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date: 07 March 2021


Abstract and Keywords

This book examines how Stephen Sondheim’s work with several collaborators has altered the course of musical theater history in the United States. Consisting of twenty-seven chapters, it considers problematic questions of authorship within the framework of Broadway musical theater, focusing on intertextuality, direct influence, and original innovation. It discusses how Sondheim has integrated his aesthetic ideals and the postmodern sensibility informing his musicals, from Company to Road Show, with the commercial values of the Broadway musical. It also looks at Oscar Hammerstein II’s formative influence as mentor to the young Sondheim, the reorchestration of Sondheim’s musicals for different (and smaller) groups of musicians, the notion of the musical as a performance event, the politics of Sondheim performance in the United States, Sondheim’s interest in and sensitivity to audiovisual media such as cinema and television, and his subtle and often ironic exploitation of pastiche and parody. Furthermore, the book addresses questions of cultural, political, and personal identity posed by Sondheim’s musicals in the context of contemporary American society.

Keywords: Stephen Sondheim, musical theater, United States, Broadway, intertextuality, musicals, Oscar Hammerstein II, audiovisual media, pastiche, parody

Like Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls (1950), the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate (1948), Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (1966) and Chicago (1975), virtually all of Sondheim’s musicals are classics of American musical theater. Within a decade of their first performances, each show had attracted a cult following that led to major revivals in more or less continuous cycles. Since its 1970 premiere on Broadway, Company has been revived twice in New York and twice in London. In addition to large-scale regional productions and a legendary concert staging in 1985, Follies (1971) received its third Broadway revival in 2011, while it has been fully staged three times and been given a number of concert stagings in London. In the past decade, Sweeney Todd (1979) has been revived three times to great acclaim in the West End, and once on Broadway. Highly successful revivals of Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and A Little Night Music (1973) transferred from the West End to Broadway in 2008 and 2009 respectively, and in 2012 a revelatory London production of Merrily We Roll Along (1981) garnered what must surely be the most universal praise ever accorded the production of a Sondheim musical.

Like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, George Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hammerstein before him, Stephen Sondheim has achieved iconic status in American culture. What makes his work so important in a genre that has most often been viewed as commercial entertainment rather than art? Since 1970 the shows to which he has contributed have been the most widely debated, most artistically ambitious, and most experimental in approach to form in the musical theater. They have achieved the status of modern classics because, although they are not among the longest running on Broadway or in London, they have been more frequently revived On- and Off-Broadway, in opera houses and in regional and amateur theaters around the United States, in Britain, and occasionally elsewhere than those of any artists in the field since Rodgers and Hammerstein. Company represents a new paradigm of nonlinear musical structure, utilising elements of musical comedy1 and the musical play2 to create a postmodern form commonly—although unsatisfactorily in Sondheim’s view—labelled the “concept” musical.3 In sharp contrast to the work of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, the musicals to which Sondheim has contributed are commonly regarded by scholars in the field of popular entertainment as the most consciously and consistently critical of American society and values.4 The fact that they are studied in music, theater, literature, (p. 2) and cultural studies courses at many universities is a further indicator of their cultural status.

More than forty years after Roland Barthes proclaimed “the death of the author,”5 and notwithstanding Sondheim’s own insistence on the importance of his collaboration with talented directors like Harold Prince and James Lapine, as well as respected librettists such as Arthur Laurents, Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, George Furth, James Goldman, Hugh Wheeler, and Jerome Weidman,6 it is Sondheim alone who has achieved the status of auteur.7 In various ways, the chapters in this volume explore the paradox of a highly original auteur operating so willingly as a collaborator—a paradox that becomes unavoidable when art is created in an industrial context.

