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PostPosted: Wed Mar 30, 2011 2:11 pm 
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This is the massive paper I had to write for my Development of Theatre class. Thought I would post it here just for opinions and suggestions (it's not due until April 15th). The paper was divided into seven sections:

Table of Contents
I. Who Is Stephen Sondheim?
II. A Biography of Stephen Sondheim
III. Sondheim and the Workshop
IV. Sondheim and the Concept Musical
V. Sondheim and the Theatre of the Real
VI. Sondheim Today
Bibliography


Obviously, I won't be offended if no one reads it. It's just nice to have a fresh pair of eyes :yes: Plus, I like having a back-up copy of this just in case ;)

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 30, 2011 2:13 pm 
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Some cynics claim that Broadway died years ago, but that set designer Boris Aronson has most cleverly disguised its demise. Recent musical theatre would seem to be a rather barren and treadmill affair but for the work of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim…
Sondheim’s songs are adventurous and complex, requiring as much from the listener as from the man who wrote them. Above all, Sondheim, along with his most prominent collaborators, has dared to break old traditions by stretching the conventional and rigid musical into a new-fashioned, adult, thinking-man’s form of entertainment
In a dismally bleak musical theatre, the hero has arrived in the nick of time.

(Zadan vii)


I. Who is Stephen Sondheim?

Stephen Sondheim is an American Musical Theatre composer and lyricist whose shows have been performed in countless countries around the world and whose songs have even been used in both film and television. He was raised as a pupil under legendary lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. In his Broadway career, which has spanned almost fifty-five years, he has won eight Tony Awards (including the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award), fifteen Drama Desk Awards, an Academy Award, and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, among others. His shows are recognized as a staple in musical theatre and are studied and admired by people throughout the country. Sondheim has created a cult following in the Broadway and even Off-Broadway worlds and is considered a master of the art by many theatre professionals.

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 30, 2011 2:16 pm 
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II. A Biography of Stephen Sondheim

[Sondheim] is the most influential Broadway lyricist/composer of the last thirty years of the twentieth century…He’s never been concerned with commercial success but rather with being true to his art, to his characters, and to the musical drama as an expression of his view of life and the world.
(Patinkin 333)


Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930 to Herbert and Janet (Foxy) Sondheim. Both mother and father worked together in a dress shop and were able to afford an apartment in New York City’s Central Park. His life growing up was a bit of an isolated one. With both parents working, he was often left in the care of a nanny, though he did have friends of his own. He showed a great thirst for learning, skipping kindergarten and going straight into first grade.

Music was common within his house, as his father would often play piano, sometimes even getting together with friends (one of whom was renowned lyricist Dorothy Fields) with whom he would parody popular songs of the time. Stephen Sondheim began taking piano lessons at the age of seven. His best piece was Rimsky Korsakov’s "The Flight of the Bumblebee." If his parents were hosting a cocktail party, he would often be woken up and brought out in his pajamas to play the piece for the guests. After two years of lessons, he stopped. In his childhood, he didn’t show much of an interest in music.

When he was ten, his family fell apart. It began when he awoke one night and found his mother sobbing. His father had packed up and left, leaving only a note. As it turns out, Herbert Sondheim had met Alicia Babe, a married woman with no children, while traveling through Paris for work. The two had decided to wait six months and see if they still had feelings for each other after that time. If they did, they would marry. Herbert and Alicia went on to have two children, Walter and Herbert Jr., while Sondheim’s mother used the money she eventually received from the financial settlement of the divorce to buy a farm, four miles away from Oscar and Dorothy Hammerstein, a couple with whom she had become friendly. Oscar was the lyricist and librettist who worked with Richard Rodgers on Oklahoma and The King and I, among other shows, and was known for spearheading a change in the structure of musical theatre. He eventually became a mentor to Sondheim.

When Sondheim was 15-years-old, Hammerstein suggested that he write a musical for his school (George School). So with two classmates, he wrote By George, a musical that depicted life at the school, with characters whose names closely resembled the names of their teachers. Proud of himself, Sondheim asked Hammerstein to read the show and evaluate it as if he didn’t know Sondheim, giving him his utmost honest opinion. He was shocked when Hammerstein panned it, claiming it was the worst thing he’d ever read. But Hammerstein added to that constructive criticism on how Sondheim could improve himself as a composer and lyricist, along with a specific outline of how to continue his education into the word of musical theatre. He told Sondheim to write four specific types of musicals:

• “For the first one, take a play you admire and turn it into a musical.” (For this, Sondheim used Beggar on Horseback by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly and turned it into All That Glitters, which he got the rights to perform for three or four shows)

• “Take a play that you don’t think is very good or that you like but you think can be improved and make a musical out of it.” (For this, Sondheim musicalized High Tor by Maxwell Anderson, but was unable to get permission to put it on stage)

• “For your third effort, take something that is non-dramatic: a novel, A short story.” (This time he used Mary Poppins and spent a year trying to write a musical version, but ultimately found it difficult to create structure out of what was essentially a grouping of short stories)

• “For your fourth, do an original.” (For this step, Sondheim created Climb High right after his college graduation)
(Banfield 14)

In 1946, Sondheim started as a freshman at Williams College, selecting English as his major and music only as an elective. However, he showed a penchant for music, starting with a composition he called the Oscar Hacker Suite. Sondheim proposed a college musical, but was rejected based on lack of funds. Undaunted, he continued to fight until the administration relented and Phinney’s Rainbow, written by Sondheim and his friend Joe Horton, had four performances in the spring of 1948.

