Fifty years ago, the Broadway musical was marking time. The songwriters of the pre-rock era were all past their prime, and except for Burt Bacharach and Hal David in Promises, Promises and James Rado and Gerome Ragni in Hair, none of their successors was writing scores that made idiomatic use of contemporary pop music, much less producing shows whose subject matter reflected the fast-growing social complexities of modern American culture.
Then, in the spring of 1970, Stephen Sondheim, a 40-year-old lyricist best known for writing the words to Leonard Bernstein’s music in West Side Story (1957) and Jule Styne’s in Gypsy (1959), teamed up with George Furth on a plotless show about courtship and marriage in modern-day Manhattan. Company consisted of a string of interlocking sketches about five New York couples who have in common their friendship with Robert, an affable 35-year-old bachelor who is tired of living alone but unwilling to commit himself to any of the three young women he is currently dating.
Company was played out on a chrome-and-Plexiglas set that mirrored Sondheim’s chilly vision of New York as a high-rise “city of strangers” who “meet at parties through the friends of friends /Who they never know.” By turns sardonic, joltingly pessimistic, and cautiously hopeful, it took Broadway by surprise, not only because of its innovative structure and décor but also because of Sondheim’s songs. Their pastel harmonies, rock-flavored rhythms, and elaborately rhymed wordplay (“It’s sharing little winks together, / Drinks together, / Kinks together, / That makes marriage a joy”) sounded like nothing that had ever been heard on or off Broadway. The result, Sondheim later remarked, was “the first Broadway musical whose defining quality was neither satire nor sentiment, but irony…told at a dry remove from beginning to end.”
Some found its tone off-putting. Clive Barnes, who reviewed Company for the New York Times, was “antagonized by [its] slickness,” dismissing its characters as “trivial, shallow, worthless and horrid.” But its frankness about Robert’s fear of commitment was a new and productive wrinkle for the Broadway musical, as was Company’s double-edged portrayal of love and marriage: “Somebody crowd me with love, / Somebody force me to care, / I’ll always be there / As frightened as you, / To help us survive.”
Though Sondheim was already famous on Broadway for his work on West Side Story and Gypsy, as well as the two previous shows for which he had written not only lyrics but the music as well (a hit called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and a huge flop called Anyone Can Whistle), Company established him as a creative force in his own right, an artist in touch with the hopes and fears of urban America. It ran for 705 performances—three more than Gypsy—and won Tonys for best musical, best music, and best lyrics. All at once, Sondheim was a star.
A half-century later, the great innovator of postwar musical comedy is now its grand old man, the Irving Berlin of our time. At 90, Sondheim is the last living link to the heyday of the school-of-Hammerstein musical, and Company and the shows that followed it (as well as West Side Story, Gypsy, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) continue to be produced, not merely on Broadway but throughout America and the English-speaking world. Taken together, they form the most significant body of musical-theater work ever written.
Significant—but not consequential.
For even though Sondheim’s musicals have long been admired by connoisseurs and professionals, they are neither widely popular nor influential, and show no signs of becoming so. As I wrote in Commentary in 2003: “Only one of his songs, ‘Send in the Clowns,’ has become a standard, and the original productions of most of his shows have lost money. At the same time, Broadway itself is now far less hospitable to musically challenging scores, and in recent years a growing percentage of the new musicals opening in New York have been ‘jukebox’ shows…whose undemanding ‘scores’ are pieced together from pre-existing pop songs.”1
This is why the only present-day songwriters who write “like Sondheim” are those who, like Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa, accept going in that their shows will never reach the mass audience of theatergoers who prefer jukebox musicals and shows based on recycled hit movies of the past to more emotionally demanding fare.
As for Sondheim himself, he has found an alternate path to enduring success. Starting in the 1990s, theater companies in the U.S. and England began to mount small-scale revivals of his shows, thereby introducing them to viewers too young to have seen the original large-scale Broadway productions. Once the extravagant big-budget trappings of their original productions were stripped away, it became clear that shows such as Company, Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1972), and Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1973) had more in common with the tough-minded marital-life studies of Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams than with South Pacific or My Fair Lady. It was this belated recognition that made it possible for Sondheim’s musicals to claim their rightful place in the theatrical repertoire.
