One bad bit of singing renews Stephen Sondheim’s fame

One bad bit of singing renews Stephen Sondheim’s fame


norman lebrecht

December 15, 2019

Several articles this weekend note the resurgence of the composer’s reputation thanks to the use of his songs in new movies.

From the Observer:

…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.

What struck me on seeing the movie was how badly the song was done – out of tune, overacted, watch-me-me-me.

But who cares about the singing?

Am I the only dissenter?




    At a purely technical level, it is pretty bad – but it’s also tremendously moving in the context of the film and the character. Driver delivers it with with sincerity and commitment

    • Fliszt says:

      Agreed. Also, that’s the general level of spontaneous singing that is heard in cocktail lounges by a patron who is drowning his sorrows in alcohol. Nobody goes to these places expecting Sinatra, Pat Boone or Perry Como-quality singing.

      • Ludwig's Van says:

        OK, so let’s assume that he stayed in character, and thus sang badly as drunken narcissists hanging out in bars usually do. And even if he was singing to the best of his abilities, the “badness” was appropriate to the part – as he wasn’t portraying a great singer.

    • perturbo says:

      I found his singing SO bad that it distracted from the moment. And what about the other Sondheim song in the movie (“You Could Drive a Person Crazy)? I think they did a better job.

      Why would anyone think Sondheim’s reputation needed a “resurgence”?

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      Are you saying he can’t sing, another tradition of contemporary movies mocking music by only presenting bad singing?

    • Joel says:

      Rupert Christiansen, +1, I totally agree with you. If we are speaking at a technical level, Driver is not good, and of course very far from performances as the original by Dean Jones, or the one by Raul Esparza; but in the context of the movie and the situation of his character at that moment, it´s a very moving and sincere moment. Driver is amazing in the film, a very nuanced and wonderful performance!

    • Apryl says:

      I have to admit, I became slightly obsessed with the song after I watched the movie. I really felt something from his performance.

    • Esther Cavett says:

      Sonheim’s preferred song at this place in the music was ‘Happily Ever After’ which is similar but has a darker feel and I think the producers pulled it. Lyrics here

    • Aslanis says:

      Isn’t that the case with most B’way singing anyway?…they deliver the text with conviction and meaning, oftentimes not so in tune but at least spontaneous. It’s not opera! It was very much in the moment.

  • Minnesota private citizen says:

    Have to agree with Mr. Lebrecht here. Maybe it sounded good in the shower. Imagine watching Company with everyone singing like this. It would be painful.

  • Stephen Maddock says:

    The article doesn’t mention the best recent Sondheim movie song of all: Hugh Grant singing / dancing Rain on the Roof from Follies in prison at the end of Paddington 2….

  • Bob Oxley says:

    One of the hazards of being a professional critic must be to hear this and get stuck on it’s flaws. I hear it and, to me, it feels just right sounding like an amateur with a very nice voice. Were Driver to rise out of his seat in that restaurant and begin singing like an opera star would be risible. I like it very much.

  • mary says:

    “out of tune, overacted, watch-me-me-me”

    Don’t confuse the character with the actor.

    It’d be like faulting Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins.

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    This is more of a reflection of the entire tradition of fine songwriting for musical theater being boiled down to the one supposed last survivor, Sondheim. Just as the entire Great American Songbook tradition has boiled down to association with Frank Sinatra, peopl who are too busy to learn the richness of American high popular culture, just snag onto one symbolic person. You can also blame Simon Cowell, for labeling in such a disrespecful way, any competent singer as being “too Broadway.” The problem with this is, you can’t get an audience unless you associate a performance with either Sondheim or Sinatra.

    • david hilton says:

      “you can’t get an audience unless you associate a performance with either Sondheim or Sinatra” . . I’d dispute that. Guillermo del Toro had no trouble getting an audience for “The Shape of Water”, and winning the Best Picture and Best Musical Score Oscars, all without any Sondheim or Sinatra associations. Audiences seemed to respond just fine to Renée Fleming singing Harry Warren’s great “You’ll Never Know”, a song most associated with Dame Vera Lynn and Alice Faye. (The opening bars of the song are actually on his tombstone).

  • Not much happens in movies by accident.

    If a more musical delivery (or less) would have served the story I have no doubt they had the resources to make that happen.

    So I presume this is a choice by the film makers, a nod to reality rather than a failure to polish.

  • Juan Manuel says:

    Who cares about his technical ability? As an impromptu rendition, it makes sense. Charlie was – as I understood it – not prepared to sing it. The fact that he added the dialogue within the song (“I don’t think you’ll ever be a kid again, kiddo”, etc) shows Charlie was just making a panto for his colleagues, not a serious rendition. I like the way it sounded, too, even if it was out of tune.

  • mary says:

    That’s liking complaining that Adam Driver has a bad haircut in the movie.

    No, Driver plays a character who doesn’t care much about how his hair looks, so he just lets his (ex)wife cut his hair.

    Same, Driver plays a character who doesn’t care much about how his singing sounds, so he just lets his feelings out by singing at a bar.

  • david hilton says:

    Yes, I fear you may be in the minority with your dissent. Remember, Adam Driver’s song from “Company” is in the context of the film paired with Scarlet Johansen’s more light-hearted number from “Company” which immediately precedes it, and which makes clear that the actors are supposed to come across as amateurs.

    Also worth noting: “Send In the Clowns” gets a brief outing in “Knives Out” just opening in the UK this weekend. So Sondheim is most definitely in the air.

    • Joel says:

      Yes David, and “Send in the Clowns” is also briefly in another one of the most famous movies of this year: “Joker”, in one key scene of the film, and in one of its original trailers too.

  • Tish Tash says:

    Dude, the character is not supposed to be a professional stage crooner. You sound like someone who at the end of “Star Wars” says, “That couldn’t possibly happen for real….”

  • John E. Morris-Maddox says:

    I’m just trying to ascertain at which point the man who many consider to be the greatest composer/lyricist actually…lost…his fame?

    • david hilton says:

      Good point. Someone better alert the investors who have already committed millions to bringing Marianne Elliott’s London production of “Company” to New York next season! Boy, will they be disappointed to find out Steve has lost his fame! (Not to mention the uncountable number of 90th birthday events coming our way next year).

  • M2N2K says:

    In the context of the movie it would have been ridiculous if he suddenly sounded like, for example, Bryn Terfel.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    ==riffing on single-versus-married life, freedom versus the safety net of love.

    Domingo ought to sing this !

    But this is yet another melodramatic SD title “..renews Sonheim’s fame”. It hardly needs renewing

  • Michele says:

    That’s not the only Sondheim song in that movie. Sarlett’s mom and sister joined her in singing You Could Drive a Person Crazy

  • Adam Driver does not have a professional singer’s technique but I find him naturally very musical.

  • Noneofurbeeswax says:

    I’m no expert, but I actually really liked his singing, I also really liked his character. Maybe I’m the only one?