After his graduation from Williams, Sondheim, along with George Oppenheimer, was hired as the co-author of a new television series called Topper. He was hired for $300 a week., but left after five months, having written eleven scripts for the series. His next big break came from his friend Lemuel Ayers. Ayers bought the rights to Front Porch in Flatbush in hopes of making into a musical. After he was turned down by Frank Loesser, he suggested Sondheim write three songs for the show. The show, Saturday Night, was to include such songs as "So Many People," "Class," "I Remember That," and "In the Movies." The show had its backers, but before anything could take off, Ayers passed away from leukemia. Without Ayers, the show fell apart. It would be almost fifty years until the show had its off-Broadway debut.

In 1955, playwright Arthur Laurents auditioned Sondheim for a new musical he was doing with Leonard Bernstein called Serenade. The show fell through, but Laurents and Bernstein (with Jerome Robbins) then had the idea to update Romeo and Juliet into a musical. Sondheim was offered the position of co-lyricist with Bernstein. He didn’t want to only write lyrics, but Hammerstein pushed him to accept the offer, telling him it would be a good learning experience for him. West Side Story opened to rave reviews, but Sondheim was ignored by the critics. To raise his spirits, Bernstein agreed to give him full credit for lyrics (as Bernstein had only written two or so lines).

His next show also came from Laurents, though this time he was originally hired to write both music and lyrics. It was called Gypsy, based on the memoirs of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. The show was written as a star vehicle for Ethel Merman, who was to play Mama Rose, Gypsy’s overbearing mother. Having recently starred in a couple of flops, Merman insisted that the music not be written by a novice. At her demand, Jule Styne was called in for music. Sondheim threatened to walk, but he was persuaded to stay on to write lyrics. This time around, he asked for a larger percentage of money earned.

After Gypsy, Sondheim teamed up with Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove and began working on a show for which he would write music and lyrics. Based on a play by Plautus called Miles Gloriosus, the show was farce set in ancient Rome and starred Zero Mostel as Pseudelous as a conniving slave. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum tried out in New Haven where it was greeted with less than stellar reactions. Jerome Robbins, who came to see an out-of-town performance, made the suggestion that the opening number be rewritten so as to tell the audience the show was going to be a farce. Sondheim had originally written "Invocation" as the opening, but was told by George Abbott, the director, to replace it with something lighter. It was replaced by "Love is in the Air" and then, after Robbins’ critique, "Comedy Tonight," which eventually became the show’s iconic number. The overall show was praised, but Sondheim’s score was torn down by the critics. He wasn’t even nominated for a Tony Award.

1964 brought about Anyone Can Whistle, a comedy set in a town where the administration is corrupt and the inhabitants of the local insane asylum, “The Cookie Jar,” are more sane than the "normal" citizens of the town. Starring Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick, the show suffered a number of setbacks, including the sudden death of Henry Lascoe, who was slated the play Comptroller Schub. Despite a strong score, the show closed after nine performances and was Sondheim’s biggest flop. He went back to writing only lyrics soon after, when he collaborated with Laurents and Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz?, a musical adaptation of The Time of the Cuckoo, also written by Laurents. It had a run of 220 performances, but was an awful experience for both Sondheim and Rodgers.

Sondheim didn’t get the opportunity to write for Broadway again until 1970, when he took a group of plays written by his friend, George Furth, and created a concept musical out of them. The show, Company, revolved around Robert, a bachelor, who is a friend to five married couples, each of whom has their own quirks within their marriage. Robert also has three girlfriends, all of whom are looking for commitment. The show was a comment on both marriage as well as commitment. Sondheim, who held cynical views on marriage, had originally wanted to end the show with "Marry Me A Little" and then "Happily Ever After." Director Hal Prince deemed both too negative, so Sondheim wrote "Being Alive" as the final number. The show was not well-received by audiences, most likely due to the cynical subject matter. It did, however, earn Sondheim his first two Tony wins.

Prior to Company, Sondheim had been talking to James Goldman about writing a murder mystery musical called The Girls Upstairs which would deal with former Follies girls and their respective husbands. The inspiration came from both a story of the Zieglfeld Follies reunion and a photo of Gloria Swanson standing within a wrecked theater. The story instead developed into a reunion of Follies with two couples as the main characters, but the stories of other characters being told as well. Like Company, Follies was directed by Hal Prince and had a production cost of $800,000, which, for the time, was an incredible sum. Again, the dark subject matter overwhelmed audiences and the show did not recover any money. Critics were mixed, though they did mostly agree the score was beautiful. Sondheim won another Tony for the show.

