Stephen Sondheim Essay - Critical Essays


The most critically acclaimed writer of music and lyrics for Broadway-style musicals in the late twentieth century, Stephen Sondheim has advanced the sophistication of the musical form through his experimentation with content and musical style. One of American musical theater’s contributions to drama is the integration of spoken words and music within a production. The majority of Sondheim’s lyrics make sense only when sung by the character for whom they are written. Much popular American music earlier in the century came from musical theater. With the exception of “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, Sondheim’s songs have not enjoyed popularity, in large part because their meaning is so specific to the dramatic context for which they were written.

The sophistication of Sondheim’s compositions has also been an important element in elevating critical assessment of the musical theater genre, which has often been dismissed as pure entertainment rather than serious drama. Sondheim’s musical influences range from classical, as seen in the Gregorian chant motif in the score of Sweeney Todd, to Asian motifs in Pacific Overtures, to contemporary popular music from musical theater and film.

Sondheim’s drama, as well, is notable for the range of its sources and themes. For example, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a farce based on the works of the Roman playwright Plautus, Pacific Overtures is styled after Japanese Kabuki theater, and Sunday in the Park with George draws on the life and work of French Impressionist painter Georges Seurat. Although collaborative work and drawing on preexisting sources for materials is within the tradition of musical theater, Sondheim’s multiple references are also consistent with the practice of postmodernist writers of self-consciously borrowing from existing works. Musical theater, and Sondheim’s works in particular, epitomize the postmodernist tendency to reinterpret earlier forms for contemporary uses.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Based on plays written by the Roman playwright Plautus, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a farce, with the plot centering on men lusting for beautiful prostitutes and plot twists deriving from coincidences and mistaken identities.

The show’s bawdy content and farcical nature pushed the limits of musical theater. The drama is framed as a play-within-a-play, a theatrical device that allows a play to be self-conscious about itself and its intentions. Beginning with the chorus of Greek drama, a tradition has long existed in the theater of voices external to the drama offering commentary on the events. However, most twentieth century drama presents characters going about their business as if unaware of the audience. The framing of Sondheim’s drama both ties the play to its classical sources and invites the audience to adopt, despite the lighthearted subject matter, a critical attitude toward the work, as the play offers an explanation of itself as comedy with details...

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