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Stephen Sondheim's Brilliant, Unrealized Idea for a TV Special
November 30, 2011  | By David Bianculli
 
In composer Stephen Sondheim's new book, Look, I Made a Hat, he reveals lots of things that should surprise even the most diehard Sondheim enthusiast -- not personal admissions, but details of works both produced and unproduced.

One, in particular, stunned me.

look-i-made-a-hat.jpg

In the mid-'80s, Sondheim and Sunday in the Park with George collaborator James Lapine approached veteran TV producer Norman Lear with the concept for a brilliantly innovative television special. They didn't want to write it, just sell the idea, but Lear wanted them to write it, so it died on the vine. Instead, Sondheim and Lapine, adapting the basic framework to a new setting and medium, came up another brilliant Broadway musical.

So what was the newly revealed great TV concept? Originally Lapine's idea, expanded by the two of them, it was a sitcom. And a cop show. And a medical show. And more.

And -- here's the genius part of it -- it was all those things at once, using characters we already knew...

Sondheim describes it as "a story involving TV characters from situation comedies (for example, Ralph and Alice Kramden, Archie and Edith Bunker, Mary Richards and Lou Grant, etc.) in a car accident which brings to the scene characters from the cop shows (T. J. Hooker, Joe Friday, Cagney and Lacey, etc.) who take them to the hospital where they are treated by Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby and Ben Casey, etc."

Some of the characters referenced were dated even in 1985 -- but you can easily imagine how much fun a special like that would be, even if populated only by today's stars and characters. And between the network and independent production companies, there are enough major companies churning out both comedies and dramas to make it workable from the rights-acquisition angle.

And if you can somehow get different studios to "just get along," think of the fun. The extended brood from Modern Family could take a trip to New York and run into -- literally run into -- some of the folks from 30 Rock. Any of the cop shows set in New York could get involved, and a particularly puzzling injury in the accident could send the patient to Princeton, under the care of House and his team. And so on, in endless variations, depending upon your own favorite shows and characters.

What a great idea, however you shuffle the cards.

into-the-woods.jpg

At least Sondheim and Lapine didn't let the concept go to waste. They used the same overlapping, interweaving structural gimmick to combine many different and familiar fairy-tale characters and stories into Into the Woods, emerging with something original and unforgettably dark.

To buy Sondheim's Look, I Made a Hat, and its equally illuminating and entertaining predecessor, Finishing the Hat, click HERE. For fans of musicals, either volume makes a superb gift.

Meanwhile, that original idea is now out there for the taking.

Please, someone, take it and run...

 
 
 
 
 
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