Next, Sondheim and Prince had the idea to adapt Jean Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon, but were rejected by Anouilh’s agent twice. They instead turned their attention to the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. The result would be A Little Night Music. The story was written almost completely in three-quarter time and its multiples, and was a tale of sex, infidelities, and mismatched lovers, but unlike Sondheim’s prior two shows, almost everything ended happily in this one. Glynis Johns was cast in the role of Desiree Armfeldt, an aging actress who hopes of settling down with a lawyer who is already married. Despite her lack of singing abilities, Sondheim wrote for her what became one his most popular songs, "Send in the Clowns." The show was a success with audiences. It beat out Pippin (its main competitor at the Tony Awards) for both Best Score (Sondheim’s third) and Best Musical.

The next Sondheim and Prince collaboration was Pacific Overtures, a musical that explored Commodore Perry’s 1853 visit to Japan and how it changed the nature of the Japanese society. The show used an all-male cast and called upon the techniques of kabuki and bunraku theatre to tell the story through the eyes of the Japanese citizens as they witnessed it. The show was unlike anything anyone had seen and pushed the boundaries on subject matter in musical theatre, resulting in a $650,000 flop. But it didn’t lessen the spirits of Sondheim and Prince.

Still smarting from the flop of Pacific Overtures, in 1979 Sondheim and Prince went on to create what would be one of their biggest hits: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The show’s score bordered on opera and told a tale of murder, rape, cannibalism, and revenge. It centered around Sweeney Todd (nee Benjamin Barker), a man who returns to seek revenge on the judge who falsely accused him of a crime and ravaged his wife once he was in jail. Todd kills off his victims and they are then baked into meat pies by Todd’s accomplice, Mrs. Lovett. Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury played the leads. The show ran 557 performances and swept the Tony Awards that year.

The next collaboration, Merrily We Roll Along, would be the last for Prince and Sondheim until 1999. The show was told backwards, used an abstract set, and starred a group of younger performers too inexperienced to carry a show. It was disappointing flop and brought an end to their teamwork for the time. The partnership that had dominated the 1970’s seemed to have come to an end.

Sondheim’s next work was Sunday in the Park with George. It starred Mandy Patinkin as both the artist George Seurat as well as George’s fictitious great grandson of the same name. The show was about changes in art from the time of Seurat to the present. Though Sondheim lost to Jerry Herman at the Tony Awards, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He and James Lapine (with whom he had worked on Sunday in the Park with George) followed up with Into the Woods in 1988. The show wove a string of fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm (Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel) and a new fairy tale (about a baker and his wife) within each other. Characters from each story has a reason to go into the woods and their lives intersect. The second act begins with everyone having already gotten what they wished. By the end of the second act, things have fallen apart and several main characters are dead. Sondheim won the Tony that year for his score.

The 1990's brought two more Sondheim musicals, one Off-Broadway, and a Sondheim play. The first, in 1992, was Assassins, a concept musical which looked at each of the presidential assassins and attempted presidential assassins from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. It questioned the idea that in America we are promised we can be anything we want and are assured the right to happiness, and asked how far that right extends. The second musical, Passions, opened in 1994 and won Sondheim another Tony. It told the story of a love triangle involving an army captain, his beautiful mistress, and his Colonel’s plain cousin, who is infatuated with him. In 1996, he and George Furth collaborated once again, this time on a non-musical play called Getting Away With Murder. The show, a mystery thriller detailing a therapy group in which each participant harbors a secret, closed after 29 preview shows and 17 performances, marking another flop in Sondheim’s career

Sondheim’s most recent show—another undertaking with Harold Prince—went through many changes and re-writes before hitting the Broadway stage. It premiered in 1999 at the New York Theatre Workshop under the title Wise Guys and told the story of two brothers trying to make money in the early 20th century, during the Alaskan gold rush, and takes them through the 1930’s, which saw a boom in Florida real estate. The show’s title was changed to Bounce and had showings in Washington D.C. and Chicago in 2003 before having a brief run off-Broadway in 2008, under the new title of Road Show. It was critically panned.

Sondheim’s mark has not only been on Broadway. His work has been seen and heard in film and television as well. In 1973, he and friend Anthony Perkins (of Psycho fame) wrote the screenplay for The Last of Sheila, a murder mystery that takes part aboard a yacht and details the strained relationship of seven friends in the film business following the mysterious death of another friend. The two of them also collaborated on Evening Primrose, a 1966 television musical starring Perkins, for which Sondheim wrote the music. Sondheim also composed music for the 1976 filming of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Reds, and Dick Tracy (the latter of which earned him an Academy Award for Best Original Song for the song “Sooner or Later”).

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 30, 2011 2:17 pm 
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III. Sondheim and the Workshop

In truth, the workshop notion is most valuable only when it is used for the creators’ education. Workshops with carefully chosen full-sized casts, staged to entertain deep-pocketed strangers are virtually worthless, certainly nowhere near as instructive as a performance with one person reading and one person (or two, if it’s a team) playing and singing through the show. I’m pained to say that I speak from experience.
(Sondheim 82)


From the inception of the Broadway musical, the creation of a fully staged show always seemed to follow a specific schedule. The show (including music, lyrics, and libretto) was written first and then a producer (or producers) was found to provide or raise funding. From there you chose a cast, collaborated with set, costume, lighting, and sound designers, rehearsed the show, and opened the show. The plan didn’t deviate and this made it quite difficult to understand the entirety of the show until the first day of rehearsal or even later. While changes could be made during the rehearsal period, there wasn’t always time to get these changes in, to fix the things that needed fixing, and to spot the problem areas in the first place. Rehearsals are generally a piece by piece process. You would rehearse this scene/song one day and another the next day. Sometimes the pieces weren’t completely put together until a week before opening. Any problems that arose then may not be fixed or, if they were fixed, weren’t fixed well. This often resulted in incomplete shows being staged and shows with great potential falling short because of insufficient time.

