Watch: In Memory of Stephen Sondheim, Some YouTube Rarities

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Sunday November 27, 2022

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim  (Source:AP)

When Stephen Sondheim passed away a year ago it came as a surprise, which might sound strange about a man who was 91 years old. But just weeks before Sondheim appeared with Stephen Colbert in ebullient form, plus he was on the brink of a big December with two projects -- Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" and the London import of "Company" (re-opening after a COVID delay) -- he raved about. About that time, it was also announced that his long-delayed, thought abandoned musical after a pair of Luis Buneil films was going to come to Broadway. Sondheim looked so full of life, he was going to outlive George Abbott, who lived to 107. Abbott was Broadway's leading musical director when Sondheim was starting out and worked with Sondheim on "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" in 1962.

That planned musical was a project that the New York Times wrote Sondheim had been working of years with playwright David Ives and director Joe Mantello that had been title "Square One," adapted from two movies directed by Luis Buñuel. Shortly before his death, Sondheim told the New York Times: "The first act is based on 'The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,' and the second act is based on 'The Exterminating Angel,' " he explained during the interview. "I don't know if I should give the so-called plot away, but the first act is a group of people trying to find a place to have dinner, and they run into all kinds of strange and surreal things, and in the second act, they find a place to have dinner, but they can't get out." He added that the musical was still unfinished. Whether it will reach fruition remains to be seen.

Over his long career, which stretched from the early 1950s to November 26, 2022, he often had projects that didn't reach the stage, or evolved into something comletely different. What Sondheim taught his fans was to expect the unexpected, and in doing so single-handedly transformed the American musical in the second half of the 20th century, just as his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, had done in the first half. It isn't surprising that Sondheim remains hugely influential, but has never been a popular artist. None of his musicals ever cracked 1000 performances in their initial runs, and in revivals have failed to find audiences. But that is to be espected of a visionary artist. As he once wrote, I'll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit.

His singular talent, which could magically meld Ravel with Cole Porter in the best tradition of Broadway, lives on in the plentiful library of recordings and videos that can be streamed, including a number of productions of his full musicals and a number of illuminating documentaries. Here are some of our choices found on YouTube of lesser-known Sondheim that are well worth a look.

"Six By Sondheim"

Watch Darren Criss sing "Opening Doors" from "Six by Sondheim." The film is currently streaming on HBO Max.

What may be a great introduction to Sondheim's world, or just a refresher course into his genius, is this illuminating documentary directed and co-produced by his collaborator James Lapine ("Sunday in the Park with George," "Into the Woods," "Assassins," "Passion.") He shared co-producing chores with Frank Rich, one of Sondheim's biggest supporters when he was a critic for the New York Times. With interviews and rich archival footage, the documentary focuses on six Sondheim songs from various points in his career with discussions of each. Dating from the 1950s, Sondheim has long been articulate about his songwriting process, his debt to Oscar Hammerstein, his passion with games and how he broought order to an often chaotic whole -- as in the case of his writing "Send in the Clowns" while the show was in Boston. Throughout the film are a number of short videos of the six songs of the doc's title, including Audra McDonald singing "Send in the Clowns" and British pop musician Jarvis Cocker offering an unusual performance of "I'm Still Here" in front of women of various age in a sequence was directed by out director Todd Haynes ("Carol"). The film is so rich in content and sharply edited that Sondheim can literally be heard starting one thought in the 1950s and finishing it in the 1990s. (HBO Max)

Original Cast - "Company"

The original cast album was the way most Americans learned of Broadway in the 1950s. Virtually every household had a copy of "My Fair Lady" or "South Pacific." In 1970, fimmaker D.A. Â Pennebaker set out to document the process of recording an original cast album, which usually took place the weekend following a show's opening, with "Company," the Sondheim musical that had just opened to rave reviews. In his hour-long film, Pennebaker follows record producer Thomas Z. Shepard as he records the songs with multiple takes, gently goading the performers while balancing the technical aspects. Sondheim, director Harold Prince and librettist George Furth are on hand to add commentary, but it is the songs and the performers who are the stars here. Dean Jones, who was about to leave the show due to personal issues involving his divorce, exposes his vulnerability in a beautifully rendered "Being Alive" that is alive with emotion; but by far the film is worth watching if only to see Elaine Stritch struggle with "The Ladies Who Lunch" with multiple takes at 3AM. It makes for an electrifying sequence that caps one of the best documentaries about musical theater ever made.


