ATHE National Convention
July 28, 1994
by Barbara Means Fraser
Sondheim entered the world of the Broadway musical theatre through a very traditional door. Fate directed him to grow up next door to Oscar Hammerstein who began his informal education. But, that's where his traditional legacy ends. One might have expected him to follow more closely the Hammerstein style, but Hammerstein encouraged him to develop his own style, and that's what Sondheim did.
Critics and traditional Broadway audiences are not quick to champion his shows. Some believe he is an acquired taste, like a fine wine. Actually, he challenges, innovates, and stretches the boundaries of the American musical theatre. Anytime an artist chooses to pave a new path, he or she will surely collide with conservative forces who wish to re-experience the same thrill they felt their "first time." Sondheim has little interest in what has been done--only in what's left to do.
In the 1950's Sondheim's Broadway contributions were primarily with lyrics, and as a beginner he had less control over the production, but his choice of project and material is consistent with his resistance to be commercially driven in the Broadway market.
West Side Story presented a love forbidden by bigotry and social conditions. A story with gangs and violence and death was not typical Broadway fare. Imagine the shock to audiences who by contrast may have seen Meredith Willson's Music Man the previous night. Each had a boy's band, but that's where the similarities end. The desolate ending which reinforces Tony and Maria's love and then snatches it away as quickly and absolutely as only death can, was too much despair for a musical audience. Today, West Side Story is remembered as a classic, but when it opened in 1957, audiences were more comfortable with Marian Paroo, Harold Hill, and the troubles of River City, than with facing the real issues of teenage violence and growing multi-cultural hatred.
A similar contrast occurred in 1959 when Gypsy ran across town from the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit, The Sound of Music. Mama Rose is quite a divergence from Maria Von Trapp. American theatre goers were introduced an atypical 50's mother.
Some people can get a thrill
Knitting sweaters and sitting still--
That's okay for some people who don't know they're alive;
Some people can thrive and bloom,
Living life in a living room--
That's perfect for some people of one hundred and five!
At least gotta try,
When I think of all the sights that I gotta see yet,
All the places I gotta play,
All the things that I gotta be yet--
Come on, Poppa, whaddaya say 1
Mama Rose pushed her children into show business; "lived in sin" with Herbie, their agent; and was as strong and aggressive as Roy Cohn. By 90's standards Rose's parenting would easily be classified as dysfunctional, but Rose's dreams of success outweighed everything. Rose is not a hero or a villain; she is a fascinating complex woman, not often seen on any stage, least of all a Broadway musical stage.
Although Sondheim worked on several shows in the Sixties, his notable success was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. For the first time he was responsible for music and lyrics. Its innovation did not move in the same serious thematic direction as his Fifties musicals. Forum is pure farce. However, it is safe to say that Sondheim was still expanding the boundaries a little. Compare its fast paced, bawdy humor directly adapted from Roman Comedy to some of the big Broadway winners of the Sixties such as Jerry Herman's Hello Dolly or Bock and Harnick's Fiddler on the Roof . Fiddler on the Roof and Hello Dolly are sentimental pieces. Hello Dolly falls into a "sit-com" structure, and Fiddler on the Roof, clearly more serious in its presentation is a well made play. Each represents American values--reinforcing marriage and family. Most of Forum's humor is tied to bawdy one-liners, but as the plot develops, it satirizes traditional values. This is Sondheim's first opportunity to toy with the "love at first sight" leads to "happily ever after" theme. Even as the play concludes, and the attractive young lovers are about to choose marriage, the father confesses to his son, "if you are only as happy as your mother and I, my heart will bleed for you." 2 This is not the matchmaking of Dolly Levy or the family values of Anatevka. Sondheim begins subtly in Forum what will become blatant in the 70's.
Sondheim came into his own in the Seventies. With the opening of Company, the audience did not know what to think, but a new audience was developing--the Sondheim audience. He was repaving Broadway, and it would never be the same. Company attacks the sanctity of marriage.
It's not talk of God and the decade ahead that
Allow you to get through the worst.
Its' "I do" and "You don't" and "Nobody said that
And "who brought the subject up first?
It's the little things, the little things, the little things.
It's the little things, the little things, the little things.
The little ways you try together,
That make perfect relationships.
Becoming a cliche together, Growing old and grey together
Withering away together
That makes marriage a joy.
It's not so hard to be married,
It's much the simpliest of crimes.
It's not so hard to be married,
I've done it three or four times. 3
Company does not say marriage is terrible--but it shows that marriage is a difficult relationship that takes hard work and does not just happen. However, People were still expecting to go to the theatre and see Margo Channing give up her career to marry her true love Bill who would not marry her until she did. The audience considered this a happy ending, and this show, Applause, won the Tony in 1970 and was still playing well when Company opened and was later awarded the Tony in 1971. This is a plot Sondheim worked with in Gypsy, but even in 1959, Mama Rose would not sacrifice her career for marriage.
Company began Sondheim's Seventies onslaught. He opened Follies in 1971, A Little Night Music in 1973, Pacific Overtures in 1975, and Sweeney Todd in 1979. The Seventies musicals challenged the illusion of simple American values. Sondheim was not interested in seed material that glorified the traditional American Dream, if anything, he shattered it.
The setting for Follies is a reunion given in honor of a theatre that is scheduled for demolition. Another composer might have looked for the sentimental moments, but Sondheim forces his two older couples to look back on their lives, to see the mistakes, to feel their pain.
A Little Night Music is Sondheim's most physically stunning musical; structured as comedy of manners, it is a play of language and wit, and music of the waltz. This play has a happy ending, but like Forum it contains a subtle cynical twist; to achieve the happiness for which the audience wishes, two of the characters must divorce. This beautiful play encourages Americans to accept divorce in their "happily ever after." It also contains a lovely song which questions the institution of marriage: "Everyday a little death. 4
Pacific Overtures opened in 1975 to help set the scene for the bicentennial celebration. The Broadway musical has previously had stories about Asian people. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote The King and I, which still tours around America, but Pacific Overtures is not The King and I. Where The King and I shows Western superiority toward a barbarian land, Pacific Overtures calls into question the imperialistic nature of Western culture, which by invading, has destroyed another unique culture. Pacific Overtures is a very powerful expression of shame at our cultural rape of Japan.
Sweeney Todd takes the audience back to London's Industrial Revolution; a time where the spread between rich and poor was vast. As Todd explains, "The history of the world, my sweet--is who gets eaten and who gets to eat. 5 (An appropriate musical to usher in the Reagan administration.) The musical shows a world infested with corruption. The judicial system is controlled by a rapist and pediphile who judges in relation to his own personal gratification. The most serious crime in the world of this musical is naivete
Amidst this serious and cynical spread of Sondheim fare, one of the most popular Broadway musicals of the Seventies was Strouse and Charnin's Annie. As an innocent orphan child tells the world:
The sun'll come outSweeney Todd might reply:
Bet your bottom dollar
There'll be sun!
There's a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world
And its moral aren't worth
What a pig could spit 7
Sondheim had become the Prince of Broadway, and he still was not creating typical Broadway musicals.
As America entered the Eighties, Sondheim emerged slowly with Merrily We Roll Along which failed on Broadway, but subsequently has had success on the West Coast and in London. By the mid-Eighties he had restored his artistic reputation with Sunday in the Park with George in 1984 and Into the Woods in 1987. Although the Eighties represented a time in America when the "rich got richer," and "greed was good," it also reflected a time when the "poor got poorer," and many Americans lost hope. Instead of continuing to shatter the American Dream as he had done in the Seventies, Sondheim's Eighties musicals reflected a need to stop and think, a desire to find some hope, and an aspiration to empower.
Merrily takes a look at the perfect idealistic threesome who intend to improve the world, and yet cannot manage to maintain their friendship. The musical is a warning, "tend your dreams. 8
It was better, Charley. We both know it.
But we're not the three of us any more.
Now we're one and one and one.
Nothing's the way that it was.
I want it the way that it was
God knows, things were easier then.
Trouble is, Charley,
That's what everyone does
Blames the way it is
On the way it was,
On the way it never ever was. 9
The musical ends on a most positive moment when three begin their quest, and since the plot structure moves in reverse, the audience knows the end. The impact is disturbing, but it allows the audience another chance--"to change the world" and "to tend their dreams 10
Sunday in the Park looks inside the process of making art, and suggests the need for a balance. Act one explores the world of workaholic George Seurat who is so obsessed with painting that he cannot acknowledge his love for Dot or the existence of his child. He does, however, dedicate himself to creating new art despite ridicule from critics. Act two explores the great-grandson, Eighties' George, who has learned to market himself and his art, but has lost his way. Neither George has managed a happy marriage, but young George has learned the importance of family shown through the relationship with his Grandmother Marie, and his ex-wife, Elaine. Before the end, George learns to balance his desire for success with his need to feed his soul through the creation of his art. He has not found all the answers by the plays end, but he sees "so many possibilities."<PRE>11</PRE> Sondheim shows the way and expects the audience to learn to "move on" through empowerment.
