Don’t hang up

Today is the birthday of the musical theatre’s two most famous composers, Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Last year, I made some criticisms of Sondheim the day after his 85th birthday that greatly upset some people. And this reaction, I think, is evidence that the man has some rabid fans. Of course, every artist has fans of many a type: These two have written musicals that have entertained a whole lot of people over the years. They’ve earned a certain amount of adulation. But a rabid fan is one who sees red when even a small critique is heard. And that’s not using the old noggin. It simply can’t be that each and every thing any artist has done is automatically wonderful.

This year, Andrew Lloyd Webber has a new hit musical on Broadway, School of Rock. Good for him: I congratulate him on this accomplishment because it’s been 22 years since he had a new hit in New York, and 22 years is quite a long time. And 29 years is an even longer time: That’s the number of years since the last new Sondheim success.

And yet, to much of the world, Lloyd Webber and Sondheim are the big deal creative forces; everybody else is obscure, small potatoes. And that’s so, so… 1980s. Looking back, there was a 17-year stretch where Sondheim spoiled us all by producing eight really interesting shows. (Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods) It’s very disappointing that the 29 years after Into the Woods we got to see so little from a formerly prolific artist. One show on Broadway, and two off-Broadway, one of which was later remounted by a subsidized theatre on Broadway. And here I’ll throw in an opinion: the two shows that played The Great White Way were less than great and a little dim, Passion and Assassins.

I don’t think Lloyd Webber’s nearly as good as Sondheim, but at least he kept trying. The second richest of all British composers, he could have sat at home in his palatial estate counting royalty checks. Instead, he made the effort to premiere a number of new shows since Sunset Boulevard:

  • Whistle Down the Wind
  • The Beautiful Game
  • The Woman In White
  • Love Never Dies
  • Stephen Ward

Heard of them? His blockbusters of the 1980s – Evita, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera – had a lot of us believing he might come up with another hit far sooner than he did. Many cattily assert that these efforts failing to catch fire have a lot to do with the Lord Lloyd Webber’s talent. And yet very few criticize Sondheim for not giving us more to see for so many years. I am shocked – shocked, I say! – that the rest of the world lets him off the hook. As I jocularly like to put it, “Hey Stephen Sondheim: Whatcha done for us lately?”

We’ve got nothing like “publish or perish” in the theatre, but at what point does your inaction mean you deserve to get your poetic license gets revoked? And is someone’s 86th birthday an inappropriate time to ask this question? Ach, I’m in more of a mood to look at who are the true leaders of the last three decades, and also who influenced me.

The dominant show-writers of the 1990s were Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. While Flaherty often reveals a pop sensibility in his repeated accompaniment figures (oo-la, oo-la), the team’s strong suit is their theatricality. While the level of craft is exceptionally high, what impresses me is their ability to dig into the dramatic core of the story. This leads to some of the most emotional songs I know, such as Princess, Ti Moune and Our Children.

Ahrens also collaborated with Alan Menken, a musical Midas who writes the songs the whole world loves. Now, you might attribute Menken’s stunning success to having highly-promoted Disney films to write for. But his songs keep charting, and, yes, there’s an inevitable drive to bring these properties to Broadway, where, owing to the fact that today’s audiences love a familiar title and score, they run for quite some time.

A generation younger is Bobby Lopez, who’s also had chart-topping success for Disney, and, for the stage, wrote the two funniest musicals of the century, Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. I’m proud to have been aware of Bobby’s work years before others were, and can say the same about Jeanine Tesori – a much higher number of years in her case. It pleases me, but doesn’t surprise me, that the world has finally caught on the impressively varied brilliance of Violet, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Fun Home.

Great as those five are, I personally feel I’m more influenced by William Finn and the smart team of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire. Here on my desk are complex numbers I’ve been working on in which people argue. It’s the sort of thing Finn does brilliantly. His songs have fire and energy, but never seem to be far away from a touch of madness. I also love how his songs rarely outlive their welcome. They make a point, and end, and the show moves on – the brevity I aspire to. Maltby & Shire, I’d argue, are the best lyricist and best composer working today. Those tunes make turns: the melodies travel to unexpected places; the lyrics tickle and delight and pack an emotional wallop. When I hear What Could Be Better?, or One of the Good Guys, or, nowadays, Stop Time, I think, my God: these guys are writing the story of my life.

Flaherty, Ahrens, Menken, Lopez, Tesori, Finn, Maltby & Shire, I guess, are the great eight, far more important and influential (and, damn it, better) than today’s birthday boys. But let’s wish Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim many happy returns. …To the theatre!

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