In 1962, Stephen Sondheim teamed up with Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart and created A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first Broadway musical for which he would write both music and lyrics. Hal Prince had taken on the role of producer and he, Sondheim, Shevelove, and Gelbart hoped that Jerome Robbins would agree to direct. Robbins initially accepted, but soon expressed some uncertainties about the show, which was unfinished at the time. It would be impossible for Robbins to see the finished product without taking the job as director, so the group came up with a plan: they would perform a rough run of what was finished of the show using no scenery or costumes or any other items. They set themselves up a large room with a sole piano, a group of actors who were being paid to read the script aloud, and a group of workers from Prince’s office to watch and offer their opinions.

The impromptu performance ended up shedding light on problem spots that had, until then, gone unrecognized by the creative team. By stripping the show down to its barest form—nothing but words and music—the creators were able to look more objectively at their show and understand what did and didn’t work. They were able to see it in almost full form while they still had time to make necessary changes, something that was unheard of in that time. According to Sondheim, had they gone about staging the show as they had been taught to by their Broadway predecessors, “this would never have been possible, even on the first day of rehearsal, for by then many of the adornments would have already been inflexibly in place: the cast would have been chosen, the sets and costumes in the process of being built, the orchestrators already at work.” (Sondheim 81-82). By opting to do a dry run, they escaped the rigidity of having to abide by what they already had in cast, set, costume, and orchestrations. Instead, they could tailor those things to suit what the show needed rather than the other way around. They could see what worked for their audience, what needed work, and what needed to be cut all together, and could do it while the show was still in a fledgling stage.

Sondheim and Prince continued this practice later on in their partnership when they brought Company to Broadway. George Furth (the show’s librettist) had only written a few scenes and Sondheim a few songs, but they decided to repeat what had been done for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by holding a small stage reading of the script and score multiple times along the way in the creative process. Sometimes these readings would be for Prince and Sondheim alone, with the former reading the lines and the latter performing the songs. Sometimes the design team, casting director, and employees from Prince’s office would be there as well. And sometimes they would invite a group of theatre professionals to see the performance and help pinpoint problems. They repeated the process for Follies, A Little Night Music, and every other show they staged during their decade-long partnership. Soon, other people in the Broadway business began following a similar pattern, most notably Michael Bennett (who had served as choreographer for Company and co-director for Follies). He used the workshop when he undertook the task of creating his most famous work, A Chorus Line. In fact, he used the workshop to write the show itself by bringing together dancers and hearing their stories about life in dance, stories that went into the story of the show itself.

This raw performance set the trend of the idea of workshopping, a practice in which a new show was staged early in the process with no sets or costumes and performed in front of a group of other professionals who can be unbiased in their response to the work. However, the idea of the workshop soon spiraled beyond its original purpose. The intent was no longer to strip the show down to its most nubile state so as to spot problem areas more easily, but, rather, to create a buzz about the show. Workshops now hire high-profile performers to come in and perform a rough draft of the show for paying audiences, often times with complete blocking and choreography. The purpose is no longer to enhance the show, but to fish in backers and create interest around the community for a lower cost than it would to put on the entire show.

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 30, 2011 2:19 pm 
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IV. Sondheim and the Concept Musical

“Concept” is this decade’s vogue word, just as “integrated” was the vogue theatrical word of the ‘40s, referring to an approach in which a story is told and characters are advanced through song. The watershed, the landmark musical was indisputably Oklahoma! Everything that followed can be seen as a development of it—either a rejection or a carrying on. Me, I’m carrying it on, making variations.
(qtd. in Gordon 7)


The book musical is a very new idea in the grand scheme of musical theatre, going back as far as Show Boat and Oklahoma! (both of which had Oscar Hammerstein II as lyricist and librettist). During the beginning of Broadway, in the wake of Vaudeville, Ziegfeld Follies, and other variety shows of that sort, most shows placed emphasis more on the musical numbers than anything else. A composer and lyricist would write songs first and would then create a story to fit the songs, mixing and matching them into the often weak plots. Most of these songs were not important to the plot or character, but served as the main attraction of the show. Some songwriters even reused old songs in new shows rather than creating a completely new work. With Show Boat and Oklahoma, Hammerstein created a new way of writing musicals: he began with the book and then he and his partner (Jerome Kerns and Richard Rodgers, respectively) would create songs that complimented the plot rather than the other way around. This one act revolutionized the structure of musical theatre.

Sondheim can also be created with the popularity of a new form of musical theatre: the concept musical. Unlike the book musical, the concept musical rarely follows a linear plotline, but unlike early variety shows, the concept musical is thoughtfully told, with each song specific to the show and serving a purpose within the story. The concept musical is, quite simply, a musical in which all of the scenes and songs revolve around a central concept or idea. Sondheim’s first foray into this form came in 1970 with Company.

