Monday, June 30, 2014

Sondheim's Murder Mysteries

[Photo: Sondheim w/billboard at Cannes, 1974 (]
On a whim last week, I got the DVD of The Last of Sheila.  Though its boxoffice take in 1973 was so-so, it has had a cult following ever since.  Who knew?  But I'm not surprised.

First, it's a very satisfying whodunit.  That's what drew me to it at age 14, when I walked down to North Springs shopping center alone to see it in an empty theatre.  I was into both crosswords and detective novels at the time (still am!), and this punched all my buttons. The set-up was classic:  A Hollywood mogul invites six guests to his yacht for a treasure-hunt in Mediterranean ports, one year after inviting the same six to a party where his wife Sheila was killed by a hit-and-run driver.   We quickly come to suspect that the game is an elaborate cover for the host's revenge on his wife's killer.

 I was drawn to the movie also by the Ellery-Queen-like challenge issued to the public by writers Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim (whose names meant nothing to me, yet), who let it be known that they had hidden the solution to the puzzle in the title of the movie. 

Then, it's also fun in the way of any movie filled with celebrities (from the 70s B list and a couple of A- stars).   I've read in Craig Zadan's excellent Sondheim and Company that the script's first draft involved businessmen snowed into a Swiss ski resort;  director Herb Ross was so right to shift the venue and the character types.  Raquel Welch in a bikini, James Mason in a monk's cowl, Dyan Cannon in hysterics:  We love to see them well dressed, undressed, launching little zingers at each other, and emoting.   In 7th grade, I loved "getting" the names they dropped (Steve - and - Eydie, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, and closing song by up-and-coming sensation Bette Midler).

Looking at the show in adulthood, I especially appreciate the performance by Joan Hackett in the thankless role of the one person on the ship neither glamorous nor clamorous.   Scene by scene, even while she smiles, we watch her disquiet grow as she suspects what's going on behind the fun.

Director Herbert Ross used -- pioneered? -- a technique that has helped me in the murder-mystery plays I've co-written in the decades since.  He found a way around the anticlimax built into the genre:  once the deductions begin, dialogue can bog down while the entire cast sits still, rehashing clues and theories.  Herbert Ross cut away from discussion to show us multiple reenactments of the crime from new angles to reflect different theories.   All these years, I've recalled how I cringed in the dark theatre each time the heavy stone came down on the victim's head with a gruesome sound effect -- and how exciting that was!  It's still effective, and a picture is worth six pages of detective monologue.

Then, of course, there's the cult of Stephen Sondheim.  I'm a proud member since 1974.  For us, his affinity for puzzles and his inventions of murder games for celebrity friends are common knowledge.   I'll only comment from observation and experience that contriving a puzzle, composing a song, and writing a murder mystery share the characteristic that things have to "go" with each other both "down" and "across."  That's self-evident in a crossword; it's the effect of setting a rhyme to land at the musical climax of a song (e.g., from "Ladies Who Lunch," everybody tries..., look into their eyes..., everybody dies..., everybody rise!).  In The Last of Sheila, there's a story moving forward (guests deal with mishaps on the yacht) while clues fill us in on the back story: across and down.

Now it's my turn to drop a name:  When Mr. Sondheim and I had a chat at New York's Music Box Theatre following a performance of Side by Side by Sondheim in June 1977, he filled me in on some details about an item I'd seen in Earl Wilson's gossip column.  I'd read that Sondheim and Perkins had written a sequel of sorts, The Chorus Girl Murder Case, and Michael Bennett was to direct the film.    Sondheim told me (and a couple dozen of my high school chorus friends) that the script was complete.  Set backstage during preparations for a musical in the 1940s, the movie would include more than a dozen new Sondheim songs or pieces of songs, "each one containing a clue" he said with a satisfied smile.

That's the last I've heard of The Chorus Girl Murder Case, though a show with similar title ran on Broadway ten years ago, or so.  Kander and Ebb wrote a show with a similar premise.  Where's that movie?  Where are those songs?

I'm aware of two other Sondheim murder mysteries.  Crime and Variations was another collaboration with Anthony Perkins, to be broadcast over several nights on cable TV back in the 1980s.  The musical technique of "variation" has an analogy in those multiple versions of the same crime that kept Last of Sheila moving.   But aside from the reference in Zadan's book, I've never seen any other sign that this project was ever realized.
 [Note: Sondheim said that he filled in a "laundry list" of requests for The Chorus Girl Murder Case from would-be director Michael Bennett, and "wrote a treatment" with Anthony Perkins, but that's as far as it went. HBO never filmed Crime and Variations, and HBO owns the property. This comes from an interview at, ca. 1994.]
Finally, there's Getting Away with Murder, a stage play co-written with George Furth, who wrote the books for Company and Merrily We Roll Along.  Originally called The Doctor Is In, its premise was the murder of a psychiatrist by someone in his group therapy cohort.  I read disdainful reviews, and caught a pretty flat video online of a staged production.  At one performance of the original cast, the prop gun didn't fire, and one actor had to pretend to bludgeon the other with the revolver. 

Sondheim's two greatest contributions to murder mysteries for the stage and screen were indirect.  The classic murder mystery Sleuth, was Anthony Shaffer's inspired response to a weekend playing games at Stephen Sondheim's town home back in the 1960s.  His working title for it was Who's Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?  It was a great success on stage, filmed twice, first with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, then with Michael Caine and Jude Law (with screenplay by Harold Pinter, not so fun as the original).  Of course, Ira Levin's Deathtrap, play and movie,  takes off from Sleuth, so there's an extension of Sondheim's influence in the genre.

Sondheim's collaborators Hugh Wheeler (Night Music, Sweeney Todd) and James Goldman (Evening Primrose, Follies) also wrote murder mystery novels.  Goldman's draft of a musical to be called The Girls Upstairs, was a "whodunit" in reverse:  who will do it?  All the characters had motives to kill each other.  Happily,  with director Harold Prince's involvement, the tensions burst into fantasy follies-numbers, and the result was the wonderful Follies.

So, there's more to connect Stephen Sondheim to murder mysteries than first meets the eye, eh, Inspector?

Reflection on THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973), directed by Herbert Ross, screenplay by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. With information I've gleaned from other sources, including Stephen Sondheim himself!

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