The analysis of a musical is a complex and often risky business. Given its hybrid form, there is no consensus among musical theater scholars with regard to an appropriate discipline-specific terminology or methodology for the analysis of musico-dramaturgical structure. It may well be the case that a single analytical approach is untenable or even undesirable. Whatever the case, the scope and ambition of Sondheim’s work as composer–lyricist—no matter with whom he collaborates as librettist—constitute a peculiar problem for scholar and critic, in part as a consequence of his dramaturgical ambitions as songwriter and composer of sung scenes:

When I’m writing dramatic stuff, I’m a playwright. This is a worked-out scene, and I can tell the actress how to play this scene, and the music is part of the dialogue. I can tell her why the music gets quick here, why it gets slow here, why there’s a ritard there, why there’s a so-called key-change here...because I have reasons.8

Conceptually, the hybrid mixture of component parts in any musical—dialogue, action, music, lyrics, dance, and scenography—poses a problem for analysis. Ideally the complex conjunction of elements that constitutes each moment of a musical should be comprehended as a musico-dramaturgical gestalt, whose separate elements interact in performance to create a hybrid, which is neither song nor dance nor spoken drama nor mime nor music, but a new ensemble generated from a synthesis of their various possible permutations. Even a relatively straightforward song-and-dance number like “All I Need Is the Girl,” from Gypsy (1959), is conceived as a complicated game of acting, singing, dancing, and instrumental musical accompaniment, employing the different combinations of acting-music, acting-singing-music, acting-singing-dancing-music, acting-dancing-music, situated in a particular scenic location that indicates both place and time period, and is lit in a particular way. While the number may be fully realized only when music and lyrics are staged by a director and a choreographer, the elements of scenography and dance must, in schematic form, be imagined as an aspect of its composition.9

In response to the extraordinary heterogeneity of the musical as a genre and in recognition of the limitations of their own specialist expertise, critics understandably tend when writing about individual examples to focus on the element they are best qualified to comprehend. In order to exploit the full range of complementary methodological and competing critical perspectives available, this Handbook adopts a multidisciplinary (p. 3) and occasionally an interdisciplinary approach to the analysis of Sondheim’s musicals. Musicological and dramaturgical scholars, literary and film critics, and musical theater practitioners are invited to explain his radical reinvention of the artistic form of the Broadway musical as a series of creative responses to various traditions of artistic innovation and popular entertainment, while cultural critics, historians, and sociologists reflect on the meaning of these musicals as reactions to the changing sociocultural contexts in which Sondheim and his collaborators have been living and working.

Chapters in the first section (“Intertextuality and Authorship: Toward Nonlinear Forms”) explore problematic questions of authorship peculiar to the cultural milieu of Broadway musical theater, tracing the play of intertextuality, direct influence, and original innovation from a number of complementary perspectives in order to identify authorial strategies as responses to the traditions of art and commercial theater that confront Sondheim and his collaborators with competing creative possibilities. In demonstrating how an artist as ambitious as Sondheim brings into play intertexts as wide-ranging as Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth (1970), three stage melodramas about Sweeney Todd from 1847, 1968, and 1971, the film Hangover Square (1945), the sonata form of the classical symphony, Bach’s St Matthew Passion, César Franck, and the Dickensian musical, Stephen Banfield (Chapter 1) identifies Sondheim’s genius as his extraordinary ability to integrate the commercial values of the Broadway musical with the aesthetic ideals of a highly cultivated auteur. Banfield’s multisensory analysis of “God, that’s Good,” as a sung scene in act 2 of Sweeney Todd, serves as a model analysis of the interplay of multiple sign systems operating in the performance of a single musical number.

Robert McLaughlin (Chapter 2) demonstrates how the postmodern sensibility informing Sondheim’s musicals from Company to Road Show (2010) manifests itself through the fracturing of the typically linear narrative of the Rodgers and Hammerstein book musical and through the experimentation with self-reflexive forms that subvert realist modes of representation to expose the uncertainties of the contemporary moment and to subject modern American life to interrogation from radically altered perspectives. Dominic Symonds (Chapter 3) further explores the formative influence of Oscar Hammerstein II as mentor to the young Sondheim, tracing Sondheim’s elaboration of Kern and Hammerstein’s innovations in the use of the “sung scene” as a dramaturgical unit through a detailed analysis of A Little Night Music, and illustrating how Sondheim deploys the palindrome—a structural pattern modeled on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s formal experiment in their groundbreaking Allegro (1947) South Pacific—as a compositional principle in Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and Sunday in the Park with George.