It is important to understand first and foremost that Stephen Sondheim did not create the idea of the concept musical. We can see evidence of this experimental form of theatre as early as the 1930’s with the musicals Strike Up the Band, Of Thee I Sing, and Let ‘Em Eat Cake. All of these shows used musical sequences to satirically comment on American politics within a thin plot. The next development in the idea of the concept musical came in 1947 with the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Allegro, which detailed the life of a young man in the face of money and corruption, the main concept of the show being idealism in America today. Sondheim’s role in the development of this new form of storytelling is that he was the first to popularize it in musical theatre.

Company came about when Sondheim’s friend George Furth (an actor-turned-playwright) solicited him for advice on a series of plays he was writing. There were eleven one-act plays in all, each depicting two people in a relationship as seen through the eyes of a detached third character such as a friend or ex-lover. When Sondheim passed the plays onto Hal Prince, he made the suggestion that it be turned into a musical. Though a good suggestion, it posed the problem of taking several unrelated stories and merging them into one logical storyline. The solution was to turn the outsider (our narrator) into one person, making that character the sole connection amid all of the stories. This person came to be Robert (known to the other characters by various nicknames).

The concept of Company is love and marriage and the question of whether or not one can coexist with the other. The scenes have little to no relationship with each other, but, rather, serve to comment upon the concept. The show also makes a statement about the concept with the final song, “Being Alive,” in which Robert realizes that marriage is not perfect, but that it doesn’t need to be, that it’s meant to be a reminder of one’s life.

Sondheim’s use of the concept musical structure can also be seen in his 1992 show Assassin. This time, the concept was the idea of the American Dream as seen through the men and women who have assassinated (or attempted to assassinate) American Presidents, from the first (John Wilkes Booth) to the most recent (John Hinkley). In the course of the show, Sondheim and librettist John Weidman explore the mindsets of these men and women, as well as the effects their actions had on the country and other citizens of the United States. The scenes and songs are strung together solely by the concept of presidential assassinations and follow no linear plot.

As in Company, the characters in Assassins relate to each other only on the simplest level. Unlike Company, Assassins doesn’t really have one centralized character who unites them the way Robert does (unless one counts the United States as a character) and there really is no sense of growth or change for anyone. Whereas Company ends with Robert realizing that marriage can be a wonderful thing, despite not being perfect, and maturing to the point that he is now ready for that step, the characters of Assassins hold firm to their beliefs that the American Dream belongs to them, no matter what they must do to get it. The 2004 revival of the show upped the ante by having the Balladeer (the voice of reason and optimism in the show who often foils the words and actions of the other characters) become Lee Harvey Oswald after being forced off the stage by the others, creating more a sense of devolving for the characters rather than the evolution people come to expect with shows. No one learns anything by the end of the show; in the end, we, the audience, are faced with the show’s concept and are given the responsibility of interpreting it ourselves.

Since the popularization of the concept musical, the structure has been used for a number of musicals both on Broadway and off-Broadway. Musicals no longer needed to follow the formula they had for the last twenty-five years; with Company, Sondheim had helped push the musical theatre in a new and exciting direction. In fact, two of the longest running Broadway musicals follow the structure of a concept musical: A Chorus Line and Cats.

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 30, 2011 2:23 pm 
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V. Sondheim and the Theatre of the Real

Realism is the first, and most easily accessible, Modern reaction against the well-made play…Realism aims at verisimilitude of daily life. There is an emphasis on domestic situations, staged with accuracy of set, lighting, and costume detail. Realism wants to replicate daily life; it is based on Aristotle’s concept of mimesis. Mimesis, though, takes into account the contingency and ambiguity of real life that the well-made play eschews. There do not have to be happy endings or satisfying conclusions in Realistic theatre.
(Mackenzie 5)


I once was taking part in a conversation on an online message board regarding musical theatre. We were discussing the Jonathan Larson show Rent (which is based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme) and many of us were talking about whether or not we agreed with Larson’s choice to deviate from the original story and have Mimi live at the end of the show. Another person piped up, stating that a friend had once told her that there was a rule that musicals could only have a certain number of deaths in them and that they had to end happily. After recomposing myself and wondering who in the world had come up with that bit of nonsense, I began thinking about this, sadly, common point of view.

Why is it that people so often associate musical theatre with happiness and comedies? Why are people shocked to learn that it’s possible for musicals to have death and sorrow and all of the other ugly truths of life? No one makes a fuss about seeing a tragic play, but people become irritated if a musical doesn’t follow their Pollyanna views on life. I suppose part of this due to the popularity of MGM musicals in which the man and woman always ended up together (after going through only a small bit of strife) and all of their dreams came true. As much as these films will always be a part of my life, I appreciate musicals (stage or film) that don’t try to force rose-tinted glasses on the audience, but that allow them to watch real life unfold before them in musical form. Theatre shouldn’t present patrons with idealized stories, but make them face their own lives. The characters shouldn’t be archetypical people whose words and actions become almost predictable, but real people with the same complexities and uncertainties we all have. Unlike mediums like film and television, the theatre is a living, breathing organism whose popularity is based partially on the unpredictability that comes with a live performance.

