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The Early Work

Between 1957 and 1970, a total of five musicals on which Sondheim was either the lyricist or the composer-lyricist were produced on Broadway. He had written some incidental music and various songs that appeared in a couple of plays that were produced on Broadway prior to 1957, but it was in that year that his name first became widely known, as the lyricist of West Side Story, the famed contemporary adaptation of Romeo and Juliet Sondheim was brought in to assist composer Leonard Bernstein, who was attempting to write the lyrics himself. Originally, Sondheim was supposed to receive credit as co-lyricist, but in the end Bernstein was so impressed with Sondheim's work that he had his own name taken off the lyrics. This show is so well-known that I think I need not describe the plot or the style of the writing in great detail. It is important to note that the show probably helped set Sondheim on the path of writing shows that tackled subjects that were considered unconventional for a musical and were experimental in form as well. For although there had been earlier musical versions of Shakespeare comedies, there had been no earlier adaptations of his tragedies in the American musical theatre. Nor were juvenile delinquents, gang warfare or the displacement of immigrants conventional subjects in the musical theatre of the time. And the way in which the show combined dialogue, rather operatic yet distinctively contemporary music and the use of dance to advance the plot, was really unprecedented. There had been precursors, certainly, but nothing quite like this.

It is also amazing, and somewhat mysterious, to see how many themes that would recur in Sondheim's later shows were inherent in the basic material, even though Sondheim was the last collaborator brought in to work on the project, when it was already well under way. For example, although most of the character are teenagers or in their early twenties, their parents are kept offstage and seem to have little influence on their children's lives. We do see four older characters, two of whom attempt to provide guidance of some sort but who are ultimately ineffectual (the social worker Glad Hand, and Tony's employer and confidant, Doc), while the two policemen, Schrank and Krupke, are completely unsympathetic and negative. We see two communities -- the two gangs, which are stand-ins for larger groups-in violent conflict. In the very first lyric that we hear, "The Jet Song," a couple of central themes are set forth: the desire for people who feel abandoned or unloved to create a community and a home of their own and to connect with others like themselves; and the spectre of death, always present in the lives of these young people who are engaged in literal warfare with another group of young people, is evoked.

When you're a Jet
You're a jet all the way,
From your first cigarette
To your last dyin' day.
When you're a Jet,
If the spit hits the fan,
You got brothers around,
You're a family man!
You're never alone,
You're never disconnected!
You're home with your own-
When company's expected
You're well-protected!

Elsewhere in Sondheim's lyrics, we hear an explicit, almost Wagerian connection between love and death when the famous love song "Tonight" becomes part of the "Tonight Quintet," sung prior to the "rumble" that closes the first act:

Oh moon, grow bright
And make this endless day endless night,

And Maria is an almost archetypal Sondheim figure, a young girl longing for experience who is being closely watched over by her very protective brother, Bernardo. Maria's parents, who are kept offstage, are undoubtedly well-meaning and loving but ineffectual in their new home. All of their characters are in a sense imprisoned in the oppressive urban environment in which they live. And the show includes the ultimate song of longing for a better place to live: "Somewhere."

Although Sondheim thought of himself primarily as a composer and only secondarily as a lyricist, he was soon once again heard from solely as a lyricist, when Gypsy was produced in 1959. The director-choreographer of West Side Story, Jerome Robbins, wished to hire Sondheim as both composer and lyricist for Gypsy. However, Ethel Merman, who was to star in the show, had recently starred in a show with songs by a new songwriting team. Not happy with the score for that show, she refused to take a chance on an untried composer. Gypsy was written in collaboration with the librettist of West Side Story, Arthur Laurents, and composer Jule Styne. The show was an adaptation of the memoirs of the famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. The main character, however, was not Gypsy, but her mother, Rose, an archetypal stage mother, a monstrous woman who attempted to control her children's lives and to live vicariously through their successes. This time, of course, a parent is actually at the center of the show, but she is one of the most destructive and negative parents in the history of dramatic literature. Despite her attempts to control her children's lives, by the end she is alone and yelling a terrifyingly direct cry for recognition, ending her final song (and the final song in the show) with the words "For me!" repeated six times. We also see her children, Louise and June, longing for the stable family and home that Rose has refused to provide for them:

If Momma was married we'd live in a house
As private as private can be.

Rose keeps both girls imprisoned in their vaudeville act, literally keeping them little girls, not even allowing them to know how old they really are, refusing to allow them to become adults. In the end though, we see Louise lose her innocence. We see how Rose has created a desperate need for recognition in Louise, the daughter she has shunted aside in the belief that she was less talented than her sister, until Louise essentially agrees to become a stripper in hopes of winning her mother's approval. It is once again amazing how Sondheim, on his second show (but also his second show with Laurents and Robbins, which may have a lot to do with it), somehow worked on a piece with so many of the themes that would continually recur in the later shows.

Gypsy was a hit. Sondheim, whose work on West Side Story had received little critical recognition, was now starting to establish himself as a distinctive voice, but, to his frustration, only as a lyricist. Undoubtedly, like Rose and Louise, Sondheim also longed for recognition.

At last, in 1962, Sondheim reached Broadway as composer-lyricist of a hit musical, when A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was produced. Sondheim once again worked with collaborators who were well-established. The book was co-authored by Burt Shevelove, who had worked as a comedy writer, director and occasional lyricist on Broadway and in television, and Larry Gelbart, who was known primarily as a television writer at that time. Legendary director George Abbott was at the helm. Abbott was particularly famed for his work on farces and musical, and thus this musical farce seemed ideally suited to his skills. This show borrowed characters and situations from several of the comedies of the Ancient Roman writer Plautus, from which an entirely new plot was created. Though Plautus' plays were rarely produced any longer, Sondheim felt they were still funny after 2,200 years.

Production on both West Side Story and Gypsy had gone unusually smoothly compared with most Broadway musicals, even compared to most shows that went on to be hits. Forum, however, was in serious trouble during its out-of-town tryout, but Sondheim proved himself adept at writing new songs under pressure. When Forum went on to become a hit, it might have been expected that Sondheim would be established as an important composer-lyricist, but his work was virtually ignored by the critics. Perhaps the problem was that the marvelously inventive score was too out of sync stylistically with the show's book, which, though elegantly written, was, essentially, low comedy. The score, on the other hand, had a verbal and musical sophistication that was perhaps jarring in this context. Perhaps it was, in fact, this musical sophistication-the off-kilter rhythms and unexpected melodic turns that permeate the score-that contributed to the lack of recognition.

Although some of the themes that are present in Sondheim's other shows are here as well, they are not dwelled on with the same intensity. Nonetheless, the central character, Pseudolus, the conniving slave whose longing to be free drives the show forward, is essentially imprisoned and wants to get out. As brilliantly set out by Sondheim in the song "Free," he wishes to achieve recognition as an independent human being:

I'll be Pseudolus the founder of a family,
I'll be Pseudolus the pillar of society,
I'll be Pseudolus the man if I can only be [free]

Philia, the virginal courtesan with whom Pseudolus' young master, Hero, is in love, has been separated from her parents and is being kept more or less imprisoned by Lycus, the courtesan dealer who owns her. And Hero's mother is a dominant, overprotective mother (she is named Domina), while his father, Senex (from the same root as senile), is certainly as ineffectual as they come. Of course, these characters are all ancient theatrical archetypes, making this a good time to point out that I'm not trying to imply that these themes are unique to Sondheim's work, just that they are repeatedly present.

Continue: Sondheim's next show, Anyone Can Whistle...

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