From Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods to Company and Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim has earned his place among the “living legends” of entertainment. His lyrics are poignant and calculative, his thematic undertones are specific yet relatable, and somehow, his works are utterly timeless.
The question is: how do plays originally released in 1970, 1979, 1981, and 1985 (Company, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along and Into the Woods respectively) remain relevant in the modern age? What code has Sondheim cracked to guarantee cinematic and/or Broadway revivals of some of his oldest works? Into the Woods hit theaters in 2014 with Meryl Streep as the Witch. Sweeney Todd released to cinemas in 2007 with Johnny Depp as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. And as for stage revivals, Company was at the New York Philharmonic for a limited time in 2011 and Merrily We Roll Along reappeared in London’s West End in 2013. It seems that we can never get enough of Sondheim. It seems that as soon as he breaks away from center stage, he reappears in even brighter limelight. I would argue that the timeless nature of Sondheim productions boil down to two factors: their larger-than-life depictions of very specific moments and/or sentiments and their mutable nature (to be explained in greater depth shortly).
As for the former, many of Sondheim’s songs cover common themes like love (falling in it and falling out of it) or loss; however, he does it in such a way that he strays from the cliché. He does not tell a story; he tells an emotion. He grasps tightly onto a very particular moment in a character’s life and provides an intimate portrayal of emotional depth that also serves to move the story forward. Sondheim musicals do not “break into song” and continue with plot; song is plot. For example, in the song “Not a Day Goes By” Sondheim discusses the pain of losing a love one. The lyrics themselves repeat the phrase “I’ll die day after day…til the days go by;” the lyrical repetitions mirror the character’s emotional stagnancy; every day she will die, the days will go by, she will die, and her pain will end. The idea of dying every day is what sticks with a listener. Telling a story is wonderful. Capturing pain with such poignancy and depth is all-too relatable. The character’s story is inconsequential; the thematic undertone is specific and heartbreaking. Plots are rarely timeless because they fail to account for the modern age. However, how much different is the pain of loss in 1970 compared to 2017?
And as for their mutable nature, the actor’s interpretations in Sondheim’s plays provide some assistance in this realm. Just as Superhero movies have gotten darker throughout the years, the Witch’s character portrayal (comparing Meryl Streep’s 2014 interpretation to Bernadette Peter’s 1987 take) has followed suit to maintain relevance. Bernadette Peters’ take is rather campy and sarcastic; Meryl’s Streep’s is a bit more biting and matter-of-fact. Just as Jack Nicholson was a more lighthearted joker than Heath Ledger, Bernadette Peters was less dark and unrelenting than Meryl Streep. Though a musical, Into the Woods still managed to match the trend of other genres at the time to guarantee success. Much of the movie (the latter half) was shot with a sort of foreboding grayscale lens as well. If dark is what the people want, Sondheim can give it to them.
Sondheim stories are mutable because the characters are easily alterable with the times. Meryl’s read of the Witch was in line with modern takes on villains (albeit a bit funnier–remaining true to the character). The characters are not created around society’s current standings or in line with what makes sense when they’re written; they’re created with the intention of revealing aspects of our own humanity and a depth of character not always seen in musical theatre.