Sondheim has long been known for taking risks with his art. For him, the commercial success of the work was never as important as the work itself. He wasn’t interested in people leaving his show feeling happy or thinking that life is wonderful. Rather, it was more important that the shows make the audience members think about the show and use what they’ve seen to question the mysteries of life. He also believed that performers should own their roles, not the other way around, something that Sondheim learned from Oscar Hammerstein:

“Instead of writing Madame Rose, you write for Madame Rose as played by Ethel Merman. It turned out to be very useful, because when I wrote Joanne in Company I wrote for Joanne as played by Elaine Stritch. I wrote Mrs. Lovett as played by Angela Lansbury, and Sweeney Todd as played by Len Cariou, too. It’s not so much that you tailor the material, but you hear the voice in your head whether you want to or not.”
(Secrest 134)


Sondheim’s foray into the Theatre of the Real began as early as 1957 when he joined the creative team for West Side Story, a show that, for it’s time, dealt with sensitive subjects and made no efforts to perpetuate the concept of happy endings and love enduring all. The show was a modern look at Romeo and Juliet as set in New York’s West Side. The characters—rival gang members—spoke and acted like real people. The core obstacles the characters faced—racism, hatred, territorial disputes, death—were pushed to the forefront. Much like the play on which it is based, West Side Story ended in tragedy with the star-crossed lovers torn apart. In the PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical, the show’s librettist Arthur Laurents states, “There was one area where we did break new ground and that is the subject matter. That was the beginning of it being okay to die, to be raped, to be murdered in a musical.”

Death in musical theatre had happened before West Side Story debuted. In fact, the first five Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals involved the death of a main character. The difference is that, despite the deaths depicted, those shows almost always had a hopeful, if not happy, ending. Billy Bigelow is dead by the end of Carousel, but we recognize that he changes and makes good for his family on Earth. Though Lt. Cable dies in South Pacific, our lead couple overcomes racism and gets their happily ever after. The end West Side Story, however, comes with little hope. Maria kneels sobbing over Tony’s dead body and the cold truth of our society (at least at the time the show opened) sets in for the audience.

We see realism in Company as well, probably one of the most unapologetically realistic shows Sondheim has written. It takes a hard look at the lives of middle-class people and the state of romance in various stages of life and maturity, seen primarily through the eyes of the endearingly imperfect protagonist Robert who is the very definition of an Everyman.

We know very little about Robert. He is unmarried and lives in New York and the show opens on the day of his 35th birthday. While his closest friends (five couples in various states of commitment) plan a surprise party, Robert evaluates his and their romantic lives in vignettes that play out in his mind. We see Harry and Sarah (a recovering alcoholic and food-loving dieter) engage in a karate demonstration that could seem like foreplay. We see Susan and Harry announce with glee that they’re planning on getting a divorce (though they will still live together and raise their children). We see David and Jenny experiment with pot, causing them to make a few admissions in regards to marriage. We see Amy suffer from a terrible and hysterical case of cold feet on the day of her marriage to Paul. We see Joanne and Larry make their marriage work through wry remarks and loving sarcasm. We see this, as does Robert.

The intention of Company was to portray real life rather than sprinkle the story with ideas of happily ever after and one true love. This is not to say that the show ends tragically or that Sondheim’s message about love is one meant to be cynical; instead, the show is meant to have an ambiguous ending. We know that Robert’s skewed views on love and marriage are changed, but we still don’t know what his next step will be nor do we know whether his impending venture into a committed relationship will end happily or otherwise.

This is the very essence of Theatre of the Real because life itself is so filled with ambiguities. There are no happily ever afters. Life keeps going, always filled with a new obstacle right around the corner. For the 1971 New York audience, this message wasn’t the one they wanted to take away from a show. “Broadway theatre has been, for many years, supported by [upper middle class] people. They really want to escape and here we’re saying, bring it right back in their faces. What they came to a musical to avoid, they suddenly find facing them on the stage.” (Sondheim, Broadway: The American Musical Theatre). The use of the musical to mirror the lives of those seeing it was a risky, but ingenious move on Sondheim’s part. While theatre audiences may not have appreciated having their problems enacted on stage, this made experimentation and pushing the envelope in musical theatre more acceptable than it had been in the years prior.

After Company came Follies, another musical that brought uncomfortable concepts to the forefront. Originally intended as a murder mystery, the show follows two couples whose histories are wrought with anger and tensions. The two women—Sally and Phyllis—had been performers with the Weismann Follies and have returned to the theatre where they performed to join a reunion being held for all of the performers before the theatre is torn down. Through the course of the evening we find out that Sally was really in love with Ben, Phyllis’ husband, and that neither couple has an ideal marriage. We also meet an array of other characters whose lives are in a similar state, from Carlotta, a has-been film star whose blaze of glory has burned to ash, leaving her with nothing more than bittersweet memories of her journey, to Hattie, a woman in her seventies who has spent her entire life trying to break into Broadway.