Chapter 4 interrogates Sondheim’s response to the mentorship of Hammerstein from a different angle. By highlighting the placement of songs as self-standing “turns” within what in performance recalls a series of items on a burlesque or vaudeville bill, I analyze the dramaturgical technique of songs that empower comic performers to act out the logic of character and plot in a metatheatrical style that pays knowing homage to the simple clichés of early musical comedy. The chapter demonstrates how, by avoiding the pseudonaturalistic conventions of the musical play Sondheim frees himself and his later collaborators to experiment with postmodern forms of nonlinear narrative. David (p. 4) Savran (Chapter 5) elaborates on the topic of intertextuality by interrogating Anyone Can Whistle’s relationship to the theater of the sixties. His incisive analysis of Sondheim and Laurents’s absurdist satire on conformism contextualizes the musical as a response to the changing sociocultural and aesthetic values of the Off-Off-Broadway theater scene in the early sixties, explaining the show’s ambivalent and unsatisfactory resolution as a result of its anomalous positioning on Broadway as an avant-garde musical aiming for commercial success in a highly conservative environment.

The industrial context of production reinforces the truism that musicals are not written but rewritten. The second section (“The Art of Making Art”) concentrates on aspects of craft and the aesthetic and technical concerns motivating the process of collaboration with producers, directors, scenographers, orchestrators, actors, and musicians under the material and economic circumstances of the Broadway industry. Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen (Chapter 6) examines the seminal role of producer and director Harold (Hal) Prince in the fashioning of musicals from Company to Merrily We Roll Along, identifying the formative nature of his contribution to the initial conception, visual realization, and thematic coherence of the shows and arguing that his work with Sondheim offered a new approach to production processes in the industry. Andrew Buchman (Chapter 7) complements these reflections on the problems and possibilities inherent in such a collaborative working process to provide a detailed outline of the many revisions by Sondheim and George Furth of Merrily We Roll Along, from its initial failure on Broadway in 1981 through a series of revivals, culminating in a more or less definitive version in 2002. Bud Coleman (Chapter 8) focuses on the function of scenic design and dance in accomplishing the full expression of each musical’s visual conception, highlighting in particular the crucial contributions of scenographer Boris Aronson, director and choreographer Michael Bennett, and director, playwright and visual artist James Lapine to the development of Company, Follies, and Sunday in the Park with George, and illustrating the collaborative nature of musical theater creation. Nathan Matthews (Chapter 9) collects first-hand accounts of the artistic aims of a number of celebrated orchestrators of Sondheim musicals and collates their commentaries to build up a picture of a recurring phenomenon in Sondheim performance over the last decade—the reorchestration of these shows for different (and smaller) groups of musicians. The impact on musical performance of John Doyle’s surprising use of “actor-musicians” in Sweeney Todd, Company, and Merrily We Roll Along in small theater spaces is explored by several orchestrators. Garrett Eisler’s chapter on the various incarnations of Road Show (Wise Guys and Bounce) (Chapter 10) takes up the topic of revision to examine Sondheim and Weidman’s relentless search to develop an appropriate musico-dramatic form for a subject that had originally attracted Sondheim as long ago as 1954, further illuminating the intricately interrelated processes of writing and staging entailed in the construction of a musical.

