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Why Broadway Hates Stephen Sondheim


EricMontreal22

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Love this article about my fave composer. (I have many friends who hate musicals, and love Sondheim, so there is some truth to the fact he writes musicals for those who hate most things about them...)

Why Broadway Hates Stephen Sondheim

By Richard Corliss

Oh, the glory of Stephen Sondheim! The lyricist-composer, who turned 80 this year, is all over Broadway: the revivals of the 1957 West Side Story and the 1973 A Little Night Music, plus the retrospective-cum-autobiography Sondheim on Sondheim. For the Tony Awards this Sunday night, A Little Night Music has four nominations (including Catherine Zeta-Jones for Actress and Angela Lansbury for Featured Actress), Sondheim on Sondheim two. This spring the invaluable Encores! series at New York's City Center staged a whirling concert version of Sondheim's 1964 Anyone Can Whistle, and a few weeks later put on a gala tribute to a career as lengthy as that of the old musical master Richard Rodgers (with whom Sondheim also wrote a show). Fifty-five years on Broadway and he's still the defining musical voice of his generation and those that followed. (See 76 things to do, hear and watch this summer.)

You know you're an institution when things are named after you. There's a Stephen Sondheim Award presented annually by the Arena Theatre in Washington, D.C.; the first one went to Lansbury, who made her musical debut in Anyone Can Whistle, won Tonys for his 1979 Sweeney Todd and a revival of the 1959 Gypsy and can be heard this week on Broadway in A Little Night Music. A 43rd Street theater once called the Henry Miller reopened this spring as the Stephen Sondheim, with Dame Edna Everage (aka Barry Humphries), belting out "Ladies Who Lunch" from the 1970 Company. Music, words and bitter emotions by S. Sondheim. (See TIME critic Richard Zoglin's rundown of Broadway's spring hits and misses.)

If you didn't catch a Sondheim show in its original incarnation, no matter; he's has more resurrections than Freddy Krueger. In the past 21 years, Broadway has mounted nine Sondheim revivals (Gypsy three times, Company, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd twice, and Follies, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park With George and West Side Story once). There have also been three shows of the composer's songs (Putting It Together, Mostly Sondheim and Celebrating Sondheim).

With all this renewed attention, it's a shame Sondheim isn't alive to enjoy it. Oh, wait, he's still going strong! He hasn't stopped working, in fact. But to the people who put up the money for new shows, he may as well be dead or retired. Since 1987, when Sondheim capped his fourth decade on the job with the magical but grim fairy-tale musical Into the Woods, he has completed three new shows; only one — the 1994 Passion — made it to Broadway in its original production. Two others, Assassins and a Mizner-brothers biography, variously titled Bounce and Road Show, played in off-Broadway houses. Oh, the frustrations of Stephen Sondheim!

Rarely if ever has a living Broadway composer been honored so much for his past and so little for his present. He's the musical theater's ultimate example of an oldies act. Nobody wants to sponsor his latest, possibly most mature works. Only the classics, please. Play Gypsy for me.

Or "Send in the Clowns." That number, from A Little Night Music, was recorded by Judy Collins and became a pop standard. Other early Sondheim songs, from West Side Story and Gypsy, remain indelible entries in the Great American Songbook: "Maria," "Tonight," "America," "I Feel Pretty," "Somewhere," "You'll Never Get Away from Me," "Small World," "Together, Wherever We Go," " Let Me Entertain You." But it was Sondheim, still in his twenties, who wrote the lyrics, and Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne who wrote the melodies that keep playing on the collective iPod. As for Sondheim the total songwriter, "Send in the Clowns" stands as his sole greatest hit.

When he became his own composer, Sondheim had a different, more ambitious musical agenda. Traditionally, Broadway songwriters angled their numbers at least partly towards the non-Broadway listener; a show ran longer if some hit songs could be extracted. But Sondheim didn't care about writing hits; his lyrics were meant totally as the expression of the characters singing them, and his melodies were composed to suit the time the characters lived in. Thus the 1970 Company, a contemporary ensemble piece about married couples and one single man, took its cue from Burt Bacharach's angular songs and off-kilter tempos. The 1971 Follies, set partly in the Ziegfeld Broadway of 1940, was a pastiche of up-tempo vaudeville numbers ("The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues") and plaintive ballads ("Losing My Mind"). A Little Night Music, set in turn-of-the-century Sweden, had an operatic tone — and that one hit single.

The mature Sondheim, from then on, didn't write songs; he wrote scores. His melodies, borrowing more from serious modern music than from the pop idiom, were meant to challenge the ear, not soothe it. Producers begged him to write some "humma-mamumma-mamum-mable melodies" (his derisive phrase from a number in Merrily We Roll Along), but he'd throw in a catchy tune or sentimental ballad only at gunpoint. When they do appear, it's usually toward the end of a show — "Our Time" from Merrily, "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park, "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods — and, if you're in the audience, you can feel the people around you relax in gratitude on hearing simple, lovely tunes in a major key. After the daunting homework of the rest of the score, these songs are the reward: musical sherbet.

The Sondheim conundrum is that his lyrics are often so complex, they have to be heard twice — on the cast album, after the show has closed. The corollary is that his musicals are more acceptable as revivals than as originals. Revivals are to Broadway what sequels are to Hollywood: a way to mint money from familiar material. The problem with Sondheim is that, having torpedoed so many of his later projects, Broadway has run out of original Sondheims to revive. In their defense, producers would point out that his shows were rarely moneymakers. The longest-running show for which he wrote words and music was his first: Funny Thing in 1962. That ran for two years and four months; none since has lasted as much as two years. The original Anyone Can Whistle closed after nine performances. Merrily We Roll Along rolled off in two weeks. And once a show closes, it's just about dead to posterity. It's not like some indie movie that builds a cult reputation after its release. You can't rent Pacific Overtures on Netflix.

