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Changing the World: An Introduction to Sondheim by Alan Gomberg

There are some artists who are great pioneers, creating new techniques with which to express their ideas. There are artists who consolidate the techniques already created by others and perfect the execution of those techniques. And then there are those who seem able to assimilate the innovations of their predecessors, raising the level of craftsmanship in their chosen genre to an unprecedentedly high level, while simultaneously exploring new areas of expression and form. It is to this latter group that Stephen Sondheim belongs.

Musicals are one of the most collaborative of art forms, and if we try to generalize about Sondheim's shows, we run the risk of ignoring the contributions of his co-creators. Nonetheless, a close look at his work suggests that, no matter how stylistically distinctive each of his shows may be, Sondheim has, from his earliest work onward, gravitated toward certain themes repeatedly. For example, children who have been abandoned by or separated from their parents, or have somehow been parted from them, appear in many of the shows. The parents or substitute parent-figures whom we do see are usually either well-meaning but ineffectual, or destructive and negative. In many of the shows, we see a young person (or sometimes more than one) who has a led sheltered existence, and who loses his or her innocence during the course of the action. In general, the loss of innocence and youthful ideals is another theme that keeps recurring in Sondheim's shows. A related motif is the tendency of many of his characters to romanticize the past: the time when they were young. And related to the general theme of parent figures are the appearances of many characters who attempt to teach or mentor some younger or less experienced person. Sometimes the teacher or parent figure does this out of altruism and with selfless intentions. Other times even if the intentions are good, the message delivered is harmful or negative. There are also a number of instances in which a child is kept prisoner, either literally or figuratively, often by the parent or parent-substitute. Imprisonment of one sort or another is another recurring theme.

Many of the great musicals focus on a conflict between an individual and a community, or sometimes on a conflict between two communities, and this is a dramatic situation that often appears in Sondheim's shows. Often the individual will be an outsider who wishes to be accepted by the community and has been rejected or cast out from it. Other times it is the outsider who has rejected the community and its values and beliefs. Sondheim even wrote a show in which a group of people who see themselves as outsiders form their own subversive community, the objective of which is to destroy and undermine the main community, which they think has rejected or failed to appreciate them. Indeed, the characters in Sondheim's shows are often searching for acceptance and recognition. Many of them are trying to transform both themselves and the world in which they live. This is often a world in which all their possibilities seem extremely circumscribed. It is a world filled with moral uncertainty, a world in which all values are relative, but one in which the inhabitants keep trying to find redemption and salvation. Many of his major characters are obsessed with trying to make the world a better place, sometimes for truly altruistic reasons, but other times their intent seems to be simply to impose their will on the world. There are several ways in which they try to find salvation or make the world a better place. Some attempt to create a home or a family for themselves and for others. Others believe they can do it by creating art; others by finding love; and still others by committing murder. Sondheim's characters keep trying to understand their place in the world, their purpose. They want to connect with others. They keep looking, sometimes obsessively, for recognition, fame, to be regarded as important. This is usually related to their need to feel loved and accepted. When this "connection" doesn't happen, they sometimes turn violent or go mad. Death, and what we can do to defeat or at least come to terms with it, is frequently on people's minds in Sondheim's shows. Although love, which may lead to family and children, is one of the ways the characters in Sondheim's shows often try to defeat death, only rarely does love come easily to anyone in Sondheim's world. Often this is because, especially in the cases of many of the protagonists, they are emotionally reserved and afraid or unwilling to admit their true feelings.

This consistency, this sense that there is a worldview that permeates Sondheim's work, is all the more remarkable because Sondheim works in one of the most collaborative of genres. When a writer is responsible for the book and the lyrics -- as, for example, Oscar Hammerstein and Alan Jay Lerner, were-that writer may be more able to regularly address the same concerns than a composer-lyricist can. Nonetheless, Sondheim has managed to create a body of work that is clearly of a piece, despite the fact that many of the shows that he has co-created have been projects that were brought to him by his collaborators, not ideas that he originated. Undoubtedly, part of the explanation for this is that he tends to work with writers and directors who are in tune with his worldview. Furthermore, however much Sondheim may see himself as someone who is enjoys and is good at "imitating" another writer's style (as he stated in a conversation with Sam Mendes that was broadcast when Mendes's production of Company was shown on British television), he clearly influences his collaborators as much as he is influenced by him.

Continue: The Early Work

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