How Stephen Sondheim came out of the Woods

Seen the show several times. Seen the film. Bought all the recordings. Will go again.

Surely the most remarkable feat of Into the Woods is that it has turned Stephen Sondheim in his 85th year from dead-cert Broadway failure to Hollywood’s fastest selling musicals composer.

How did that happen? Commentary here.

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  • Fastest-selling film *adaptation* of a musical, surely – I doubt it’s giving ‘Frozen’ too much of a run for its money.

  • That article unfortunately contains quite a number of errors. The Broadway premiere of Follies was in 1972 not 1971 and did not close after “just 12 performances”. It ran for 522 performances. The original production of Little Night Music also had respectable runs of 601 on Broadway and then 406 in London, quite a number more than some of Lord Lloyd Webber’s failures. His Aspects of Love did run for a year on Broadway but ended up with a loss of over US$8 million. It was, according to the New York Times, almost certainly “the greatest flop in Broadway history.”

    Nor did the 9 performances of Anyone Can Whistle make it Broadway’s fastest closing musical. Via Galactica made it to 7 performances in 1972. The musical version of Stephen King’s Carrie closed after just 5 performances in 1988. Even that was not the “fastest”. Breakfast at Tiffany in 1966 never made it beyond its previews. It closed after the first 4. And Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind never even made it to its Broadway previews, closing on its pre-Broadway opening tour.

    NL is spot-on in suggesting a prior knowledge of Sondheim’s musicals can be an advantage. I enjoyed the original London production of Company, but only started to really appreciate the show after I revisited its superb lyrics and had got to know the detail in the music. And surely this is partly reflected in the fact that Sondheim’s musicals have an extraordinary staying power with many enjoying stunning revivals that enjoy popular success.

  • I’m not sure Sondheim himself would agree completely with your view of the ending. In the book of lyrics of his early musicals “Finishing The Hat”, Sondheim’s notes on Company make it clear that he did not want a happy-ever-after ending implying that “marriage is wonderful”. Instead, after ditching two earlier endings, he came up with “Being Alive”, a song “which would progress “from complaint to prayer.” So the lyrics change from “Someone to hurt you too deep”, “Someone to ruin your sleep” and “Someone to put you through hell” into the possibility of finding “Someone . . . as frightened as you of being alive” which in turn leads to “Alone is alone, not alive.”

    And that surely fits in with Sondheim’s own views on the show. His first description of its content in the Preface is –

    “A man with no emotional attachments reassesses his life on his 35th birthday by reviewing his relationships with his married acquaintances and his girlfriends. This is the entire plot.”

    Later, after more of the background, he adds, “soon the central theme of the evening emerged: the challenge of maintaining relationships in a society becoming increasingly depersonalised.”

    Musically “Being Alive” has s bold Broadway happy ending feel. Dramatically, after all that has gone before, I leave the theatre all but convinced that Robert’s prayer is in vain.

    • My post at 10:36 am was made in response to one by a lady (at least a lady’s name) who took issue with NL’s comment about the musical Company in which he concludes that the show is about man’s fate being always to be alone. The lady made the point that the closing number “Being Alive” negated this view by suggesting that the protagonist Robert had at least opened the door to a possible relationship in the future.

      As soon as I made my post, I noted that the earlier post had canished. Standing on its own, it may therefore appear pointless. Hence this explanation.

  • Though Follies didn’t recoup anything close to its investment, its 522 performance run was certainly a respectable one. In addition, Anyone Can Whistle was a total flop, but it is not even close to the shortest run for a musical in all Broadway history. While numerous shows have closed in previews, a musical like the 2008 Glory Days closed after just one performance.

  • I am really perplexed by the statement: “Surely the most remarkable feat of Into the Woods is that it has turned Stephen Sondheim in his 85th year from dead-cert Broadway failure to Hollywood’s fastest selling musicals composer.”

    Sondheim has never been dead-anything. if anything, he has consistently been recognized as the most influential voice in musical theatre and one of the greatest geniuses (if not THE greatest genius) of musical theatre.

    His worst shows handily surpass the very best of most other composers. And his best works are absolutely incomparable, from topics, to music, to libretti.

    To the very best of my knowledge, the movie version of Into the Woods hasn’t done anything to change Sondheim’s reputation as a composer of masterpieces. It has only served to make his work known to a larger audience yet.

    This “article” comes on the heals of a rather disparaging comment made about a clip of Meryl Streep singing “Stay with me” from Into the Woods, and honestly makes me wonder about Mr. Lebrecht’s level of understanding of the medium in question.

  • Let’s see…A Pulitzer, an Oscar, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 8 Tony Awards, 8 Grammy Awards, 7 Drama Desk Awards, and an Obie. A member of the American Musical Hall of Fame, and the recipient of 7 Laurence Olivier Awards. Sondheim’s first Tony came in 1963. The Pulitzer was awarded 30 years ago. And there have been many, many honors before and after, including Chair of Musical Theatre at Oxford.

    By any standards, Stephen Sondheim–who also wrote the lyrics to the little-know Bernstein musical “West Side Story,” by the way–could never be described as a “dead-cert Broadway failure.” His career was certainly not made by a Disney adaptation of one of his most beloved musicals. All the movie did was to bring Sondheim’s name into a mass market–something also accomplished by the cinematic “Sweeney Todd” 6 years ago.

    [redacted/

  • Mikey and Jules seem to forget a core point made in NL’s article. When he mentions “failure” above, that must be read in the context of his other comment “Sondheim won every award there was to win and still lost money.” That is true of almost every Sondheim musical’ premiered on Broadway!

    Also the crux of the discussion is that the movie version of “into the Woods” stands to make it the most popular and financially successful of Sondheim’s shows thanks to the association with Disney which, by seeking the popular dollar in all it does, is the “antithesis” of Sondheim. A “mismatch” indeed, and yet one which has clearly worked in this case.

    • What Nick seems to forget is that almost ALL Broadway shows are – by his definition – “failures”, since very few make money on their first runs.

      On the other hand, Sondheim’s shows are THE most rented scores for touring, community, and school productions of the entire repertoire. They make an absolutely astounding amount of money from rentals alone. That in and of itself defies the definition of “failure”.

      • No, I did not forget! I fully agree most Broadway musicals are financial flops, although some do obviously generate vast profits. But in my reading of NL’s article it certainly does not seem that the intended point was to focus on gross takings from revivals and other commercial exploitation over a long period of time after the original production. The focus is on the first runs – and that ties in perfectly well with the number of performances he lists in respect of both Sondheim’s and other shows (even though some of the numbers are not accurate). As the article states –

        “Sunday in the Park with George, in 1984, presumed its audience knew the lives of French pointillist painters. Sondheim won every award there was to win and still lost money.”

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