top of page

‘To Sondheim!’: the Love Affair in Recent Cinema

Marriage Story (dir: Noah Baumbach, 2019)

(long-read/spoilers ahead)

In Noah Baumbach’s Oscar-nominated Marriage Story (2019), the delights of Stephen Sondheim are delivered to the silver screen with distinct earnestness and heart. In this exceptional chronicle of love and divorce, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) traverse a myriad of emotion caused by the breakdown of their relationship. Baumbach’s portrait of an imperfect marriage is condensed into two songs delivered by the leading actors, both songs taken from Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company. Yet Baumbach is not alone in the recent usage of Sondheim to augment film. In Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019), we see the eponymous character (Joaquin Phoenix) taunted by the opening lines of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”, originally written for the 1973 musical A Little Night Music. Directors Greta Gerwig and Rian Johnson have similarly employed Sondheim to heighten feeling, sentiment and humour in their work- an exploration of this love affair between film and the godfather of modern musical theatre thus seems worthy of study and celebration.

Composed as a string of vignettes, the plot of Sondheim’s Company revolves around the habitually single Bobby, his married friends and the women he casually dates. Pivoting around the intricacies of adult relationships, its usage in Baumbach’s aptly named Marriage Story at first glance can seem uninspired. Towards the end of the 2019 film, Nicole, her mother (Julie Hagerty) and her sister (Merritt Wever) stand singing before an audience of friends and family in Nicole’s sun-drenched LA home. Sondheim’s “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is performed by the trio and accompanied by a piano, lighthearted choreography and a gaiety that is shared by Nicole and her audience alike. Originally staged by Bobby’s three girlfriends, chastising their mutual lover for his inadequacies as a romantic partner, an initial reading of Baumbach’s inclusion of this song seems clear. Following the separation, Nicole, now in LA and surrounded by friends and family, can happily announce her freedom to the world, ‘-Bobby is my hobby and I’m giving it up!’. Yet such a schematic reading only denies the brilliance of Baumbach and Sondheim in their respective works. Indeed “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” cleverly deploys a character assassination within the antithetical upbeat melody of an Andrew Sisters-style pastiche. This pairing of style and content alongside the absurdly clever rhymes such as ‘personable/coercin’ a bull’, makes for a complex, self-aware and brazen song disguised in a style that so often has recalled the opposite. This discrepancy is central to the song’s merit, it is one of both humour and sincerity, sweetness and acidity, adoration and disapproval.

Marriage Story (dir: Noah Baumbach, 2019)

These juxtapositions are echoed within Baumbach’s film and work to dispel the notion that his inclusion of Sondheim is uninspired. Despite the jovial performance of the song, its lyrical themes are explored earlier by Nicole in an outburst of tears and frustration. In a meeting with her lawyer Nora (Laura Dern), Nicole submits her reasoning for divorce, recounting times where Charlie had been jealous, made fun of her opportunities and ignored her desires to move LA. Yet it is only after the audience bears witness to her later performance of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” that the true mastery of Baumbach as a storyteller is revealed. The hurt shared privately by Nicole gets retold in a public display of merriment. Before a victim of Charlie’s apparent selfishness, here Nicole refigures her earlier vexation into entertainment.

Marriage Story (dir: Noah Baumbach, 2019)

However as Sondheim’s use of disparity between style and content makes for a work that swells with complexity, Baumbach’s decision for Nicole to perform this song is equally as deliberate. Nicole’s comment on her marriage remains the same yet it is its presentation that changes. Just as Sondheim allows Bobby’s girlfriends to conceal such acidity through musical patter, Baumbach allows for Nicole to acknowledge the reasonings for her divorce within the ever-cheerful setting of a performance at a social gathering. For Nicole the inventory of Charlie’s vices recounted earlier in Nora’s office are interchangeable with the words she sings, yet it is through Sondheim that she can exhibit the talent she felt was overshadowed by Charlie, and importantly, do so in the city he refused to move to. Any fear of this poignancy being lost on viewers is removed by the presence of Nora in the crowd. Privy to both retellings of Nicole’s emotions, Nora, herself a character of juxtaposing warmth and ferocity, acts as an aide memoire encouraging not only a comparison between the film’s dialogue and the lyrics of the song but also the use of disparity by Baumbach and Sondheim respectively. At once the audience can appreciate the triumphant storytelling in both works: Baumbach’s creative use of dialogue and juxtaposition allow for Nicole’s frustrations, talent and cognisance to be condensed into one song whilst simultaneously rendering the song in question a concise yet multi-faceted comment on the reality of adult relationships. Despite both song and film voicing unfavourable relationships, their union here is one of utmost harmony and triumph.

