Stephen Sondheim at the movies: Beyond 'Into the Woods'

Stephen Sondheim at the movies: Beyond 'Into the Woods'
Madonna performs a musical number by Stephen Sondheim in the 1990 movie "Dick Tracy." (Zuma Press / Buena Vista)

Famously fussy and protective of his stage musicals, Stephen Sondheim isn't the most natural fit for the movie business, where the surrender of creative control to bottom-line-minded producers is a frequent part of the Hollywood game.

And yet Sondheim's filmography is larger and more diverse than one might initially suspect. "Into the Woods," which opened on Christmas, is the sixth Sondheim musical to be adapted for the big screen. He has also written music for filmmakers including Warren Beatty and Alain Resnais.


Sondheim has won eight Tony Awards in his stage career, but his only Academy Award to date was for the song "Sooner or Later," which he wrote for the 1990 movie "Dick Tracy."

Here are some of Sondheim's best-known screen credits, ranging from movie adaptations of his musicals to original compositions for the cinema.

"West Side Story" (1961): A 26-year-old Sondheim wrote the lyrics for the popular musical, which opened on Broadway in 1957. The movie version, starring Natalie Wood, won the Academy Award for best picture as well as nine other Oscars.

"Gypsy" (1962): Sondheim also wrote the lyrics to the popular Jule Styne musical that was made into a movie starring Wood and Rosalind Russell.

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1966): Sondheim's popular musical farce, for which he wrote the music and lyrics, became a movie starring Zero Mostel.

"Evening Primrose" (1966): Conceived for and originally broadcast on television, Sondheim's intimate musical, starring Anthony Perkins, follows a group of eccentrics who have taken up residence inside a department store. Long unseen, the TV movie was recently released on DVD and is also available for free on Hulu.

"The Last of Sheila" (1973): Sondheim made a rare foray into screenwriting with this idiosyncratic project about a murder-mystery-style game taking place in the south of France. The songwriter collaborated on the script with Perkins, who was a friend.

"Stavisky..." (1974): French filmmaker Alain Resnais was such a fan of Sondheim's work that he hired the songwriter to compose the original score to this movie based on the real-life financial scandal involving Alexandre Stavisky.

"A Little Night Music" (1977): Elizabeth Taylor performed Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" in this poorly received big-screen adaptation of the songwriter's hit musical. Both the movie and the Broadway stage production were directed by Hal Prince.

"Reds" (1981): Sondheim worked on the score for Warren Beatty's romantic epic about journalists Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, but the songwriter ended up leaving the project early. (The score, mostly written by Dave Grusin, wasn't among the movie's 12 Oscar nominations.) Sondheim's contribution to the movie was its love theme, "Goodbye for Now."

"Dick Tracy" (1990): Sondheim teamed up with Beatty again for this boldly stylistic adaptation of the Chester Gould comic strip. The composer wrote several catchy songs for the movie, and this time won an Oscar for the melancholy number "Sooner or Later," performed on screen by Madonna. True to form, Sondheim didn't attend the ceremony.

"Sweeney Todd" (2007): Tim Burton's film adaptation of the 1979 Sondheim musical starred Johnny Depp as the murderous barber bent on revenge. Sondheim has said that songs were abridged and reshaped for the movie in order to give the narrative a more cinematic flow.

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