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15 January 2008

Sondheim on Video - Beyond Burton and Depp

Before Tim Burton and Johnny Depp took on Stephen Sondheim, most of the original Broadway cast of "Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," was filmed during their 1982 national tour. George Hearn replaced Len Cariou, but Angela Lansbury is there in her Tony-winning turn as Mrs. Lovett. If I recall correctly from the PBS broadcast, Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett was a bit loopier, like a balmy aunt whom you hope is harmless as compared to Helena Bonham Carter's pensive and pining waif.

If you're intrigued by Sondheim, you might be interested in his other works on video. He wrote the lyrics for the 1957 musical "West Side Story" that went on to become a 1961 movie directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The movie went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars and featured Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn. The book was written by Arthur Laurents and the music by Leonard Bernstein. Among its 10 Oscar wins were Best Supporting Actor for Chakiris and Best Supporting Actress for Moreno, as well as Best Original Film Score. This is available on DVD and VHS.

Sondheim again wrote the lyrics for the 1959 Broadway hit "Gypsy: A Musical Fable," based on the 1957 memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous striptease artist who was pushed on stage as a back-up plan after her prettier and supposedly more talented sister ran away from their crass, controlling mother. With music by Jule Styne and book by Laurents, this became a 1962 film directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood and Karl Malden. Russell plays down her own glamorous image to be crass and brassy, with a harsh, throaty voice while Wood's character slowly blooms with confidence.

Russell went on to win a best actress Golden Globe. This version is available on DVD. The 1993 made-for-TV version with Bette Midler and Ed Asner is available on VHS. The legendary Ethel Merman and the pre-TV sitcom Jack Klugman were in the original Broadway cast. CD recordings are available on Amazon. Angela Lansbury, the original Mrs. Lovett, was in the original London cast. Memorable songs include "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Let Me Entertain You," and "You Gotta Get A Gimmick."

He wrote both the music and the lyrics (book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart) for the 1962 Broadway hit "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," which became a 1966 movie with Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford recreating their Broadway roles. Buster Keaton and Phil Silvers were also featured. This is available on DVD. The plot revolves around three neighboring houses. One is a brothel. Another belongs to an elderly man whose children were stolen by pirates. The house in between these two is where Pseudolus, a slave, lives. He schemes to get his freedom while helping his master, Hero, son of the master of the house, find true love with a slave girl who has been promised to a war hero.

The movie changed the plot and cut some songs. Keaton was terminally ill with cancer at the time and this was his last movie role. This musical has been revived with Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg as Pseudolus.

His 1973 Broadway hit, from which the song "Send in the Clowns" came, became the dreadful 1978 "A Little Night Music,", with Elizabeth Taylor, Lesley-Anne Down, and Diana Rigg. This received mixed reviews and was relatively unsuccessful. Taylor provides her own singing (unlike Russell or Wood), which isn't bad since is it more spoken, however the director Hal Prince doesn't elicit the fire that Taylor showed in "Taming of the Shrew" and seems content that this piece about passion and love be rather pastoral. The DVD was recently issued in the summer of 2007.

The original Broadway show won Tony Awards for Best Score, Best Musical, Best Book (Hugh Wheeler) and Best Actress (Glynis Johns). Inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, it involves the romantic lives of several couples, with the music set almost entirely in waltz time.

Sondheim's 1994 Passion (book by Lapine), is available as filmed for American Playhouse with the original Broadway cast. Based on the Ettore Scola film , this musical won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book (Lapine), Best Score, Best Actor (Jere Shea), and Best Actress (Donna Murphy). The story takes place in 19th century Italy. A young soldier is in love with a married woman, and when transferred to a remote outpost, becomes the obsessive love object of the commanding officer's ugly niece.

Sondheim's 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George" is on DVD as recorded before a live audience with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters for TV (Showtime and American Playhouse). Patinkin portrays French Pointillist painter George Seurat. The first act revolves around the painting of his famous "Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte." Peters plays his mistress, Dot. Act II takes place 100 years later with Patinkin as Seurat's great grandson and Peters as his grandmother. From this play comes the song "Putting It Together," which later served as the title of a Sondheim musical review, starring Carol Burnett and George Hearn in the Los Angeles 1998 production (DVD).

In 1987, Peters was part of the original Broadway cast for Sondheim's "Into the Woods." With book by Lapine, this musical won several Tony awards including Best Score and Best Book. It basically looks at what happened after happily ever after in several fairy tales (Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack and the Beanstock). The original cast video is available on DVD, taped in 1989 and shown on public television in 1991.

Sondheim's musicals are alive and well on Broadway. If you can't afford pricey tickets, you can still see some great performances on video.

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