The show is far more cynical than Company had been. Rather than having marriages that are hitting rocky patches, you have marriages that are falling apart completely. Buddy (Sally’s husband) has such low self-esteem that he only finds himself attracted to women who treat him poorly (convincing himself that any woman who loves him must have something wrong with her). Sally is still carrying a torch for the man who left her some thirty years earlier, despite having a devoted husband at her beck and call. Phyllis is emotionally shut off from life and yearns for her youth. And Ben questions his life choices in “The Road You Didn’t Take,” a song that immediately calls to mind Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled.”

The show cumulates with a fantasy sequence known as “Loveland” in which the four main characters are forced to admit to and face their own life follies, ending with “Live, Laugh, Love” a number that musically shows Ben’s mental breakdown. By the end of the show, nothing has been resolved for our couples and they somberly leave the reunion as bulldozers wait outside to tear down the building that has housed these recollections for them. Though the destruction of the theatre is secondary in the overall plot, it is symbolic of the death of our dreams (it is said that the idea for the show was inspired by a picture of Gloria Swanson standing in the center of a recently demolished theatre). The men and women who performed within those walls had dreams of their own, but, much like the theatre, those dreams have grown stale and they must now face their own losses, as well as the loss of the theatre.

Merrily We Roll Along, which opened in 1981, was one of the biggest flops of Sondheim’s career. It also marked the end of his partnership with Hal Prince until 1999 when they reunited with Wise Guys. If Company and Follies depicted cynical views of love and marriage, Merrily We Roll Along, which was based on the Kaufman and Hart play of the same name, tears down allusions in regards to show business and the concept of being a success. Our protagonist is Franklin Shepherd, a composer, flanked by friends Charley Kringas, a lyricist, and Mary Flynn, a novelist. The show begins with Frank—at this point a middle-aged man whose commercial success has made him a celebrity—giving the commencement address for the graduating class of his former high school. The students—who have opened the show by singing “The Hills of Tomorrow,” the song Frank and Charley had written for their own graduation some thirty years earlier—are your typical high school students: wide-eyed, eager for their lives to begin, and certain that they can achieve whatever they want. While Franklin applauds them for their optimism, he also feels it his duty to give them hard truths about real life.

This is the starting point for our journey with Frank, but for the character, the journey is over. From here, the show works backwards to tell the story rather than the more traditional form of storytelling which begins at the beginning and works forward to the end. Because of this, the audience first experiences the end result and sees the devolution of our characters rather than evolution. Our first impression of Frank is that he’s an embittered man who chose commercial success over artistic satisfaction, which, for some, is a sin in the world of art. He is someone who has lost sight of his talent in exchange for security and who lost his true, if brutally honest, friends in favor of fair-weathered friends who whisper false praise into his ear while snickering behind his back. Mary has become an acerbic alcoholic who writes reviews. Charley—arguably the most level-headed of the trio—has remained more or less the same man he was.

As the story moves from the present to the past, we come to understand what happened to these friends. We see Mary and Charley attempt to maintain the friendship with Frank (now occupied with a new wife). We see the crumbling of their friendship, ending with Charley renouncing Frank during a television interview. We see the end of Frank’s first marriage along with Mary quietly maintaining her romantic feelings for him. We see their first successes and first failures. As we move back, the characters lose their cynicism and jadedness, becoming the wide-eyed eager people they had once been, much like the students Frank is speaking to at the start of the show. They have dreams of success without the risk of selling-out and are certain that, so long as they have each other, they can achieve anything they want, all coming together in the eleven o’clock number “Our Time.”

Some argue that by starting the show at the end and introducing the characters to us at their worst, Sondheim and George Furth (who wrote the libretto) create an immediate sense of disdain within the audience and makes it impossible for them to like or sympathize with the characters. I disagree; I think that the show’s structure helps emphasis the idea of holding onto one’s dreams and that, by knowing the people the characters will eventually become, the audience can’t help but feel their hearts break when they see those same people so full of hope at the end of the show. That is what makes Merrily We Roll Along part of the Theatre of the Real; it makes no attempts to soften the blow, nor does it try to justify the actions of our protagonist. It merely presents the story and allows the audience members to draw their own interpretations.

In 1988, Sondheim teamed up once again with James Lapine to write Into the Woods (they had collaborated on Sunday in the Park with George about four years earlier). Of all Sondheim’s shows, Into the Woods has the greatest psychological edge to it and delves deeper into the human mind than any other. The show isn’t just about one concept or idea; it’s about the struggles we must all face in life, the caution one must exercise when making wishes, and the importance of working as a community to battle the giants in our midst. Like Company and Follies, the show questions the plausibility of happily ever afters, calling upon fairy tales, the best authority on the concept of happily ever after, for inspiration.

The show combines four fairy tales (Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel) with an original tale about a baker and his wife. All of the characters have wants and wishes, the same as anyone, and are willing to travel into The Woods (the musical’s representation of Life) to achieve that which they want most. Along the way, they face obstacles and temptations, and they all must choose their own path to reach their final goal. By the end of Act I, all of the characters (with the exception of our “villains”) have gotten what they went into the woods to get…but the story isn’t over.

