Because movies often look to the theater for inspiring source material, it was inevitable that the work of the late, great composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim would make its way to the big screen. And starting with the original West Side Story, it did exactly that—for 60 years, and counting.
Sondheim’s stage-to-cinema journey might have been destiny, since he was closely mentored in his youth by Oscar Hammerstein II, another musical wordsmith whose material often made that same jump (The Sound of Music, The King and I). He solidified his influence on the next generation of film and theater, too, paying it forward after his many successes by mentoring the likes of Jonathan Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who just so happen to be the two voices at the center of this year’s tick, tick… BOOM!
As the second movie adaptation of West Side Story hits theaters this week, we’re taking a minute to revisit just a few of the most memorable Sondheim moments in movies. If you know the tunes, feel free to sing along.
West Side Story is now playing in theaters everywhere.
♫ I feel dizzy,
I feel sunny,
I feel fizzy and funny and fine.
And so pretty, Miss America can just resign. ♫
Of all the earworms from this classic (which was Sondheim’s Broadway debut and then, soon after, became a 10-time Oscar winner), the lighthearted melody from “I Feel Pretty” has a special way of getting stuck in our heads. It’s also immensely relatable. Intoxicated by young love, Maria (Natalie Woods) is feeling herself, and she won’t let her skeptical girlfriends bring her down. She flits and floats around the local dress shop, just happy she’s loved by “a pretty wonderful boy”—and blissfully unaware of the heartbreak ahead.
♫ The worst pies in London,
Even that’s polite!
The worst pies in London,
If you dare to take a bite. ♫
The passionless piemaker Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) is stunned to see a customer enter her bakery—so stunned that she’s moved to prepare a pie and a song. In Tim Burton’s adaptation of the stage play, we see firsthand how unsanitary her kitchen is: Between each knead of the dough, she swats at cockroaches crawling around the countertop. The lyrics she sings also foreshadow the fact that ingredients will get even more nauseating as the movie unfolds, if you can believe it.
♫ Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood.
Do not let it grieve you,
No one leaves for good. ♫
There’s a very wide range of emotions on display in Sondheim’s imaginative convergence of fairy tales. And while we always have the bold and adventurous “Giants in the Sky” on repeat (especially after Lucas Hedges belted it out onstage in Lady Bird), we tend to remember other moments that tug on our heartstrings more. That’s definitely the case with this line from the musical’s grand finale song, when The Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt) comforts another character after a great loss—but it really feels like she’s singing directly to the audience. We sort of hate to ask, but do you have a … tissue? Gets us every time.
♫ Everybody says don’t,
Everybody says don’t,
Everybody says don’t, it isn’t right,
Don’t, it isn’t nice. ♫
Speaking of … While Lady Bird is not based on a Sondheim musical, he certainly dominates the high school drama department in Greta Gerwig’s modern coming-of-age classic. Merrily We Roll Along is the school’s winter musical, yes, but the movie’s audition sequence is also a Sondheim sampler: A croaky-voiced adolescent belts out “Being Alive” from Company, Danny (Lucas Hedges) performs “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods and our Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson (Saoirse Ronan) gives an impassioned and appropriately theatrical rendition of “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle. Even though she didn’t get the lead, we’d still like to see the full-length audition.
♫ Sooner is better than later,
But lover, I’ll hover, I’ll plan.
This time I’m not only getting,
I’m holding my man. ♫
This is one Sondheim song that didn’t originate on Broadway. Instead, “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” was written directly for Warren Beatty’s campy crime comedy and brought to life by Madonna, who plays a seductive and conniving club singer in the movie. Sondheim won his only Oscar for the tune, and the pop star performed the jazz ballad at the 63rd Oscars—in an iconic Marilyn Monroe-esque gown against a hot pink curtain backdrop.