Sondheim Is All Over the Movies This Year, but ‘Joker’ and ‘Marriage Story’ Don’t Do Him Justice

With songs in "Joker," "Marriage Story," and "Knives Out," the godfather of American musical theater has finally gone mainstream. But to what end?
Stephen Sondheim Is Having a Great Year at the Movies
Netflix/Warner Bros.

Late into its third act, “Marriage Story” arrives at an unexpected delight: Adam Driver rises from a restaurant booth, casually sidles up to a waiting microphone, and begins to sing — quite well — one of the greatest musical theater solos written for the male voice.

The rousing final number in “Company,” Stephen Sondheim’s blistering critique of traditional relationship structures, “Being Alive” is the moment when avowed bachelor Bobby finally embraces (via chill-inducing baritone) his desire to love and be loved. Undoubtedly one of our greatest young actors working today, Driver’s voice is resonant and assured, but anyone who knows their musical theater is likely to find his low-energy rendition of the song underwhelming. Still, at the New York Film Festival screening this critic attended, the audience erupted into applause midway through the movie, as if Driver had sung it live in front of them.

This year, three major film releases prominently feature Sondheim songs while news of a significant Sondheim adaptation makes the rounds. This fall alone has seen “Send in the Clowns” sung eerily well by finance bros on the subway in Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” the aforementioned “Being Alive” rendition in “Marriage Story,” which also features a “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” trio, and Daniel Craig humming a few bars of “Losing My Mind” in Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out.” As if that weren’t an embarrassment of riches already, earlier this year Richard Linklater announced an ambitious 20-year adaptation of Sondheim’s long-misunderstood “Merrily We Roll Along.” The show, which takes place over two decades told in reverse, will be given the “Boyhood” treatment, and shot chronologically as the actors age, in a brilliant solution to its age-old problems.

TV got the Sondheim memo as well. Ryan Murphy’s “The Politician” features multiple numbers from “Assassins,” and an entire episode of Apple TV+ “The Morning Show” takes its title from the “Sweeney Todd” ballad “Not While I’m Around.” (The show is still under embargo, but one can only assume the song features prominently.)

While any actor attempting to sing a Sondheim song deserves kudos, the performances in these film and TV renditions range from cringeworthy to surprisingly impressive.

That’s because film people are different from theater people. The theater-to-film pipeline of actors, playwrights, and directors has been a long and fruitful one; tension has always existed between the two art forms. Where film is subtle and all about close-ups, theater is grand and embodied. Where film is so quiet an actor can whisper into the microphone, theater requires rigorous vocal training to project from the diaphragm. Much to the chagrin on career thespians, the true test of any movie star these days is their reception on Broadway. Fail, and your true colors are revealed; succeed, and you can do no wrong ever again.

Musical theater enjoys its own special place within the theater hierarchy. Musical theater actors have to prove they can do “legit” theater — the hierarchy is abundantly clear in the very name. To grow up a musical theater kid is to be a special kind of full-fledged theater nerd, and the pinnacle of the musical theater is Stephen Sondheim. Dizzying internal rhymes, discordant melodies, musicals about cold-blooded killers and fairytales gone awry; Sondheim completely upended traditional musical theater to define the contemporary American musical. Every composer wants to be him; every actor yearns to sing his work; every director is itching to dig into his endlessly complex texts.

So when did filmmakers get the memo?

"Knives Out" Sequel
“Knives Out”Lionsgate

With “Joker” breaking records at the box office, much has been made of the improbability of a group of drunk bankers knowing all the lyrics to “Send in the Clowns.” (“Difficult People” creator Julie Klausner wrote the best joke on the subject matter, when she tweeted: “no finance guy has EVER known the lyrics to the first two verses of Send In The Clowns by heart, let alone that Sondheim intended it to be sung WITHOUT legato.”) “Marriage Story” is poised to be a major Oscar contender, with Driver a shoe-in for a Best Actor nomination, no doubt aided in large part by his lilting rendition of “Being Alive.” (It’s the kind of surprise show of a new skill Oscar voters go crazy for.) Craig’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it phrasing of “Losing My Mind,” a Sondheim deep cut compared to the others, is so brief that it feels like Johnson’s winking inside joke to all the musical theater nerds out there.

A Sondheim medley in a Ryan Murphy show is old hat — and a finished hat at that — by now. But that multiple straight male filmmakers, one of them best known for “The Hangover” franchise, are using Sondheim’s music in pivotal scenes in their massive blockbuster and Oscar-contending movies, represents a seismic shift in the composer’s mainstream appeal.

But do these filmmakers understand the true power of a Sondheim song, and do movie stars have any business butchering his lyrics? Who are these performances meant to impress? A true musical theater devotee will see through such hollow interpretations: The “Send in the Clowns” moment in “Joker” was a joke to those in the know, and likely fell flat with those who’d never heard the song. Why have these filmmakers chosen to play fast and loose with an artist as complex and revered as Sondheim?

Every Sondheim song is a five-act play. Even the best Broadway actors struggle to fully connect with his meatiest songs. Friendships have ended comparing Elaine Stritch’s “Ladies Who Lunch” to Debra Monk’s, or Bernadette Peters’ “Losing My Mind” to Dorothy Loudon’s. Like a movie star doing Broadway, the greatest test of a musical theater actor’s mettle is how they choose to interpret Sondheim; otherwise, the music is just an empty signifier. The hubris of these filmmakers and actors to take on such monumental pieces of the musical theater canon without proper coaching indicates a lack of understanding of everything Sondheim stands for.

If these movie moments lead more people to discover his work, it’s a net positive. Let’s just hope they do their homework and seek out the greats. Long live the musical theater nerds — your moment in the sun has arrived. Smoke on your pipe and put that in.

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