In the course of Act II, the characters must once again venture into the woods, this time to face off against a giant who is terrorizing their village. As in life, our motley collection of characters butt heads as each has his own idea of how to fight the giant and the happily ever afters they had each built up for themselves soon begin to unravel. Many of the major characters—including the second female lead—are killed. The two princes cheat on their respective princesses. Families are torn apart. The characters begin questioning the wisdom of their previous wishes, wondering if that is what has led them to their given situation. Yet, in the end, the survivors prevail against the giant and are left to face the destruction of both the village and their own lives. They have each lost someone, but they have each other and are willing to continue on the path of life. Is it a happy ending? No, but it’s an ending brimming with hope and the promise that any obstacle can be overcome.

Some people prefer to think of Into the Woods as a one-act musical, that it ends with the same happiness and joy that they’ve come to expect from the fairy tales (though, if they’ve ever read the original stories from the Grimm brothers, they may see that things aren’t always so wonderful, even in fairy tales). But by disregarding the second act, they are effectively losing the impact of the story and are missing what the show is really about. By accepting the happy ending as the ultimate ending, they are allowing themselves to turn a blind eye to the cold realities of life. If they refuse to see the entire show through, they may as well have not come to see the show at all.

A person should be willing to open himself up to all depictions of life, even those that may not be pleasant. You have to accept the bad with the good, the sorrow with the joy. I don’t think anyone in the musical theatre world has presented that better than Stephen Sondheim. “Musicals have always tried to keep the dark side of the culture out of the frame. Sondheim was the first person to try to sing about that darkness.” (John Lahr, Broadway the American Musical). His willingness to take these risks may have contributed to the fact that his work is not as widely accepted among New York theatre-goers (80-90% of whom are tourists), but they make for new and exciting shows that have continued to push the envelope and break new ground in the musical theatre community.

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 30, 2011 2:24 pm 
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VI. Sondheim Today

[Sondheim] is now the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theatre. But that is a somewhat empty distinction. Sondheim may be the last major creator of Broadway musicals, period, still actively devoted to the trade. He may have even outlived the genre itself, which was long ago exiled by rock music from center stage to niche status in American culture and is now barely a going concern.
(Rich, “Conversations with Sondheim”)


Sondheim’s career on Broadway has spanned over fifty years, in which time he has given us shows that, while not always commercially successful, had an artistic success and a close following among musical theatre fans. With multiple awards under his belt (including a Pulitzer), he has more than earned his place in the history of American Musical Theatre.

While he may not be quite a household name, Sondheim has also left his mark in pop culture. “Send in the Clowns” (arguably his most famous song) has been recorded over five hundred times, including recordings by Judy Collins and Frank Sinatra (and even won a 1975 Grammy Award for Song of the Year—the last song from a musical to win such an award). “I’m Still Here,” his hit song from Follies has also been recorded by a number of female singers. Sometimes, Sondheim has even rewritten the lyrics to better fit the life story of the woman covering the song.

Five Sondheim shows have been translated into film: West Side Story (1961), Gypsy (1962 and 1992), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), A Little Night Music (1977), and Sweeney Todd (2007). In addition, many of his shows have been recorded on video and sold, including Into the Woods (1988 Original Broadway Cast), Sunday in the Park with George (1986 Television Cast), and Company (2007 Revival Cast). Along with his book musicals, Sondheim’s songs can be heard in the musical revues Side By Side By Sondheim and Putting it Together. The show Desperate Housewives has also paid homage to Sondheim: most of the episode titles are either titles of or lines from Sondheim songs.

Sondheim has been named an inspiration by many a budding composer, most notably to Adam Guettel—whose 2005 musical The Light in the Piazza garnered six Tony awards, including Best Score—and Jonathan Larson, the award-winning composer/lyricist of the hit musical Rent. Sondheim was to Larson what Hammerstein had been to him during his early years in the business. So important was he in Larson’s development, that in “La Vie Boheme,” one of the most popular songs from Rent, Sondheim is one of the many people the artists toast to along with notable writers Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou.

In 2008, Sondheim was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Tony Committee and in 2010, on his 80th Birthday, The Roundabout (Broadway’s only non-profit theatre company) unveiled the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on 124 West 43rd Street, between Broadway and 6th Avenue (it was formerly the Henry Miller Theatre).

Though eighty-one, Sondheim isn’t quite ready to retire from his work. While he hasn’t produced a new show in a number of years, his mark is permenantly fixed within Broadway and the general theatre community. He will forever be recognized for his contribution to the art of musical theatre.

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 30, 2011 2:28 pm 
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Bibliography


Banfield, Stephen. Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993. Print.

Gordon, Joanne. Art Isn’t Easy: The Achievement of Stephen Sondheim. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Print.

Laurents, Arthur, Lahr, John, and Sondheim, Stephen. Interview. Broadway: The American Musical. PBS. WNET, New York, New York, 20 Oct. 2004. Television.

Mackenzie, Gina Masucci. The Theatre of the Real: Yeats, Beckett, and Sondheim. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2008. Print.

Patinkin, Sheldon. No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance: A History of the American Musical Theatre. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008. Print.

Rich, Frank. “Conversations with Sondheim.” New York Times Magazine 12 March 2000. Web. 29 March 2011.

Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1998. Print.

Sondheim, Stephen. Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2010. Print.

Zadan, Craig. Sondheim & Co. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1974

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