A mere three minutes after the performance of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”, the second Sondheim needle-drop occurs. Under the warm lighting of a piano bar nestled somewhere within New York’s Theatre District, Adam Driver joins the ranks of stars such as Dean Jones, Patti Lupone, Barbra Streisand, Raúl Esparza, and lets not forget Kurt Hummel, with his rendition of Sondheim’s “Being Alive”. Once again a juxtaposition is deployed as the kitschy and rehearsed rendition of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” gives way to another Company number that is now dripping in spontaneity and sincerity. Following a conversation with his fellow thespians concerning the details of his divorce, a rather desolate looking Charlie breaks into song upon hearing the opening notes of Company‘s penultimate number. At the beginning, the sombre tone of both song and atmosphere are offset by Charlie’s attempts to recite the overlapping dialogue from the 1970 OBC recording. Yet this comedic quality soon dissipates and it is here, perhaps more-so than “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”, that Marriage Story evolves into a presentational rather than representational affair.

Marriage Story (dir: Noah Baumbach, 2019)

Regarding musical theatre, Sondheim states, ‘- the performer has to make contact with the audience, they have to make the number land (…) everything is conspired to make it false and their job is to make it true.’ In Marriage Story, Driver’s performance achieves such a landing, the proliferation of articles, video essays and comments on social media celebrating this scene attest to that. Yet despite Driver’s exceptional work, it is Baumbach’s skilful storytelling and direction that allow “Being Alive” to land with such conviction and intensity. Lyrically Sondheim’s number follows Bobby’s newfound desire to marry. In Company the song signifies his metamorphosis from aloof bachelor into a figure that addresses his own vulnerability, loneliness and desire to be in love and marry, ‘-but alone is alone, not alive’. However in Marriage Story the song is delivered by a figure traversing the solus reality of divorce, the poignancy of Baumbach’s reversal no doubt felt keenly by Charlie and his immediate audience. Yet importantly this poignancy is not solely reserved for those acquainted with musical theatre as its inclusion is prefigured in previous scenes. What is truly the bridge of contact between the performer and audience is the familiarity of the words being sung. The lyrics of Sondheim’s “Being Alive” linger in Baumbach’s script as Charlie’s performance echoes Nicole’s lament to Nora and his own frustrations from the argument at his apartment:

NICOLE: ‘I realised I had never really came alive for myself, I was just feeding his aliveness.’

CHARLIE: ‘You’re putting me through hell.’

NICOLE: ‘You put me through hell during our marriage.’

Marriage Story (dir: Noah Baumbach, 2019)

Baumbach may have been joking about reverse-engineering the entire film to include Sondheim’s music but ultimately his direction and dialogue brand “Being Alive” as an integral part of the film’s core. For the number to land Baumbach does not simply rely on the subject that Marriage Story shares with Sondheim’s musical of marriage but instead the foundations for this union are deeply imbedded within his script. If Richard Linklater were to soundtrack the fight between Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight (2013) with songs from Company it would be a detriment to the ingenuity of both works in question. Lacking the interlacing of Baumbach’s approach, this union would be heavy handed and would divorce, for want of a better word, the artistry of each work from the raw and unapologetic authenticity both are praised for. Thus what should be celebrated is the symbiotic relationship between Sondheim and cinema that operates within Marriage Story. Charlie’s divorcee-rendition of “Being Alive” functions, not how it does for Bobby in Company, but how a song functions in a musical- it informs both character and narrative. In simultaneity, “Being Alive” showcases Charlie’s emotional turmoil whilst commenting on the beauty and pain of being human in way only musical theatre can effectively achieve.