Chapters in the third section of the book (“Sondheim in Performance”) engage with the notion of the musical as a performance event, exploring different aspects of the meaning of the works as performances, as well as taking some preliminary steps toward constructing a production history of the Sondheim canon. Olaf Jubin’s in-depth explication (p. 5) (Chapter 11) of the way patterns of doubling in the casting of James Lapine’s production of Sunday in the Park with George generates new insights into the way meaning can be inherent in performance and production as much as in the forms of written composition. Through careful comparison of the attitudes towards art in act 1 (1884) and act 2 (1984), his reading of the acting and staging offers a concrete exemplification of the self-reflexive quality so typical of Sondheim’s work. Joanne Gordon’s personal account (Chapter 12) of the reception of her own production of Assassins (1990) in Los Angeles (2007) analyzes the significance of a performance of this controversial piece within the sociocultural moment of the Iraq War, offering a provocative view of the politics of Sondheim performance in the United States. Matt Wolf employs his extensive experience of the production and reception of Sondheim’s musicals in the United Kingdom (Chapter 13) as an American theater reviewer based in London to identify the wide range of interpretive approaches by British directors in both subsidized and commercial theaters to a number of Sondheim’s works whose repeated revival soon gave them the status of modern classics. As an international opera director whose 1987 production of Pacific Overtures (1976) for the English National Opera introduced Sondheim to the British opera house, Keith Warner reflects on both the pleasures and challenges of performing these musicals in international opera houses (Chapter 14), locating Sondheim’s artistic achievement at the point of intersection between popular and high culture and investigating the impact of increasing commercialization on art produced within the subsidized sector.

The fourth section of the Handbook (“Sondheim across the Media”) addresses Sondheim’s interest in and sensitivity to the range of audiovisual media, with chapters exploring his work for cinema and television, his adaptations of two films into stage musicals and the screen version of Sweeney Todd (2007). Sondheim’s love of cinema is well documented, but his collaboration with James Goldman in the creation of a rare original television musical and his songs and soundtrack music for films have seldom been subjects of sustained critical commentary. Robynn Stilwell (Chapter 15) offers a detailed, interdisciplinary explication of the absurdist musical dramaturgy of Evening Primrose (1966), illustrating the writers’ skilful integration of television studio drama techniques with songs to shape a unique piece that is commonly regarded as the earliest manifestation of Sondheim’s distinctive voice as a mature composer. Geoffrey Block (Chapter 16) examines in some detail the step-by-step process through which two films, Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and Ettore Scola’s Passion d’Amore (1981), were transformed by Sondheim–Wheeler and Sondheim–Lapine into the stage musicals A Little Night Music and Passion (1994), while Roger Hickman (Chapter 17) broadens the scope of the volume by taking into consideration individual songs written by Sondheim for several films, and focusing in some detail on the placement and meaning of the five songs he wrote for Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990) within the film’s narrative scheme. His notion of Sondheim’s “cinematic” approach to musical theater paradoxically informs the musicological analysis of the scores for Beatty’s Reds (1981) and Alain Resnais’s Stavisky... (1974). In direct contrast with Sondheim’s own opinion that Tim Burton’s commercially successful film version of Sweeney Todd is the most effective transfer of a stage musical to the screen, David Thomson employs his (p. 6) compendious knowledge as a commentator and reviewer of cinema to offer an incisive critique of the film’s failure to translate the unique qualities of the stage musical into a potent cinematic language (Chapter 18).