Here, too, Sondheim departed from precedent to a degree little short of radical. While old-fashioned musical comedy seeks to reassure its audiences that love conquers all, his shows sent a different message: Some of their endings were happy, others not, but all were tinged with the bittersweet flavor of doubt. Ambivalence, he has said, is his “favorite thing to write about, because it’s the way I feel, and I think the way most people feel.” Be that as it may, it is not how most people expect to feel after seeing a Broadway musical. They long for the certainty of romantic closure, and Sondheim usually refuses to give it to them. It was not until his musicals started to be performed in front of more sophisticated audiences willing to take them on their own astringent terms that their future became assured.
Even when the fate of Sondheim’s musicals still appeared to be in question, few seriously doubted the merits of his songs, though their proliferating variety may in some cases have obscured their quality. This is especially true of the ones that make up the score of Follies, an encyclopedic catalogue of historical pastiche in which virtually every number recalls a particular songwriting style of the past, from the bluesy Harold Arlenisms of “I’m Still Here” (“Good times and bum times, / I’ve seen them all, and my dear, / I’m still here”) to the smiling good cheer of “Broadway Baby,” which evokes the Depression-era hopefulness of Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson so precisely that the results are all but indistinguishable from their model (“Still / I’ll stick it till / I’m on a bill/ All over Times Square!”).
Yet here as always in Sondheim’s musicals, each number arises directly from and is integrated into its dramatic context with a subtlety and thoroughness so complete that it is often surprising to see how comprehensible the results are when performed separately from the shows for which they were written. “The Road You Didn’t Take,” for instance, is a monologue by one of the show’s principal characters who looks back in middle age on his unrealized hopes with a blitheness (Sondheim’s word) that is contradicted by subtle touches of dissonance in the musical setting of his thoughts:
You take one road
You try one door,
There isn’t time for any more.
One’s life consists of either/or.
How is it possible that so specific a song can be lifted out of the score of Follies without undercutting its emotional effect? And yet it can, as is true of an astonishingly high percentage of Sondheim’s best musical numbers, so many that one marvels in retrospect at the accusation of coldness that has pursued him throughout his long career. “Anyone Can Whistle,” “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” “I Remember,” “Sorry-Grateful,” “Another Hundred People,” “Losing My Mind,” “Send in the Clowns,” “Every Day a Little Death,” “Not While I’m Around,” “Not a Day Goes By,” “Loving You”: These rank among the 20th century’s most intensely felt songs.
That said, it is hard not to wonder which of the shows from which they spring is most likely to hold the stage over the long haul. Do any of Sondheim’s musicals have the staying power of the golden-age shows whose untragic, quintessentially American idealism retains to this day its popular appeal? To date, American theatergoers have proved most willing to embrace Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods (1987). It is no coincidence that the first three, which deal with various aspects of modern marriage, have more or less “happy” endings, as does Into the Woods. And A Little Night Music, whose waltz-time operetta-style score is more immediately accessible than that of any other Sondheim musical, even goes so far as to offer its audiences a disillusioned but ultimately hopeful view of romantic love.
Conversely, Sweeney Todd is a full-blown tragedy of near-operatic scope, a melodrama that ends with a stageful of bloody corpses and dazed survivors. It was originally mounted on the grandest possible scale, framing its penny-dreadful tale of a serial-killer barber whose victims end up ground into meat pies as an indictment of the moral corruption of capitalism: “The history of the world, my sweet, / Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” But it, too, has proved unexpectedly amenable to small-scale presentation, though the show was also successfully filmed by Tim Burton in 2008 and has been taken, like A Little Night Music, into the repertoires of major opera houses.
Sondheim, however, preceded and followed Sweeney Todd with a pair of shows that left their audiences puzzled at best, hostile at worst. The subject of Pacific Overtures (1976) is the Westernization of 19th-century Japan as viewed by the Japanese, while Merrily We Roll Along (1981) tells the story of two close friends and theatrical partners whose friendship founders on the shoals of ambition—but does so in reverse chronological order, so that its wonderfully optimistic closing song (“Our time coming true / me and you, man, me and you!) reveals the show to be a tragedy rather than a celebration.
