Stephen Sondheim Essay - Sondheim, Stephen (Drama Criticism)

Sondheim, Stephen (Drama Criticism)


Stephen Sondheim 1930-

(Full name Stephen Joshua Sondheim) American composer, lyricist, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents criticism on Sondheim's dramatic works from 1978 through 2002.

Widely considered to be one of the foremost composers and lyricists of modern musicals, Sondheim has revolutionized American musical theater, although his work has been only moderately successful at the box office. His productions typically include themes of disillusionment, despair, and disappointment—elements that were rarely incorporated into musicals before his era. In his work, Sondheim has spurned such long-standing traditions of musical theater as catchy melodies and linear plots, and instead worked introspective and thematic material into his compositions. Some critics have characterized his lyrics as stylistically sophisticated, while others have deemed them cold and unromantic. However, most drama scholars agree that Sondheim's innovative stagings, alternative dramatic resolutions, and explicit commentary on prominent social issues have expanded the possibilities for musical theater.

Biographical Information

Born on March 22, 1930, Sondheim was the only child of an affluent New York City couple. His father was a successful clothing manufacturer and skilled pianist, and his mother was a talented dress designer. Sondheim's parents divorced when he was ten years old. Many critics consider Sondheim's dysfunctional relationship with his mother to be a major source of dark themes regarding love and marriage apparent in much of his work. Sondheim and his mother moved from New York to a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, three miles from the family of Oscar Hammerstein II, a renowned Broadway composer and lyricist, with whom he eventually became acquainted. As their relationship deepened, Hammerstein became a surrogate father figure for Sondheim, encouraging the boy's developing musical ability and influencing his later work. After two years at the New York Military Academy, Sondheim completed his secondary education at a Quaker boarding school and entered Williams College. Upon graduation in 1950, he accepted a two-year fellowship that allowed him to study with composer Milton Babbitt, another major influence on his work, and later moved to live with his father in New York City. There he met many influential artists who helped him to launch his career, including composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, who hired him to write lyrics for West Side Story in 1957. After completing the lyrics for Gypsy (1960), Sondheim composed his first original musical score and wrote the lyrics for the 1962 production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. In 1970 he collaborated with George Furth and Harold Prince to produce Company, which garnered national attention. In 1990 Sondheim accepted a visiting professorship at Oxford University, where he lectured on musical theater. In 1999 he premiered Saturday Night, a musical he wrote in 1955. Sondheim has won more Tony Awards than any other composer. Other awards for his work include the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Sunday in the Park with George (1984), several Grammy Awards, and a National Medal of Arts award.

Major Works

Sondheim's musicals typically explore disillusionment and frustration within the performing arts community, society, and personal relationships. These themes are influenced by the time period in which he wrote many of his works—the 1960s and 1970s—when many Americans reevaluated their cultural ideals. A common theme of Sondheim's repertoire addresses cynicism with the arts. For example, