Sondheim is a seminal figure in musical theatre. While the average American
probably knows a couple of his songs ("Send in the Clowns," "Comedy Tonight,"
"Putting it Together"), the true genius of Sondheim is available only through
an examination of an entire show.
Sondheim has revolutionized musical theatre is several respsects. He
consistently opens up the genre to new possibilities. For example, in
Pacific Overtures, which is about the Western invasion of Japan at the
end of the 19th century, Sondheim successfully combined Kabuki (and other
Japanese theatre traditions) with Broadway to create a piece that beautifully
demonstrates the Westernization of a culture.
Sondheim combines lush,
elusive, complicated melodies with brilliant lyrics to create character
introspection that rivals Shakespeare. (See "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday
in the Park with George, "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy, or "Live, Laugh,
Love" from Follies.) Sondheim does not sacrifice characters to witty
lyrics. In A Little Night Music, a lawyer, his divinity-student son,
and his new (virgin) wife sing concurrent soliloquies, each in vocabularies
suited to his/her position. The songs then intertwine to highlight the
different relationsihps among the trio of characters, with each character
staying in his/her own realm, but overlapping a bit, bringing out the
incompatabilities and possibilities in their relationships.
In the 1987 version of Follies' Loveland section, the character Phyllis
reveals her personality through the song "Ah, But Underneath," which is
remarkable not only because of its insight, but also because of an incredible
rhyme scheme used as an aspect of character devlopment. Phyllis has spent her
her life trying to create a good "society wife" exterior, and that has come at
the cost of her inner self. Sondheim brings the "society" out with sparkling
lyrics and a very up-beat melody, which is then undercut when the character
can no longer continue the act. Early in the song she sings:
In the depths of her interior
Were fears she was inferior
And something even eerier,
But no one dared to query her
But later continues:
But when stripped down to the essential --
Mind you, this is confidential.
Way down underneath she was -- !
She was -- ! She was -- !
Sometimes when the wrappings fall,
There's nothing underneath at all!
Sondheim's inventive lyrics are not limited to character songs. His period
pastiches faithfully recreate musical styles of the past while simultaneously
referencing them and commenting on them, such as in
"More," from Dick Tracy, which references "I've Got Plenty of Nothing,"
"I Got Rhythm," and "The Best Things in Life Are Free," while playing on
Madonna's reputation as the "Material Girl":
Once upon a time,
I had plenty of nothing,
Which was fine with me because
I had rhythm, music, love
The sun, the stars, and the moon above.
Had the clear blue sky, and the deep blue sea;
That was when the best things in life were free.
In addition to sparkling lyrics and developed characters, Sondheim's shows
examine deep social questions. His 1994 musical Passion explored the
nature of Eros, not only in our common erotic sense, but in the Greek sense of
a vital life force which holds life together. Assassins explored the
motivations of American culture. Its deep social stratification, emphasis on
fame and hollowness indict American society even more than the assassins.
Other shows have reproached the American dream, the industrial revolutions,
and the beauty myth, and still others explored the difficulty of connection
between people, one of Sondheim's most prominent themes.
Most Sondheim fans "discovered" Sondheim through his original cast recordings
(OCRs), so we encourage anyone who's curious to pick up an OCR at the local
record store or library and indulge. They demand full attention and repeated
listenings for true appreciation, but they are well worth it, for they can be
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