Sondheim-firsters. That’s what they were called years ago on an old now-defunct newsgroup: those fanatics who feel musical theatre begins and ends with Stephen Sondheim. They’re oddly dismissive of the two hits Sondheim wrote the lyrics for in the 1950’s, West Side Story, and Gypsy. Even more oddly, they’re full of praise for his short-run bombs, Anyone Can Whistle and Merrily We Roll Along. And they seem to wear blinders: The Most Happy Fella, She Loves Me, Once On This Island all draw blank stares. They haven’t bothered to learn much about musicals not created by their God, some of which are vastly more effective than anything in His oeuvre.
Music and lyrics: Alan Chapman
What’s the harm in all of that idolatry? Well, I’ve noticed a few things that, depending on your definition of the word, might constitute “harm.”
One is the influence on young writers. Because Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd and, especially, Assassins ventured into dark subject matter, a whole generation believes audiences will cotton to retellings of the Lindburgh kidnapping, Leopold & Loeb, and that murder in Queens where neighbors heard screams but didn’t call the cops. I sometimes wonder how people today are defining a “good time at the theatre.” For instance, the show that effectively explained the Leo Frank case, for me, was a big So What?
I’m not saying writers should veer away from dark subjects, but I feel rather strongly that Sweeney Todd‘s success has been widely misinterpreted. It’s not a good show because it’s dark, because it’s full of killings. It’s a good show because it’s fun. Sweeney’s vengeance is not what grips us; it’s all the suspense surrounding his murderous quest: will the sailor ascend the stairs before the throat is slit? Will the pie-buying public take to the clever repurposing of the victims’ organs? Can you kidnap a lass from an insane asylum by asking to buy a specific color hair? Fun (and often funny) stuff. If you put similarly outlandish actions and gags in your musical, I’m likely to like it. But instead, many imitate the darkness, despair and desperation, leading to many a dreary evening.
Here’s something every Sondheim-firster disagrees with: Sondheim has his strengths and weaknesses. He’s best at depicting the inner thoughts of the slightly crazed. Think of Getting Married Today, Losing My Mind or Moments In the Woods. He’s weakest at writing successful love stories concerning comparatively normal people. I’ll helpfully list the great love songs with music and lyrics by Sondheim here:
So, among the manifestations of Sondheimian influence is that we tend to get very few happy romances involving people like us. I like to daydream about what the world of musical theatre would be like if Lerner and Loewe were as widely imitated. Then we might hear lush tunes that touch the heart, and great aha! moments, musicalized, when someone figures out they love someone. “Ah Gigi!” – haven’t seen a ardent discovery like that in years.
Here’s why it’s problematic if our world has become so love-averse. A sizable portion of the ticket-buying public likes to see boys and girls like you and me falling in love in a musical. Call me crass for keeping an eye on the commercial, but have you noticed Sondheim shows, and their countless revivals all seem to lose money? There’s a real but unfortunate disconnect between what theatre people think is good and what theatre-goers enjoy.
Since the last time a new Sondheim show opened on Broadway, the Street has seen:
- Follies (twice)
- A Little Night Music
- West Side Story
- Gypsy (twice)
- Sunday in the Park with George
- Company (twice)
- Sweeney Todd
- Pacific Overtures
- The Frogs
- Into the Woods
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Plus, the two aforementioned bombs, Anyone Can Whistle and Merrily We Roll Along, were at Encores; also, this summer, Into the Woods (again) in Central Park. I’ve not done the research to prove this, but it’s a safe bet these Sondheim regurgitations constitute a huge percentage of the period’s remountings.
That’s all very good for Sondheim, but not so good for the theatre in general. It was easy to find an empty seat at all these reproductions. The public (at large) has a demonstrable indifference to revues about the loons who shot at presidents, plotless examinations of commitment-phobic men, or the somber history of Japan’s non-consensual opening up to trade with the west. Any list of most profitable revivals (Chicago, Grease) wouldn’t include Sondheim.
But we love him so! True, if by “we” you mean theatre insiders. Probably we can all agree that nobody loves Sondheim more than actors. And for good reason. He always gives you meat: subtext and/or dramatic conflict you can sink your teeth into. (I must note that I have personally witnessed performers in a theatre school focusing on naught but Sondheim, then emerging able to play angst but unable to feign romantic passion.) When Sondheim-firsters get to run theatre companies, naturally they often revive what they like. The public be damned. (Damn, coal-burning dithering ding ding ding…)
In a more general sense, blind adoration isn’t good because it’s never good when people walk around with their eyes closed. Could be fans’ inability to acknowledge their hero’s flaws annoys me most of all. When I’m in a combative mood, I feel like using this blog to knock some sense in the Sondheim-firsters. So listen up, Steve-Adorers: you know the draft of the lyric We’re Gonna Be All Right that Richard Rodgers wouldn’t allow in Do I Hear a Waltz? Read the script: it would be totally out of character for either of them to say any of that stuff!