Stephen Sondheim on Screen

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) — Several stage works by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who died Nov. 26 at age 91, have been adapted for the screen over the years. Following, in alphabetical order, are capsule reviews of some of them.

All are currently available for home viewing. Unless otherwise noted, the Catholic News Service classification of each is A-III — adults.

In addition to these films, a fresh take on “West Side Story” from director Steven Spielberg is scheduled to arrive in theaters Dec. 10. Other Sondheim-based projects are in production.

“Company” (2008)

Handsome filming of Sondheim’s 1970 Broadway musical (book by George Furth), as seen in its acclaimed 2006-07 Tony Award-winning revival. Raul Esparza stars in the role of Bobby, a confirmed bachelor celebrating his 35th birthday with his 10 closest friends (who also happen to be five couples). The production was directed by John Doyle, whose unconventional approach includes the versatile actors doubling as orchestra musicians for such songs as “Another Hundred People,” “The Ladies Who Lunch” and “Being Alive.” Best for grown-ups and older teens. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association. (Image Entertainment)

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1966)

Wacky and ribald Broadway hit about a cunning slave (Zero Mostel) in ancient Rome who has great fun in exploiting a series of mistaken identities and in misinterpreting various orders in an effort to gain his freedom. Director Richard Lester keeps the humor swift and visual, backed by such fine screen clowns as Buster Keaton, Phil Silvers, Jack Gilford and Michael Hordern in a crisp and stylish musical burlesque of ageless low-comedy routines. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association. (Kino Lorber; also available on Blu-ray)

“Gypsy” (1962)

Bittersweet musical in which an obsessive stage mom (Rosalind Russell) tries to make a vaudeville star out of her young daughter (Ann Jillian) but fails, then turns to her older daughter (Natalie Wood), who instead makes it on her own as burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Director Mervyn LeRoy gets an effectively aggressive performance from Russell, whose egomaniacal mother furnishes considerable sympathy for Wood’s escape into a disreputable career, but what succeeds best are the Jule Styne-Sondheim songs, notably “Let Me Entertain You” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Parental exploitation of youngsters and some heavy sexual innuendo. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association. (Warner Home Video)

Meryl Streep stars in a scene from the movie “Into the Woods.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children. (CNS photo/Peter Mountain, courtesy Disney)

“Into the Woods” (2014)

Despite its fairy-tale roots, this initially pleasing but ultimately problematic adaptation of Sondheim and James Lapine’s long-running 1987 stage musical is an inappropriate choice for youthful moviegoers. As scripted by Lapine, the action wittily interweaves a number of classic children’s stories — those of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) among them — with its main narrative tracing a childless couple’s (James Corden and Emily Blunt) quest to undo the curse of barrenness placed on his family by a witch (Meryl Streep) whom his father (Simon Russell Beale) long ago wronged. All this transpires whimsically enough at first under Rob Marshall’s direction. But late plot developments lead into brooding reflections on the two-edged legacy of gaining worldly experience and, more disturbingly, into an apparent rejection of objective moral standards in favor of do-it-yourself ethics. Possibly acceptable for older teens. Complex moral themes requiring mature discernment, a scene of adulterous kissing, some stylized violence, the mildly abusive treatment of minors. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children. (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment; also available on Blu-ray)

“A Little Night Music” (1978)

Screen version of Sondheim’s Broadway musical, based on Ingmar Bergman’s classic “Smiles of a Summer Night,” about ill-matched spouses and lovers who sort out their differences and find happiness in the course of a turn-of-the-century summer night. Harold Prince’s uninspired direction and uneven casting (Elizabeth Taylor only so-so in the lead, though she gets to sing “Send in the Clowns”) make the light and airy sophistication become rather earthbound, while Diana Rigg, Lesley-Anne Down, and stage holdovers Len Cariou, Hermione Gingold and Laurence Guittard are assets. The situations and dialogue make it mature viewing fare. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children (Hen’s Tooth Video)

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007)

Bloody but artful screen version of Sondheim’s Broadway musical (and now a staple of opera houses) recounting the Victorian legend of the crazed barber (an intense Johnny Depp, singing surprisingly well) determined to exact revenge on the lecherous judge (Alan Rickman) who robbed him of his wife and daughter years before. He sets up his business over the shop of a shady baker (Helena Bonham Carter), who minces his victims into her pies. The songs notwithstanding, this is familiar territory for director Tim Burton, who has an affinity for the Grand Guignol aspects of the story and creates an atmosphere of great tension. But the streams of blood, however stylized, and basic premise will be a turnoff for many. Brief but grisly bloodlettings and grinding of flesh, implied cannibalism, a couple of uses of the S-word, brief irreverence in lyrics, underage drinking. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. (Paramount Home Entertainment; also available on Blu-ray)

“West Side Story” (1961)

This rousing Broadway musical, with choreography by Jerome Robbins and music by Leonard Bernstein, is a contemporary, inner-city adaptation of the classic Romeo and Juliet theme, with Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood playing the star-crossed lovers set apart ethnically and by their opposing street gang backgrounds. Directed by Robert Wise, the picture captures the grit of life in the city’s lower depths, with glimmers of hope and elements of tragedy in a delicate balance, carried along by song and dance numbers that pulsate with energy and verve. Some of the social issues, relationships and street language, however, require a mature perspective. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association. (MGM; also available on Blu-ray)

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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