Honoring the late composer with two of his greatest works now on Blu-ray.
The world said goodbye to a legend last month when Stephen Sondheim, one of the towering figures of musical theater history, passed away. Even though he was in his early 90s, the composer/lyricist was nowhere near slowing down ,with various projects still in the works, including new film versions of Gypsy, Merrily We Roll Along and Company, which was without question his most signature piece. A whole month after his passing and it still seems impossible to believe that Sondheim is no longer with us. The artist was one of the few individuals whose influence and genius ensured that he would be around forever. Without question, the vast body of work he left behind guarantees that this will definitely be the case.
After having such a storied career that spanned decades, it’s hard to pick one piece of work or accolade that one could call Sondheim’s crowning achievement. From being the genius behind such pioneering musicals as “Sweeney Todd” and “A Little Night Music,” to winning an Oscar for the classic “Sooner or Later” from Dick Tracy, it seemed Sondheim was a visionary who had the golden touch wherever he went. Recently, two of his most endearing works, 1970’s Original Cast Album: Company and 1973’s The Last of Sheila, made their Blu-ray debuts, signifying and cementing Sondheim as a marvel of a talent who will never be replaced.
Original Cast Album: Company
One of the most acclaimed documentaries of the 1970s came from one of Sondheim’s most influential shows. Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker chronicled the cast recording of the official album for the Sondheim show “Company,” which starred the likes of Dean Jones and Elaine May, among many others. In the brief hour-long film, Pennebaker goes behind the scenes as he captures Sondheim and his actors working tirelessly into the night in order to perfectly capture the show’s brilliant songs.
Even in 2021, it’s hard to articulate just how groundbreaking this documentary was. Barely an hour in length, Original Cast Album: Company was an insider’s look into the blood, sweat, and tears artists literally give in order to create their work and bring life to it. For any Sondheim admirer or general lover of musical theater, the film is a staple which shows not only how the album for “Company” became as influential as it did, but why. Seeing the meanings and inspirations behind the lyrics, the fine tuning of the music, and the way they were both immortalized through Sondheim’s vision makes this one of the best fly-on-the-wall insights ever. Meanwhile, the tensions captured, the breaking points shared by all, and the overall beauty of collaboration are all intriguing enough elements in their own right that non-theater folks can’t help but be captivated by this look into the creative process. Pennebaker eventually opts for more cinéma vérité than traditional documentary, but it’s that shift which makes Original Cast Album: Company a truly priceless time capsule.
The Last of Sheila
Sondheim ventured into screenwriting for a brief but memorable turn, collaborating with Anthony Perkins for this clever, all-star murder mystery. A year after the death of the titular character courtesy of a hit-and-run, a group of Hollywood players (Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Raquel Welch, Ian McShane, Joan Hackett, and James Mason) have all been gathered together for a week on the yacht of a famous producer (James Coburn), who also happens to be the deceased’s husband. What’s intended as a week of fun and elaborate mystery games soon turns into something much more sinister as it becomes clear that one of the guests may have been responsible for Sheila’s death.
If there was ever a more unorthodox pairing of screenwriting partners, it had to be Sondheim and Perkins. However, the two were actually great friends who would jointly host game nights where guests would go on an elaborate hunt for clues to solve whatever challenge or puzzle the two had devised. It’s that kind of spirit that fuels The Last of Sheila, one of the greatest murder mysteries ever put to film, which for years went unheralded. Everything about it works—the south of France locale, the setting of the yacht, the backdrop of Hollywood, the tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and the spirited performances, particularly Cannon’s Oscar-worthy one. The central mystery itself is great, but is really only part of the fun. Sondheim and Perkins take full advantage of the genre and load their film was a few little side mysteries to figure out, all of which beautifully connect in the film’s brilliant final sequence. At the same time, The Last of Sheila never suffers from being too densely plotted. Everything Sondheim and Perkins have thought up for their screenplay remains grounded in a Sherlock Holmes kind of logic that instantly makes the viewer want to go back to the beginning as soon as the end credits song starts.
As of writing this, the revival of “Company” has just opened on Broadway with the entire cast dedicating their performances to the late Sondheim. Meanwhile, his death had movie lovers and cinephiles alike in the film community praising the genius of The Last of Sheila, giving the film the kind of love it always deserved. Sondheim’s presence has been strongly felt throughout awards season: His lyrics in Steven Spielberg’s new film version of West Wide Story reinforce that singular talent he had, and his voice cameo in Tick, Tick…Boom! shows how down-to-earth and giving Sondheim was to the voices of the future. The tributes in the last month from fans and famous colleagues has been vast, and in a way will most likely never end. This is probably for the best, since the spirit of Sondheim and his gifts will always remain.