But you can play the albums, listen over and over to the numbers, let them grow on you and into you. Sondheim shouldn't be judged on whether millions of people remember simple tunes. He might be the most influential composer of the past 50 years, if only because so many younger composers borrowed from his astringent style. Of that period, he surely is the great American playwright.

The merciless, poignant psychological profiles in Sondheim songs describe modern man and woman with an acuity no other theater writer can touch. A lifelong homosexual who in Sondheim on Sondheim says he didn't find lasting love until he was 60, he is still the great chronicler of married life in all its ambiguities ("Sorry Grateful" from Company), cynicism ("Now You Know" from Merrily) and bitterness ("Could I Leave You?" from Follies). His lyrics sing and sting, as his characters soar and collapse. This is popular art for grownups with sutured hearts, and Sondheim is their confessor, surgeon and priest. He is the poet of domestic tragedy. That Broadway hasn't given him the chance to keep writing songs for new shows — well, that is a tragedy too.

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That was an enjoyable read. My knowledge of Broadway musicals is very limited. With me, what usually happens is I hear a song or I see a clip that I like from a musical and then I further investigate. When the sexy black and white commercials for the touring production of Chicago aired when I was in high school, I just had to know what this *thing* was all about. Learning that the oft lip synced black urban classic "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" actually came from a Broadway show, had to know what that was all about. I love the subject of acting and technique so I was really taken by that video of Sondheim teaching students his songs, I could probably watch him do that all day. Like Shakespeare with his very specific choice of vowel and consonant sounds and tempo to evoke a certain effect, I think it's really interesting to hear what Sondheim puts into his songs. Like SITC being written to a certain actress's vocal limitations, the idea that there's a lyric version and an "acted" version, I just think that kind of stuff is fascinating.

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I've only recently re-discovered my love for Broadway theater, but Sondheim, IMO, is to it what Marland is to soap opera.

Thanks, Eric, for the article!

*Totally* It's hard to accept anything else in musical theatre, when you're used to his writing--yet audiences, and critics (something often forgotten) rarely liked his shows when they premiered. I firmly believe his repertory will live on the way Williams, O'Neil, Hell Shakespeare has though, long after everyone's forgotten about Lloyd Webber, etc. (And I like lotsa Llod Webber :D ) It's also fitting how much of his work has been absorbed into the opera repertory, even though he's not remotely opera.

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That was an enjoyable read. My knowledge of Broadway musicals is very limited. With me, what usually happens is I hear a song or I see a clip that I like from a musical and then I further investigate. When the sexy black and white commercials for the touring production of Chicago aired when I was in high school, I just had to know what this *thing* was all about. Learning that the oft lip synced black urban classic "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" actually came from a Broadway show, had to know what that was all about. I love the subject of acting and technique so I was really taken by that video of Sondheim teaching students his songs, I could probably watch him do that all day. Like Shakespeare with his very specific choice of vowel and consonant sounds and tempo to evoke a certain effect, I think it's really interesting to hear what Sondheim puts into his songs. Like SITC being written to a certain actress's vocal limitations, the idea that there's a lyric version and an "acted" version, I just think that kind of stuff is fascinating.

That South Bank Show episode is awesome.

Why actors love Sondheim so much (Vanessa Williams actually mentioned this on Regis and Kelly of all places) is he writes like a playwright. There's always subtext to act out while singing his song--inthe lyric, but also in why the melody goes the way it does (which is one reason he's so different than opera where the lyricist is at the total mercy of the melody and composer, like Lloyd Webber as well, it's an after thought). When I did musical theatre, in workshops and the like, it's so much more rewarding to sing his song than many other great Broadway songs, cuz you can act out each line. Whereas usually in musicals a song speaks to one emotion or one story point, with Sondheim the song develops and explains, and changes the emotion--you're not in the same spot you were before the song as you are after.

For me the true joy of the best musicals is often how they're interpretated--Sweet Charity is brilliance cuz of Bob Fosse (and granted some catchy Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields songs), Chorus Line is asolutely amazing cuz of Michael Bennett (as the dire movie so clearly showed), even I think Phantom of the Opera works on stage largely due to Hal Prince. Sondheim is the exception to this for me (and that could be a prob--he rarely has a "definitive" version of his show, the closest is prob the infamous 1971 Follies production Hal Prince and Michael Bennett co directed--)

The danger is Sondheim has become a name that people use with Snobbery. "Well, it's not Sondheim now is it?" :lol: Ironic, as I doubt many of those same peoplehave even seen much of his work.

Frank Rich has a quote that speaks to me pretty deeply about Sondheim and his work:

""As we all should probably have learned by now, to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one's heart broken at regular intervals.""

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Just saw on youtube! Def the highlight of the Oliviers (London theatre makes current Broadway look positively sophisticated--I mean it's a fun show, but Legally Blonde as musical of the year? Then again when nearly every musical there is a jukebox show, or a movie adaptation with jukebox songs, like the shortlived Flashdance, I guess you can't be too picky). Lucky they still have great regional houses in London like Donmar, Menier, and of course the NT (can't wait to see the cinecast of Danny Boyle's production of Frankenstein this week).

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