Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sondheim’s Two Classics That Aren’t Musicals

Stephen Sondheim*

     Stephen Sondheim is the pre-eminent living figure in American musical theatre, or the American theatre in general.  His output has been extraordinary and more of his works are in the international repertoire than probably any other composer or lyricist, even though he’s never written a smash hit.   He’s had a number of popular successes (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, Into The Woods), some highly original, curious works (Anyone Can Whistle, Pacific Overtures – brilliantly revived by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre a decade ago, Merrily We Roll Along – beautifully rethought by John Doyle at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park this season, Assassins, Passion – a show I still don’t get), and the masterpieces (Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George).  He also wrote the
lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy.  Only his mentor Oscar Hammerstein and Hammerstein’s collaborator Richard Rogers garnered such artistic and popular acclaim.

     Sondheim decided around 2005 to publish his collected lyrics and this yielded a two- volume work that might look like a coffee table book, but which is in essence a definitive critical analysis of commercial American musical theatre from Tin Pan Alley in the ‘20s 
to In the Heights.  Finishing The Hat (the title of a song in Sunday in the Park) from 2010 covers his career from high school through Merrily.  The crux is not only his philosophy for evaluation, but also his clear-eyed assessment of both himself and others.  Some may cavil with specific opinions, but he is extraordinarily consistent and he nails why he made the choices he did from material and collaborators to words and consonants.  He loves Gershwin, Hammerstein obviously, Harold Arlen, Dorothy Fields, Kander and Ebb, and especially Irving Berlin.  He sees their limitations, however, as he enumerates his own.  An example of his prescience is his observation that Berlin doesn’t write in character, though he wrote some of the greatest theatre songs.

Sondheim with Leonard Bernstein in 1965
     Look, I Made A Hat from 2011 takes off from the suspension of his intense professional relationship with Harold Prince and his move away from commercial Broadway to the world of the non-profits and the more abstract with James Lapine.  Where the entire project reaches its zenith is his four act recounting of his ten year experience with a show that did not succeed – Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show – even as it was reworked with book writer John Weidman and three of the most gifted directors in English-speaking theatre.

Sondheim Studying the Seurat Painting
     These books are a master class not only in lyric writing and, to a lesser extent, composing, but also in the collaborative nature of the medium and the relationship needed between a composer and a director for a show to succeed.  Most tellingly, Sondheim’s works are incredibly malleable.  Except for Sunday, which is bound by period, they can be presented in a variety of formats, depending upon the vision of the director.  Doyle’s recent productions have cut to the bone stylistically by having the actors sing and play the characters as 
Sondheim with John Doyle
and the cast of Company**
musical instruments and vice versa and, by utilizing this method, he deepened the relationships and broadened the emotional ambiguity.  His generosity to both his contemporaries and the younger generation is legendary, but he still surprises.  Who knew that he would work with Lin-Manuel Miranda to translate a large portion of his West Side Story lyrics into Spanish or that he links primarily Yiddish-rhythm Tin Pan Alley and primarily African-American Hip Hop?

*photo by Fred R. Conrad
**photo by Amy Justman

I'm hoping Sondheim will write Cat...the story of me!  As you can see we're ready with the promotional stuff.

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