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FLASH SPECIAL: Sondheim By The Decade, Part 1 - 1950s & 1960s

The feature film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's beloved fairy tale musical INTO THE WOODS is coming to movie theaters nationwide on Christmas Day and BroadwayWorld celebrates the man behind the music and lyrics with a new series highlighting the work of the iconic composer and lyricist, kicking off today with a look at his work in the 1950s and 1960s.

- Saturday Night (1954)
- West Side Story (1957)
- Gypsy (1959)
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962)
- Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
- Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965)
- Evening Primrose (1966)

Now that INTO THE WOODS is arriving in movie theaters nationwide complete with many new lyrical tweaks and additions by Sondheim himself, the musical master's penchant for absolute authenticity and dramatic fidelity onscreen is expanded even further beyond his EVENING PRIMROSE new media experiment, with INTO THE WOODS also poised to join WEST SIDE STORY as a classic cinematic achievement as well as a major movie musical of its time.

Comedy Tonight

Let's take a look at some of the highlights from Stephen Sondheim's work in the 1950s and 1960s.

First up, INTO THE WOODS hits movie theaters this Christmas.

View this rare footage of WEST SIDE STORY in 1957.

Next, Ethel Merman performs GYPSY at John F. Kennedy's inauguration.

Natalie Wood glimmers in the film version of GYPSY.

Now, Lee Remick sings the title song of ANYONE CAN WHISTLE.

Also, sample SATURDAY NIGHT thanks to Laura Benanti in 2010.


View a memorable scene from the movie adaptation of FORUM.

Plus, preview the original telecast of EVENING PRIMROSE.

A notable curiosity from the time is this hilarious Mary Rodgers collaboration.

What is your favorite moment from Sondheim's early work as a lyricist alongside Bernstein, Styne and Hammerstein? Furthermore, what is your choice of Sondheim's best early score as both composer and lyricist? With credits as considerable as these at the top of his resume at such an early age, Sondheim showed early signs that he would become one of Broadway's best - and, very likely, the greatest musical dramatist of all time.

For more information on the Christmas Day release of INTO THE WOODS in movie theaters nationwide, visit the official site here. Be sure to stay tuned to BroadwayWorld for all things INTO THE WOODS until then!

Also, check back soon for the next entry in this series, focusing on Stephen Sondheim's musicals in the 1970s and 1980s.

There's A Place For Us

Beginning your Broadway career with your first major credit being shared on a show alongside luminaries such as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Harold Prince and Jerome Robbins - based on a play by William Shakespeare, no less - may have been a stroke of luck, but there is no denying that Stephen Sondheim's career trajectory since WEST SIDE STORY has been nothing short of peerless. No other musical theatre writer before or since has exhibited such command of the art form, nor revealed such artistry or took as many risks as Sondheim. From his very first credit, it was clear to see that Sondheim's career would be startlingly unique if only for making his debut alongside such heavyweights as those involved with WEST SIDE STORY and matching them in their craft at such an early age, just 26, yet the works of staggering genius that he has created since prove that WEST SIDE STORY only the seemed to be the start of a story that actually began many years before when Sondheim was mentored by legendary producer, lyricist and showman Oscar Hammerstein and ventured to pursue a career in the theatre byway of college musicals, four test projects under Hammerstein's supervision, and, then, his first professional, full-fledged stage musical as composer and lyricist, SATURDAY NIGHT.

Unfortunately, as history would have it, on its way to the Great White Way, SATURDAY NIGHT suffered the irreparable blow of the unexpected death of its lead producer, Lemuel Ayers, and the musical never made it to Broadway after all. Nonetheless, friend and future collaborator Arthur Laurents had seen a backer's audition for the project and suggested Sondheim to the WEST SIDE STORY team, first as a co-lyricist (which is reflected in the original Washington, D.C. out of town tryout posters for the show, as a matter of fact). Thus, WEST SIDE STORY became Sondheim's first mainstage musical to be seen by the public at large and its follow-up would be just as momentous and classic a stage property - which, given the lofty artistic highs, not to mention the cultural impact of WEST SIDE STORY, was no small feat.

GYPSY is considered by many Broadway aficionados to be the greatest musical ever written, with the score by Sondheim along with composer Jule Styne often cited as one of the finest to grace the Broadway stage - and with good reason. Tailor-made to Golden Age superstar Ethel Merman, GYPSY is the apotheosis of all of modern show business up to that time - from kiddie shows, dog acts and vaudeville through to down and dirty burlesque, all in a masterfully well-told and well-made musical of the Golden Age tradition that climaxes in a meta-moment that would signal for many the end of an entire era. "Rose's Turn" is something that Broadway had never quite seen before - an extended musical monologue representing a character's nervous breakdown, but actually performed on a real stage and intended to elicit real applause from the actual audience in the theater at the moment. The layers go even deeper than that, as would be the case with most, if not all, Sondheim material from then on. Also intriguing to note is that GYPSY featured the first notable cow character in a Sondheim show, most famously realized much later in his career with Milky White in INTO THE WOODS - now, for the first time, fully realized as a living, breathing, mooing creature in the movie.

With the 1960s came Sondheim's chance to strike out on his own once again, when his first major musical as both composer and lyricist made its way to Broadway in 1962, the farcical Plautus-based comedy A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, and, with that, Sondheim's career as a Broadway songwriter was cemented, even if his melodic and endearing score was often overlooked in favor of the over the top comedy of its star, Zero Mostel, along with the hilarious hijinks implicit to the musical comedy directed by George Abbott. Shortly thereafter, Sondheim once again set out to collaborate with Arthur Laurents, this time on a daring and idiosyncratic original three-act musical titled ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. Though the show only lasted for a handful of performances, the whip-smart lyrics and deft musicianship showed solid evidence that Sondheim was a songwriter of the highest regard with a very promising future. Nevertheless, next he teamed with Hammerstein's recognizable partner Richard Rodgers along with Laurents yet again in adapting the Laurents play THE TIME OF THE CUCKOO into the romantic musical DO I HEAR A WALTZ?, which did not fare much better. Although work began on what would eventually become FOLLIES after that, the next major Sondheim musical of the 1960s would not be seen on a stage at all, but on television - the enchanting and mysterious EVENING PRIMROSE, which debuted in 1966. It would be nearly four years before another Sondheim musical appeared, but when it was eventually revealed that the project would redefine what musicals could be, what they could say and reflect back to society and how they could function as drama, it was certainly well worth the wait.

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)

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