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 choice was so poorly received that the original Broadway run lasted only two weeks. To this day, the structure leaves audiences baffled. Me, I was enthralled. It didn’t feel like other musicals. The melodies were captivating, the lyrical wordplay dizzying, the story at its center heartbreaking. I had to know more.
Here’s the kind of thing that awaited me as I plunged into the Sondheim catalog:
- A town fakes a miracle to lure tourists, but the plan is derailed by the arrival of patients from an asylum devoted to curing nonconformists
- The feudal kingdom of Japan is irrevocably altered by the arrival of American warships
- A painter invents pointillism and creates a masterpiece
Mamma Mia, they ain’t. By the time I had acquainted myself with his whole catalog, I was perfectly primed for the newest piece he had to unveil: Assassins, a revue featuring men and women who have attempted to kill the president. For sheer chutzpah alone, it was a masterpiece. Not surprisingly, it was met with derision by traditionalists, especially arriving as it did at the height of the first Gulf War. But for those willing to pay attention, it proved remarkably prescient, giving voice to those who feel their lack of fortune is due to a debt unpaid and who are willing to throw society into chaos in pursuit of the respect they think they are owed.
A new Sondheim musical usually felt weird when it debuted. At a time when half of Broadway seems to consist of jukebox musicals, repurposed trifles from movie studio back catalogs, and revivals of past hits, his works may be even weirder now. And if he was disappointed by that fact, he held fast to his muse. “I always believe my shows are going to be successful,” he told one collaborator. “Their subjects are always so interesting to me. I assume they would be interesting to others as well.” Nothing could better demonstrate that blissful ignorance than the work he was undertaking at the time of his death: a show based on the Luis Buñuel films The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel.
Stephen Sondheim made Broadway safe for weird, and maybe even made it possible for weird to become welcome. You know what shouldn’t be a smash musical? A story of bohemian squatters living and dying in the East Village. A heretical tale of disobedient Mormon missionaries. A hip-hop salute to America’s first treasury secretary. The creators of these shows have acknowledged their debt to Stephen Sondheim (the cast of Hamilton paid the ultimate tribute by co-opting that bloody barber for themselves), and so many others who might be outcasts or rejects found comfort and hope in the work of a man who whole-heartedly walked down the less-trod path for the simple reason that it interested him. We shall not see his like again, but we can always hold out hope that he lit the way for the rest of us to love loving the wild and the weird.