Merrily closed after 16 performances. In response to its failure, Sondheim dove even deeper into the recondite. After doing all of his breakthrough shows with the producer/director Harold Prince, he now teamed up with James Lapine, who directed and wrote the books of three shows whose themes diverged still further from the musical-comedy mainstream. The first of them, Sunday in the Park with George (1984), is about the French pointillist painter Georges Seurat, while Into the Woods brings together a group of stock fairy-tale characters to tell a tale that starts out as an exercise in farce comedy. And both take similarly disastrous turns after the intermission: Into the Woods becomes a didactically communitarian fable, while Sunday in the Park with George moves into the present with sententious platitudinizing about modern art: “Stop worrying if your vision / Is true. / Let others make that decision— / They usually do.”
No less eccentric, though powerfully moving when done well, is Passion (1994), a quasi-opera about an Italian soldier who becomes inexplicably obsessed with a sickly and unattractive woman. In between, Sondheim and John Weidman wrote Assassins (1990), a political revue about a group of presidential assassins whose premise is that the American dream is a snare and a delusion.
The line of demarcation that separates these two groups of shows is plain to see. Sondheim calls himself “a Broadway baby” who “think[s] in terms of the well-made play.” Not so Lapine, who “lean[s] toward lateral thinking, toward intuition rather than structural logic,” and whose theatrical style is direct and forthcoming—at times to the point of preachy sentimentality. Hence the difference between the shows Sondheim wrote for Prince and his later work, which he describes as follows: “A quality of detachment suffuses the first set, whereas a current of vulnerability, of longing, informs the second….With James, detachment was replaced by a measure of compassion.”
In part because of this crucial difference, the original productions of Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George both transferred to Broadway and had multiyear runs there. Not so Assassins and Passion, which have yet to solidly establish themselves in revival. After that, Sondheim fell silent, spending nine years working in vain to revise Road Show (2008), a one-act chamber musical about Addison and Wilson Mizner that went through numerous iterations before reaching New York’s Public Theater, where it closed after a month. Since then, he has done little but tinker with his earlier shows, confessing to “a diminution of energy and the worry that there are no new ideas.”2 None of the Broadway greats whom he followed had creative success after the age of 65, and the same, alas, has been true of Sondheim.
On the other hand, this is probably also due to his decision to break with the traditional subject matter of the Broadway musical, which sent him in a direction even less compatible with mass popularity. It is clear in retrospect, and far from surprising, that he was never wholly at ease telling love stories. In addition to being homosexual, which may have caused him to portray heterosexual love at an emotional remove unusual in golden-age musicals—albeit without any hint of incomprehension or hostility—Sondheim is said to have had only modest success in his own life with long-term relationships. It makes sense, then, that he should have found it difficult to portray such relationships on stage and that over time he would grow less inclined to try.
This, I suspect, goes at least as far toward explaining the mixed reception of Sondheim’s later shows as do their self-evident flaws. Yet they are noteworthy precisely because they are for the same reason so different from the “stolid solemn uplift equipped with impressive lumbering spectacle” (Sondheim’s phrase) that now dominates Broadway-style musical comedy. In the meantime, there are Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd—and if that seems a slender legacy, it should be noted that none of the other major theatrical songwriters of the postwar era left behind a much larger one. If we accept Frank Loesser as a master for having written Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, then surely Sondheim is as deserving of the name.
It is possible, of course, that a new generation of playgoers will fail to be engaged by any of Sondheim’s shows. But even if that should happen, the greatest of his songs, which epitomize in their uneasy fusion of yearning and ambivalence the dark voice of modernity, will undoubtedly continue to speak to their doubts about life and love long after the vapid anthems of a senile Broadway have been forgotten. As he begins his 10th decade, Sondheim surely knows that his praises—like his songs—will be sung for as long as there are listeners with broken hearts.
1 “Sondheim’s Operas” (COMMENTARY, May 2003)
2 In addition, Sondheim and the playwright David Ives are reported to be working on a stage version of two films by Luis Buñuel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel. To date, though, Buñuel remains in the workshop stage.
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