In Into the Woods, Sondheim and Lapine deconstructs fairy tales to recreate a world of hope and empowerment. First they question all of the underlying myths involved with the fairy tales which have confused humanity for centuries. The "love at first sight" and "happily ever after" themes are attacked directly in this musical. Cinderella and Rapunzel do not have the perfect lives they were promised after "happily ever after." Act two is full of questions about unfaithful husbands, common ground to establish relationships rather than appearances, and the sheer difficulties of life that require a good nurturing childhood to help people cope. Rapunzel, locked in a tower most of her life, could not handle the stress, and commits suicide.
Red and Jack each face a trauma which affects their growth from childhood into adolescence. The wolf may be slain and the Giant may be dead, but that does not erase the pain. People are who they are because of what they have experienced. One cannot go back to innocence; one grows through pain.
Finally to condense a very complex psychological puzzle, the four main characters realize that they must stop blaming others for their troubles, stop expecting someone else to solve their problems, and begin taking responsibility for their lives. They form a non-biological family, a community. They create a new world.
The Nineties are too close to attempt much of a generalizable analysis by decade, but Sondheim has begun his Nineties work with two musicals, one with James Lapine and the other with John Weidman. Each offers an interesting societal challenge, and certainly no one could suggest that his work has become softer with age.
In 1991 as America was becoming instantly and irrationally patriotic because of the United States' involvement in the Gulf War, Sondheim and Weidman opened Assassins at Playwright's Horizons. A musical about the women and men who have attempted to murder US presidents is more than a stretch for the Broadway patrons of Phantom of the Opera, and anyone would have to admit that the musical theatre audience had moved quite a distance from its beginnings with Show Boat or Oklahoma.
There's another national anthem playing.
Not the one you cheer
At the ball park.
Where's my prize?. . .
ByckIt's the other national anthem, saying,
If you want to hear--
It says, "Bullshit!"
It says, "Never!"--
It says, "Sorry!"
Loud and clear 12
Sondheim and Weidman chose a unique subject, but assassination is not sentimentalized or glorified. The musical questions American values. Guns, broken promises, assumptions about entitlement are all images which point to American society's need to rethink and restructure our values and our behaviors. And, what all these assassins share is their fame which Americans chooses to glorify, and Sondheim and Weidman question. Assassins is not an easy show; it does not resolve neatly; and it forces its audience to ponder its purpose. Its complexity challenges Americans to search for answers.
Sondheim's newest musical, Passion which opened this May of 1994, reunites him with James Lapine. Critics are baffled, trying to understand how Sondheim, after all these years of condemnation, would create a love story. After Company, A Little Night Music, and Into the Woods attack the concept of traditional love and "happily ever after," what is Sondheim doing, they ask? But, Passion is not a musical love story; it is 19th century Romanticism with a twist. Passion combines Romanticism in all of it emotional spender with a Nineties sensibility toward the problems with dysfunctional relationships. The obsessed woman learns to detach a little which captures the passion of her beloved. Once they each have some perspective, they decide to consummate their love. As all good Romantic heroes she dies, and her love lives on in him--but in a healthy and positive form, not in the 19th century haunting style. Passion is difficult to categorize, difficult to understand, but beautiful to feel and see and hear. This time one must let it happen and be willing to open their senses, rather than judge and analyze. Each musical is a new and different experience, but all the musicals challenge the individual and the society.
When the new Sondheim show opens, the critics gasp, and the Broadway patron is surprised because it is not what they expected. But, the Sondheim audience eagerly awaits his new show with great anticipation knowing that it will not be the same; trusting it will be different and exquisite. When an artist challenges societal expectations, and dares to challenge conservative convention and conservative thought, he or she will always have a societal struggle. Sondheim's societal struggle is his art and our nation's treasure.
1 - Gypsy, Stephen Sondheim, Jules Styne, and Arthur Laurents. 1959, Act I Scene ii., New York: RCA Records. London Cast, 1974.
2 - A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart, New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1963, p. 106.
3 - Company, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, New York: RCA, 1970, Act I Scene ii.
4 - A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, New York: RCA, 1973, Act I Scene vii.
5 - Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1969, p. 97-98.
6 - Annie, Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meechan, New York: Columbia Records, 1977, Act I Scene ii.
7 - Sweeney Todd, P. 9.
8 - Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, New York: RCA Records, 1981, Act I, Scene i.
9 - Merrily We Roll Along, Act I, Scene iii.
10 - Merrily We Roll Along, Act II, Scene vi.
11 - Sunday in the Park With George, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1984, Act II, Scene v.
12 - Assassins, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, New York: RCA, March 1991, Scene xv.
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