"Follies" is something of a lost musical. Sure, much has been written about it and it has been revived, quite spectacularly over the years, but in the days before video recordings, there is no lasting filmed record of its original production, one of the most spectacular stagings in Broadway history. During its run, many thought "Follies" a huge hit, so when it was surprising when it closed fourteen months into its run with a loss of its initial investment of nearly $800,000 (the highest on Broadway to that date.) Much of that cost can be seen on the stage in Florence Klotz's Tony-winning costumes, which evoked the glory of the Ziegfeld Follies in ghostly visages of showgirls silently walking about Boris Aronson's backstage set. When that set exploded into the Follies themselves, it was a moment out of Fellini -- a electrifying moment when in 90-seconds the stage was transformed into a Fragonard painting. Aronson won a Tony for his designs, as did Sondheim for his music and lyrics; but the show lost the Best Musical Tony to "Two Gentlemen of Verona," which is something of the biggest upsets in Broadway history and likely led to its closing. No doubt the show's dark look at marriage and the dangers of nostalgia left many cold; and in daring to be different.

Over time, that dare paid off and "Follies" returned triumphantly in a concert version in 1986 at Lincoln Center with a starry cast (Lee Remick, Barbara Cook, Mandy Patinkin, Elaine Stritch, George Hearn, and Carol Burnett). This led to a number of revivals, even a revised version that played in London, and two Broadway versions. In 2017, the Royal National Theatre staged a superb revival, which was broadcast worldwide. But only snippets of film and video remain of that original 1971 production. Kudos to Sondheim stan 1971 FolliesFan who assembled a video of clips that have been attached to a sound system recording of the show. The result is a striking video that underscores the show's many memes and lacking an official recording, this is as close as audience members can get to this masterwork as it was originally produced. Where else can you see Michael Bennett's staging of "Who's That Woman?" -- itself well worth a look.

"Pacific Overtures"

"Pacific Overtures" could have suffered the fate of "Follies" in terms of video representation. Like "Follies," its original production failed on Broadway when it played for just six months in 1976. Produced during the American Bicentennial, Broadway audiences weren't particularly interested in a polemical musical about the United States intervention in Japan in the 1850s in which the Americans were the imperialists, especially one that adhered to the rigorous traditions of Kabuki theater. It didn't stand a chance against "A Chorus Line" at the Tony Awards that year, only winning for sets and costumes (Klotz and Aronson again.) Yet those who saw it thrilled by its audacious mix of American and Japanese traditions. And it was preserved on video when the production was filmed for Japanese television shortly before its closing. The YouTube video may lack the clarity of the original video, but still offers this ingenious work in its original and, to this date, most authoritative version.

"Merrily We Roll Along"

After the huge success of "Sweeney Todd" in 1978, Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince seemed ripe for failure. In 1981, it happened in a spectacular fashion. Teaming with "Company" liberttist George Furth, Sondheim adapted a little-known Kaufman and Hart play from 1934 called "Merrily We Roll Along" that was told in an unusual fashion -- its story went back in time. The play is a study of what an artist sacrifices in the pursuit of success. Sondheim and Furth updated the play and made its protagonist a composer with grand ideals, but who trades them for commercial success. Adding to this unusual story-telling technique, Harold Prince cast young adults -- mostly teens -- who wore tshirts explaining their relationship to the composer, Franklin Shepard. It was a far too much concept, especially after Prince chose to open the show cold in New York where it fast became a victim of bad word-of-mouth. The troubled production opened to disastrous reviews, closed in a week, and led to a break in Sondheim's relationship with Prince. Sondheim nearly quit the theater because of the failure. Instead he went to work with James Lapine, and a few years later, revised "Merrily" for a West Coast production. The new version added new songs, replaced others, and dispensed with the young cast, instead choosing age-appropriate professionals. Since then it has been done with varying degrees of success over the years, but none better than a London production directed by actress Maria Friedman, which premiered in 2012 that was streamed in theaters.

"Sunday in the Park with George"

Distressed at the failure of "Merrily We Roll Along," Sondheim turned to a new collaborator, James Lapine, and looked off-Broadway to Playwrights Horizon. There the pair developed a musical based on a painting -- "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by the Impressionist visionary Georges Seurat. In their narrative, the figures in the painting are the characters with Seurat at its center. The show's first act followed Seurat's creation of the painting at the expense of his personal life. Its second act moves the action a century forward as Seurat's great-grandson, also an artist, suffers from artistic block. The original production, starring Mandy Patinkin as Seurat and Bernadette Peters as his muse, was a prestige hit, winning Sondheim and Lapine a Pulitzer Prize, but losing the Tony Award to the more popular "La Cage Aux Folles." While the original cast was captured on video for American television in 1986, a production out of France produced at Paris's Théâtre du Châtelet offered a different take on the show. On Broadway, it was more intimate and small-scaled; at the Chatelet it was opened up with new orchestrations by Michael Starobin for a full orchestra. Additionally, the vast stage of the Chatelet offered a new visual take on the show. For fans of the original, this opening up may seem jarring, but it is passionately performed by Julian Ovenden and Sophie-Louise Dann, and is well-worth a look.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].