In the fifth section of the collection (“Sondheim across Genres”), writers reflect on Sondheim’s subtle and often ironic exploitation of genre conventions. Questions are raised concerning the exploitation of pastiche and parody, framing strategies, and the manipulation of audience expectation by the composer-lyricist and his collaborators, as audience responses to individual works are affected by the sophisticated deployment of recognizable conventions and styles of operetta, melodrama, kabuki theater, tragedy, musical comedy, opera, revue, vaudeville, burlesque, and the musical play. Four chapters explore the transformation of conventional subject matter by Sondheim and his collaborators through a process in which a wide range of preexisting musical and theatrical genres are reinvented through the play of modern sensibilities on older forms. Joseph Swain’s chapter on A Little Night Music (Chapter 19) identifies its musical and dramaturgical debt to the tradition of Viennese operetta in order to demonstrate the ways in which Wheeler and Sondheim subvert the most recognizable conventions of the genre to create a more cynical piece— “whipped cream with knives” in Harold Prince’s words.10 Marianne McDonald’s comparison (Chapter 20) of Sondheim’s first adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Frogs (written with Burt Shevelove in 1974) with the expanded version (in collaboration with Nathan Lane in 2004) reveals two contrasting responses to ancient Greek comedy, the first of which is sensitive to the mystical and poetic strands of Aristophanes’ original whereas the latter highlights the crudely sexual innuendo that animates the biting political satire of a society at war. Millie Taylor’s chapter on Sweeney Todd (Chapter 21) reveals how Sondheim’s deployment of music and song to evoke depths of feeling and intimations of psychological complexity produces tragedy from the stock melodrama of an urban myth whose various manifestations haunt popular nineteenth- and twentieth-century theater and film. Ben Francis (Chapter 22) responds to Sondheim and Lapine’s post-Bettelheim use of fairy stories by undertaking a close reading of their multiplicity of intertwined narrative structures to identify a thematic motif of disenchantment in Into the Woods (1987), showing the quest for mature psychological and moral insight in the musical to be not only an underlying aim of Sondheim’s alternative versions of popular entertainment archetypes but also a subversion of Bettelheim’s notion of the psychological function of fairy tales.

Chapters in the final section (“Sondheim, Identity, and Society”) engage with questions of cultural, political, and personal identity posed by Sondheim’s musicals within the context of contemporary American society. Stacy Wolf’s judicious analysis of the representation of women in Furth and Sondheim’s Company (Chapter 23) problematizes gender as an issue in the Sondheim canon that has until now received little serious attention. By pointing to the contradiction between the quirky intelligence and emotional energy of a range of female roles that have proved gifts for actors, and the restrictions placed on these characters by the play’s prefeminist assumptions concerning their socioeconomic status, Wolf reveals a significant “blind spot” within Sondheim’s neoliberal political construction and opens up a potentially fertile field for future critics.

(p. 7) Robert Lawson-Peebles’ examination (Chapter 24) of the artistic aims of Follies in the context of a parallel consideration of Ravel’s La Valse enables a process of reflection on Goldman and Sondheim’s Proustian retrieval of the vanished interwar culture exemplified by the Ziegfield—and equivalent— “Follies” shows. Explication of the musical’s multiple layers of allusion to both popular culture and high art of the period reveals the complex ambivalence generated in subjecting the mid-century myths of American society to the harsh light of the post-Vietnam moment, not merely indicating the astonishing variety of Sondheim’s musical sources but also exposing his critique of their ideology. As a sociologist, Paul Filmer is concerned to identify how Pacific Overtures maps the tension between the national and global conditions of late twentieth-century American cultural identity and their relation to the Enlightenment ideals of American society (Chapter 25). By scrutinizing the modes of representation of the principal characters and the processes of transition between traditional and modern societies his chapter explicates the meaning of the binary division of Pacific Overtures into sequential parts as it tracks the inevitable inversion of progress into tragedy. Scott Stoddart’s queer reading of the Sondheim canon (Chapter 26) concentrates chiefly on Company, Merrily We Roll Along, The Last of Sheila (1973), and Road Show in order to interrogate the relationship between Sondheim’s iconic status as a representative of the gay sensibility and his ambivalence towards his own homosexuality. From his discussion of Sondheim’s first characterization of an overtly homosexual character in the comic lyrics of “The Boy from...” to his interpretation of “The Best Thing that Ever Has Happened to Me,” Addison Mizner’s and Hollis Bessemer’s gay love duet in Road Show, as an artistic coming-out for Sondheim, Stoddart identifies the strategies through which Sondheim has challenged and remade the heteronormative paradigm of the twentieth-century Broadway musical. Raymond Knapp’s chapter (Chapter 27) concludes the volume by assessing Sondheim’s attitude and position as a progressive American artist. By identifying the complex attitudes to American society implicit in his work as, in Knapp’s words, “primary author” of musicals, the chapter at the same time analyzes his ambiguous status within the society as cultural icon. Viewing Sondheim’s aesthetic approach to the form as a sustained critique of what he calls the “Hammerstein compromise”—a celebration of “the American Dream” in its liberal, antiracist, and humane version—Knapp reads Anyone Can Whistle as a darkly parodic version of Meredith Willson’s celebration of small-town America in The Music Man (1957) before analyzing the complex nature of Sondheim’s reputation as American legend.

