Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricist who died on Friday at age 91, had an unparalleled influence on contemporary theater. Revivals of two of his shows are currently onstage in New York — the gender-swapped version of “Company” on Broadway and the starry production of “Assassins” Off Broadway at the Classic Stage Company — and Steven Spielberg’s new film adaptation of “West Side Story” will be released on Dec. 10.
But there are a few dozen ways to encounter Sondheim’s sly wit, melodic acumen and astonishing moral complexity from the comfort of your sofa. Not that he ever lets you get too comfortable. Unlike many of his peers, Sondheim has been served fairly well by film and video. Here are some of the best ways to watch the work of the man who gave us more to see.
‘Original Cast Album: Company’
Sondheim’s penetrating study of modern love and even more modern ambivalence is a classic. For a rich encounter with the material, try D.A. Pennebaker’s 1970 documentary, which details the contentious attempts to record the original cast album at the Church, a Columbia Records studio in Midtown Manhattan. A pleasure throughout and a useful insight into a communal creative process, the movie turns electric when the camera captures Elaine Stritch trying and failing to lay down the devastating track “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
Stream it on the Criterion Channel.
Though dinged at the time for casting Rosalind Russell as the stage monster Mama Rose — rather than Ethel Merman, who had created the role — Mervyn LeRoy’s 1962 movie offers a backstage pass to bygone forms of American entertainment: vaudeville and burlesque. Moving nimbly among moods and styles, Sondheim’s lyrics range from utterly innocent (“Little Lamb”) to tastily racy (“You Gotta Get a Gimmick”), with at least one number, “Rose’s Turn,” that suggests the radical revision of the musical that he would later attempt.
Enjoy, if you must, Rob Marshall’s overblown 2014 adaptation of this fairy tale concatenation. But the 1987 version, recorded for PBS’s “American Playhouse” and available on Apple TV, is a superb example of pre-“Hamilton” performance capture, preserving the indelible performances of Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleeson and Chip Zien. Children will listen, so watch it with yours. The first act, anyway. Or for a more modern take, try the 2010 version, recorded live in London’s Regent’s Park and streamable on Broadway HD, with Hannah Waddingham, of “Ted Lasso,” as the witch.
Stream the 2010 version from Broadway HD.
‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’
A work of impeccable silliness and absolute froth, the 1966 film version of this meringue-like musical, stitched together from a handful of Plautus comedies, stars Zero Mostel as a scheming servant and Jack Gilford as a gentler one, with the future Phantom Michael Crawford as the love-struck master. It’s available on several platforms. The songs are flimsy when compared with Sondheim’s later work, but they delight — from the assertiveness of “Comedy Tonight” to the cheekiness of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” and the breezy whimsy of “Lovely.”
‘Sunday in the Park With George’
An incomparable study of the profit and cost of artistic creation, this 1984 musical, loosely based on the life of Georges Seurat, was captured in 1986 with Mandy Patinkin as the pointillist painter and Peters as his muse, Dot. The filmic shades are muddied — a shame for an artist so obsessed with color and light. But Sondheim’s rigor and originality sound clear in songs like “Finishing the Hat,” “Children and Art” and “Move On.”
If your preferred form of tribute involves a generous pour, a good cry and an invitation to sing along, lift your voice to this online offering, assembled last year and available in full on YouTube. Hosted by Raúl Esparza, its quality is uneven, a consequence of first-wave Zoom theater. But it still moves deftly across and through his six-decade career and offers performances by unmatched interpreters, including Patinkin (“Lesson #8” from “Sunday in the Park With George”), Donna Murphy (“Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music”), Patti LuPone (“Anyone Can Whistle”), Bernadette Peters (“No One Is Alone” from “Into the Woods”) and the peerless triad of Audra McDonald, Christine Baranski and Meryl Streep (“The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company”). Everybody rise? Why not?
Stream it on YouTube.