LONDON, ENGLAND–Although West Side Story–which won 10 out of 11 of its Academy Award nominations, including best picture–was one of the most successful film adaptations of a play in movie history, Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for the Broadway songs, says it didn't work well on film. In fact, Sondheim, whose play-to-movie experience also includes A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Gypsy, says that although he loves movies, he's never been a fan of musicals on-screen.
"I've always been a movie buff," he says in a London hotel room. "But the one form of movie that I never particularly enjoyed was the movie musical.”¦It takes three or four minutes to sing a song, and on-stage that works because it's part of the texture of the story. But on film, you're just trying to waste time.
"Take [the song] "Tonight" in West Side Story," he continues. "There's a close-up of him and a close-up of her, and then a two-shot, and then a shot of the fire escape.”¦The director must go crazy trying to figure out: 'What am I going to do for four minutes while they sing, "Tonight, tonight, tonight, tonight, tonight?"' As far as I'm concerned, that's really boring."
Happily, for fans of the hit musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sondheim is excited about the new film version of his play. He says that the story of a barber who murders wealthy Londoners and works with a pie maker to sell their remains to her customers, has fared well in the hands of director Tim Burton, who consulted with Sondheim on the film. (Sweeney Todd, which stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, opens on December 21 in Vancouver.)
"Tim understands that the audience needs to be entertained while the song is being sung. Those of us who are impatient want the story to move ahead. I just want to be sure that the song still has a form to it. I would not like somebody else coming along and chopping and changing it. I will do it. Or I will say, 'It can't be done.'
"There's one tiny little passage in the play that we cut a section out of for the movie," Sondheim explains. "And there was a passage that Tim really wanted to cut and I said, 'It can't be cut because that is what establishes the entire musical structure of the piece.' But outside of that, I can't think of another moment where there wasn't enough flexibility that I could find a way of doing it. I have no regrets at all. I'm not embarrassed by any of it."