The twenty-seven chapters in this volume can surely leave little room for doubt that Stephen Sondheim’s work with several collaborators has radically transformed the history of American musical theater. If the first era in the development of the American musical as art form saw the triumph of musical comedy (1916–43) and the second witnessed the preeminence of the musical play (1943–64), the epoch of the postmodern nonlinear musical inaugurated in 1970 by Company must be regarded as the age of Sondheim. This volume aims to provide a comprehensive survey of Sondheim’s achievements and to indicate why they continue to exert a profound influence on generations of musical theater writers who have made his innovations their starting point.


(1) . Some critics have regarded the aesthetic principles of musical comedy with their unashamedly presentational approach to performance, as “Brechtian.”

(2) . Although the development of the integrated musical play by Hammerstein and Kern in Show Boat (1927) and Hammerstein and Rodgers in Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), and later works involves the convergence of the Wagnerian principle of musical integration with the dialogue-and-song dramaturgy of musical comedy, Hammerstein’s musical play format attempts to conceal the break between dialogue and song through the deployment of various devices that merge conversational dialogue with “sung scenes,” arias that function as soliloquies and group song-and-dance numbers that dramatize in pseudonaturalistic terms the social ceremonies of the community. Thus the disparate musical and dramatic segments are integrated in a motivic principle borrowed from the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, with songs being reprised and sections of musical material from these numbers being motivically deployed as underscoring at various points throughout the piece.

(3) . See Chapter 4, note 14, and Chapter 6, page 104, for further explanation of this term.

(4) . Popular entertainment forms are generally thought by cultural analysts to deliberately or unconsciously reinforce the social and political status quo.

(5) . See “The Death of the Author,” in Roland Barthes, Image–Music–Text, translated and edited by Stephen Heath (London: Harper Collins, 1977), 142–9.

(6) . Sondheim himself is always quick to point out the importance of the librettists as coauthors of the musicals; in the dedication of Finishing a Hat (2010) he listed every “unsung” playwright with whom he has collaborated.

(7) . The notion of the “auteur” derives from French film theory of the fifties, which regarded certain directors (rather than screenplay writers) as contributing the artistic signature that guaranteed the uniquely coherent authorial identity of their films, as opposed to the majority of films that were merely the products of skilful technicians servicing the industrial demands of the studios. In Chapter 27, Raymond Knapp uses the term “primary author” to indicate the preeminent status among his collaborators ascribed to Sondheim.

(8) . Mark Eden Horowitz, Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions (Lanham, MD, and Oxford: Scarecrow, 2003), 25.

(9) . Wagner was the first to identify explicitly the heterogeneity of art forms that comprised the manifold form of musical drama, regarding music as the unifying structural principle capable of integrating all the other art forms—poetry, painting, sculpture, dance and drama—to create a Gesamtkunstwerk. The paradigmatic example of Wagner’s “total art work,” while it may be useful in comprehending certain kinds of opera, is misleading when applied to the modern musical, whose various elements are not fully subsumed within the musical structure of the work but are interrelated in complicated combinations of performance modes that may at one point appear as separate components and at another be subsumed in the formation of a compound.

(10) . Craig Zadan, Sondheim and Co. (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), 182.