Stephen Sondheim, the giant of the American musical theater songwriting, passed away last week at the age of 91.
His death sparked worldwide mourning from theatre fans casual (and not-so-casual) and also came at a time when his work is suddenly resurgent: Revivals of Assassins and Company are getting set to re-open in New York, as is the Steven Spielberg-directed movie remake of Sondheim’s West Side Story. And the recent Netflix movie Tick… Tick… Boomwas full of Sondheim homages, including Bradley Whitford playing Sondheim and a voice cameo by the master himself.
Since his death, fans of Sondheim have been sharing their favorite songs from his shows, including the Broadway tribute of his song, “Sunday,” performed by a group of his actor friends on the Sunday after his death:
In addition to those, there are three great documentaries, produced over the decades, in which Sondheim has figured prominently: Original Cast Album: Company, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, and Six By Sondheim.
Original Cast Album: Company (1970)
In 1970, documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker was given rare, in-depth access to record the marathon cast recording of Company, one of Sondheim’s best shows. We get to hear several of the great songs — “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” “Ladies Who Lunch,” “Getting Married Today,” and the finale “Being Alive” — occasionally interrupted by arguments from Sondheim and director Hal Prince.
It’s one of showbiz’s greatest non-fiction depictions of the creative process. There’s never been a movie adaptation of Company, and aside from a few releases of filmed theatrical stagings, this is the closest thing we’ve gotten. It also inspired Co-Op (Original Cast Album), the best episode to date of the IFC documentary parody series Documentary Now.
While watching The Beatles: Get Back this week, having such a close-up view of this intimate, tense creative process, I’ve thought of Original Cast Album: Company often, and the two were both filmed around the same time.
After years of being unavailable,Original Cast Album: Company is now streaming on The Criterion Channel, and also on YouTube.
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (2016)
One of Sondheim’s least financially successful shows was Merrily We Roll Along, which opened in 1981 and closed after just 16 performances. The show has had a long afterlife, including multiple revivals, and Richard Linklater is making a movie version that will be filmed over the course of several years.
In 2016, 35 years after its opening (and closing) on Broadway, Lonny Price, one of the original actors, made a documentary about that production that crashed and burned. The film dovetails very easily with the themes of the show itself, including dreams of making musical theater, having those dreams utterly fail, and looking back on it all in middle age. Price also played a small role in another of the best films about a group of friends and their underdog Broadway dreams: The Muppets Take Manhattan.
What’s striking about Best Worst Thing is just how earnest it is, and how central that experience was to the actors who were part of it ― including a very young Jason Alexander, who had a full head of hair at the time. And Sondheim, as always, is an engaging and insightful interview subject.
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened is streaming on Netflix.
Six by Sondheim (2013)
This 2013 documentary, directed by Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, isn’t a full-on career retrospective of Stephen Sondheim, as one of those would have to be about 15 hours long. Instead, the documentary follows the songwriter’s career, featuring bits of interviews from throughout his life, while centering on six of his songs.
The songs are well-chosen, including West Side Story‘s “Something’s Coming,” A Little Night Music‘s “Send in the Clowns,” Follies’ “I’m Still Here,” Company‘s “Being Alive,” Sunday in the Park With George‘s “Sunday,” and Merrily We Roll Along‘s “Opening Doors.”
For “Being Alive,” the film merely re-runs the performance from the Company documentary, while “I’m Still Here” is produced in a segment, featuring Jarvis Cocker singing and Todd Haynes directing.
But the main event is “Opening Doors,” which cast Darren Criss, Jeremy Jordan, and America Ferrera as the young versions of the “Merrily” characters. And then, in a shockingly wonderful moment, Sondheim himself appears, and sings:
There will never be another Stephen Sondheim. But those three documentaries provide an eclectic work at the essence and beauty of his work.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.