Isn’t it rich? Why Stephen Sondheim, at nearly 90, is having a new heyday

Songs by the Broadway composer and lyricist are popping up in films and TV shows from Joker to Marriage Story

He is an 89-year old reclusive New Yorker who has been working on his new show for the last decade. Yet pop culture fans will have noted that the influence of this particular musical theatre icon is everywhere in 2019: from Marriage Story, the most talked-about film of the moment, to Joker, the year’s most violently controversial movie, everyone is making a song and dance about Stephen Sondheim.

The Broadway composer and lyricist behind Sweeney Todd, West Side Story and Gypsy turns 90 next year, but birthday celebrations seemed to have begun early with homage being paid to his work across the big and small screen: in the Apple TV series The Morning Show, Jennifer Aniston sings Not While I’m Around from an episode given the same name; Ryan Murphy (the writer behind Glee, American Crime Story and Pose) includes several numbers from Assassins in his show The Politician.

Over the summer, the writer-director Todd Phillips, best known for the Hangover trilogy, included an eerie performance of Send In the Clowns to soundtrack his film Joker. At the cinema now, Daniel Craig can be seen in the murder mystery Knives Out humming along to Losing My Mind from Follies. Meanwhile, buoyed by his Oscar-winning 12-year-passion project Boyhood, Richard Linklater is adapting Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along for cinema – a project he will film over the course of 20 years.

Yet according to his fans, the current Sondheim moment has been fully realised with the actor Adam Driver. Towards the end of Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s bleakly sad and funny portrait of a relationship breakdown, Driver’s character stands up in a piano bar and breaks out into an impromptu rendition of Being Alive. The song from Sondheim’s Company runs in parallel with Baumbach’s script, riffing on single-versus-married life, freedom versus the safety net of love.

Jennifer Aniston in The Morning Show
Jennifer Aniston in The Morning Show Photograph: Apple TV+

“Being Alive is very much about the need to move beyond being alone in your own story to make a story with another person,” says Robert McLaughlin, an academic at Illinois State University and author of Stephen Sondheim and the Reinvention of the American Musical. “That unless you’re able to make a connection with another person, all the fun you’re having is empty, but is it worth giving up your pleasure-seeking lifestyle in order to tie yourself down to another person?”

It’s a question that remains pertinent across generations, but McLaughlin believes that Sondheim is cutting through now precisely because “his work communicates basic human feelings” in a way that has often been overlooked.

“When he was first starting out, people thought his work was cold, unemotional and too intellectual. Its use in these [new ways] shows that this is not the case: it speaks to our minds and our hearts and has resonance outside the context in which it was written.” Sondheim “changed the game as far as musical theatre is concerned”, says McLaughlin, but he anticipates that his influence could stretch even further.

“It’s one of those things where you think you’re the only person doing it,” Baumbach told New York magazine last week. But clearly “something’s in the water”. Whatever that something is, it has also crossed the ocean: next summer’s revival of Sunday in the Park With George starring Jake Gyllenhaal is presently one of the most sought after tickets in the West End.

This week, the Queen’s Theatre which is home to Les Miserables will officially reopen as the Sondheim Theatre. It means the New Yorker will be the only living artist to have a theatre named in his honour in London and New York, where the former Henry Miller’s theatre on Broadway was named after him in 2010.

• This article was amended on 19 March 2020 to give the full name of Illinois State University.


Nosheen Iqbal

The GuardianTramp

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