always kept him apart from the establishment – that marked him as an iconoclast of the highest order and denied him a true blockbuster – was his taste in material. No light comedies or mindless spectacles for him. His most dance-heavy show features tragic murders to end both acts. In search of pure comedy, he adapts plays that are 2,000 years old. Ask him to bring a movie to the stage and he’ll turn to an Italian film about a soldier is ensnared by the obsessive love of an ugly, sickly woman. Welcome to Broadway!
Even by Sondheim standards, my first experience with one of his shows was a doozy: a college production of Merrily We Roll Along, a story of lost idealism and the cost of one’s soul that has the temerity to unspool its tale in reverse chronological order. This stylistic Continue reading EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT TO BE DIFFERENT: STEPHEN SONDHEIM (1930-2021)