Sondheim and The Cinema

Special Features   Sondheim and The Cinema
A 1945 film was one of the inspirations for Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, Sweeney Todd

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim


“During my formative years," Stephen Sondheim once said, "movies really molded my entire view of the world." It was in a Times Square movie palace, in 1945, that the 15-year-old Sondheim found himself enthralled by a creepy, richly atmospheric suspense thriller. More than 30 years later, that film's shadow loomed large in the creation of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, now recognized as a milestone of American musical theatre.

The film in question, "Hangover Square", is almost forgotten today, though it was one of Twentieth Century-Fox's major releases of 1945. It is unavailable on home video and rarely seems to turn up on cable TV. Those lucky enough to have caught a 35mm revival screening are almost invariably impressed by John Brahm's elegantly taut direction, by the detailed Edwardian ambience, and by the performances of its stars — Laird Cregar, George Sanders, and Linda Darnell. Tying these elements together is the masterful score by Bernard Herrmann, who was then at an early stage of his Hollywood career. Herrmann had already made his first big cinematic splash with his contribution to Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane," and would go on to compose the benchmark scores for Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," "Vertigo" and "Psycho".

The teenage Sondheim never forgot "Hangover Square"'s Grand Guignol melodrama, nor the striking music Herrmann composed for it. Music was an essential element of the film's plot, and propelled it to a flamboyantly memorable climax. The hulking, 6' 3" Cregar played George Harvey Bone, a prominent young composer in early 20th-century London, also happens to be a serial strangler. A sudden, high-pitched ringing sound, which he hears deep inside his head, prods him toward each killing. With no idea of what he is doing or how to control his murderous instincts, he is a figure both dangerous and pathetic. Darnell is a mercenary, sluttish showgirl who uses Bone until she becomes one of his victims. (Bone disposes of her body by casually tossing it onto a bonfire during the festive mayhem of Guy Fawkes' Day revelry.)

"Hangover Square"'s vivid climax takes place at the premiere of Bone's piano concerto, during which Bone manages to literally set fire to the concert hall. As audience and orchestra members flee in panic, Bone remains alone at the piano, furiously pounding out the end of his concerto while walls of flame close in on him. Many critics have found that ending excessive, but it remains undeniably powerful: a synthesis of Brahm's baroque camera movements, Cregar's impassioned performance, and Herrmann's surging, apocalyptic score. It is easy to see how a 15-year-old composer and budding theatrical genius could be swept up by it. Instead of leaving the theatre when "Hangover Square" ended, Sondheim stayed on for the next showing. Not only did he look forward to seeing the film again; he wanted to memorize as much as he could of Herrmann's concerto. (The first page of the music got a quick close-up of its own, which helped.) Sondheim then went home and played the theme over and over, and eventually wrote an admiring letter to Herrmann care of Twentieth Century-Fox studios. Some three months later, he got a reply, in which Herrmann expressed his gratitude and told Sondheim how rare it was that film composers got fan letters.

Herrmann's "Hangover Square" concerto, with its spooky, jagged dissonances tempered by surging themes of romantic longing, was far closer in tone to 1940’s Hollywood than to anything that would have been composed in Edwardian London. It was very much a product of its time and place. But the music's spirit was entirely appropriate to Sweeney Todd's hellish vision of Industrial Revolution England, and to Todd's tormented mind. Even Herrmann's acidulous, stinging string tones, which mirror Bone's madness, find their counterpart in Sondheim's ear-splitting steam whistle. Ultimately, "Hangover Square"'s serial strangler and Sweeney Todd's revenge-driven, throat-slashing barber were brothers under the skin.

Sweeney Todd is the only one of the Sondheim-Harold Prince Broadway collaborations which originated from Sondheim. While on a visit to London in the mid-1970’s, Sondheim had seen Christopher Bond's stage thriller Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and knew he wanted to make a musical of it. "I thought, 'Bernard Herrmann'," Sondheim told biographer Martin Gottfried, "and out came that kind of music, filled with unresolved dissonances that leave an audience in a state of suspense." In an interview at London's Royal National Theatre, Sondheim pointed out that Herrmann was able to make a mood of suspense "lushly musical. I didn't consciously copy him, but it was ‘Hangover Square’ that started that thought process in my head."

This was, of course, not the only time in his career that Sondheim turned to the movies for inspiration. A Little Night Music was based on Ingmar Bergman's comic soufflé "Smiles of a Summer Night," and Ettore Scola's 1981 Italian film "Passione d'amore" (itself based on a novel by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti) inspired Sondheim to write Passion, which would go on to win several 1994 Tony Awards.

As early as 1953, when Sondheim was toiling in Hollywood as a staff writer for the Anne Jeffreys-Robert Sterling-Leo G. Carroll sitcom "Topper," he was considering writing a musical to be based on the 1945 MGM film "The Clock." Directed by Vincente Minnelli, "The Clock" co-starred Robert Walker, with Judy Garland in her first straight dramatic role. We can imagine what Sondheim might have made of this touching story, in which Walker, a World War II soldier on 24-hour leave in New York City, meets and falls deeply in love with a young working girl. (In the right hands, the material might still make an effective piece of musical theatre — a more intimate, more somber On the Town.)

And in 1963, shortly after the opening of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sondheim briefly toyed with the idea of musicalizing Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" — some thirty years before Andrew Lloyd Webber put his stamp on the property. Sondheim and his Funny Thing book writer Burt Shevelove had gotten as far as a general outline and some opening dialogue when Sondheim met Wilder at a party and shyly told him what he was up to. "Oh, you can't do that," said Wilder. "It can't be a musical; it has to be an opera — because it's about a dethroned queen." That made sense to Sondheim, who, not wanting to write an opera, promptly abandoned the project. But rumors about a possible Sondheim-Harold Prince Sunset Boulevard kept resurfacing over the years, and after Sweeney Todd, many theatre buffs claimed to have it on good authority that Sunset Boulevard would be Sondheim and Prince's next show — with Angela Lansbury starring as Norma Desmond. That dream-team production has not come to be.

We're lucky that many of Stephen Sondheim's Broadway shows of the past 25 years have been telecast and preserved on videotape. But so far only two of the musicals for which he has written both music and lyrics — A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and A Little Night Music — have made it to the movie screen. Just as Sondheim was becoming a force on Broadway, film musicals were looking like an endangered species. Now, however, with the recent Academy Award-winning successes of "Moulin Rouge" and "Chicago," the time may finally be right for Hollywood to start looking in Sondheim's direction instead of vice-versa. Sweeney Todd would seem to be a natural. And it has recently been announced that Oscar winner Sam Mendes is indeed planning to develop it into a movie. No stars have been have yet been named. It's not hard to imagine "Sophie's Choice" stars Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep reuniting and burning up the screen as the Demon Barber and Mrs. Lovett. And who better to capture the work's macabre phantasmagoria than "Batman"/"Beetlejuice"/"Edward Scissorhands" director Tim Burton?

You can almost hear those gold statuettes clinking.

Eric Myers has written for Opera News, Art and Auction, and the New York Times. His most recent book is "Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis" (Da Capo Press).

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