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Film & TV

Why Stephen Sondheim is in ‘Glass Onion’

The late Broadway icon was also a puzzle fanatic and lover of murder mysteries

As part of his latest murder mystery, Rian Johnson assembled an all-star cast — over Zoom.

Glass Onion, the sequel to Johnson’s Knives Out, boasts major performances by Kathryn Hahn, Edward Norton and Janelle Monáe. But before we get to their shenanigans on a remote Greek island (on an estate that appears to have a fresco of Kanye West), we see Daniel Craig’s gentleman detective Benoit Blanc playing the popular pandemic-era murder mystery game Among Us.

Who is he playing with but Angela Lansbury, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Natasha Lyonne and Stephen Sondheim? Sadly, this appears to be the final onscreen appearance for both Sondheim, who died last year at the age of 91, and Lansbury, who died in October at 96.

Lansbury’s appearance is a clear nod to her long tenure as Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote, but Sondheim’s cameo, much like the many clues arrayed in Johnson’s whodunit, is a touch more mysterious at first. On further examination, though, it makes perfect sense even if, as with an onion (or parfait), there are layers.

“Sondheim has a massive connection to the murder-mystery genre,” Johnson told Entertainment Weekly, noting how the lyricist and composer loved puzzles and mysteries and co-wrote, with Psycho star Anthony Perkins, the film The Last of Sheila, which both Knives Out and Glass Onion are somewhat indebted to in terms of plot. Johnson, who clearly knows his Sondheim, added that his one straight play was a murder mystery, “Getting Away with Murder,” co-written with his Company and Merrily We Roll Along collaborator George Furth.

Sondheim, who often said he considered writing murder mysteries in case his musical theater career didn’t pan out, was no dilettante. He often held elaborate game nights for his celebrity friends, he designed an elaborate treasure hunt at the American Museum of Natural History and was even the inspiration for the Laurence Olivier character in Sleuth.

As if that weren’t enough, according to A.J. Jacobs, author of The Puzzler, Sondheim almost single-handedly changed how American crosswords were designed.

“Yeah he did Broadway and he was a genius,” Jacobs said. “But let’s not forget his contribution to puzzle history.”

A fan of the British “cryptic crosswords,” Sondheim wrote an influential article in New York magazine that called for a move away from trivia-based clues towards ones based on wordplay, homophones and anagrams.

Like a pivotal piece of evidence in Glass Onion, Johnson’s appreciation for Sondheim has been hiding in plain sight for some time. In Knives Out, Benoit Blanc sings along to “Losing My Mind” from Follies while on a stakeout. (The year 2019 was a banner one for Sondheim on film; Joker featured “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story gave us the entirety of “Being Alive” from Company.)

With many Broadway venues honoring Sondheim’s yahrzeit with revivals of his stage work, it’s a thrill to see the late composer recognized for another one of his passions — though, on that note, I’m not holding my breath for another run of Passion.

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