In Joker the union between Sondheim and cinema does not flourish as skilfully. In Phillips’ reimagination of the Gotham-city-villain origin story, the inclusion of Sondheim’s music figures in a scene of violence and contentious retribution. Arthur Fleck, clad in his makeup and costuming, sits aboard a subway train and as is taunted by three inebriated Wall Street types scornfully serenading him with the opening lines of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”. The actions that follow signify a turning point in his character arc, the violence that ensues marking his completed transformation from Fleck to Joker. Yet unlike Marriage Story – which figures not only a clever interlacing of Sondheim into its core but also characters that work within the world of theatre – the use of Sondheim here lacks the same nuance and effect. Comedian and writer Julie Klausner summarises this in her Tweet: ‘- no finance guy has EVER known the lyrics to the first two verses of “Send in the Clowns” by heart, let alone that Sondheim intended it to be sung WITHOUT legato’. By their very vocations in the theatre, Charlie and Nicole’s performances of Sondheim are endowed with a cognisance that accords their renditions a striking sentimentality, yet in Joker Fleck is fundamentally denied such a level of self-awareness. Furthermore there is no lyrical poignancy nor comment made between Phillips’ film and A Little Night Music and instead one is left feeling that “Send in the Clowns” is included for the audience’s benefit only: a song about clowns in a film about a clown.


Joker (dir: Todd Phillips, 2019)

However this is not to say that a union between Sondheim and cinema can only be achieved with sincerity and careful forethought. Rian Johnson’s murder-mystery Knives Out  (2019) features a brief but amusing Sondheim needle-drop whereby the detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is shown listening to Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” from the 1971 musical Follies. Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird (2017) similarly employs Sondheim in a comedic manner as the film follows the titular character and her classmates with their high-school production of Sondheim’s 1981 Merrily We Roll Along. Even “Being Alive”, “Everybody Says Don’t” from Sondheim’s 1964 Anyone Can Whistle and “Giants in the Sky” from his 1986 Into the Woods feature as the students’ audition songs. One naturally assumes that the Gerwig-Baumbach household contains an altar for their favourite composer and lyricist.

Lady Bird (dir: Greta Gerwig, 2017)

Whilst varying in execution, the recent usage of Sondheim in film of late are united in their shared celebration of his work. Lady Bird interweaves Sondheim in such a way to soundtrack both the youth of Lady Bird and the film as a finished product. Its usage here is one that augments the humour and heart of a film that is rightfully praised for its gloriously funny and touching portrayal of growing up. In Knives Out Sondheim is figured as an easter egg for audiences that are aware of his personal predilection for puzzles and his own whodunit play, Getting Away With Murder (1996). Whilst Joker‘s incorporation of Sondheim seems uninspired, Phillips’ efforts should not be entirely disregarded as he achieves an effective discordance between the song and the violence it scores. It is Baumbach however that delivers a union between Sondheim and cinema that is undeniable in its prowess. By incorporating the language and techniques of Sondheim into his filmmaking, Baumbach achieves a representation of divorce that does not divide its viewers but rather unites them. The brilliance of this comes down to the fact that “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and “Being Alive” could be sung by either party. At once both Charlie and Nicole are villain and victim, traversing the complexities of commitment and marriage through the manner of Baumbach’s dialogue and Sondheim’s lyrics alike. As a viewer one feels sympathy for Nicole as she recites the vices of Charlie yet can acknowledge her own capacity to hurt him. Charlie’s pain is similarly pitied but his role in the breakdown of the relationship is not forgotten. Condensed into two songs are the flaws, strengths, capacities and feelings of this couple and both are performed to audiences acutely aware of their situation. What emerges from Baumbach’s incorporation of Sondheim is a portrait of a marriage that combines the presentational vulnerability of musical theatre with the representational reflection film can engineer. Where Marriage Story meets the marriage musical, the result is unparalleled sublimity.


Recent essays

bottom of page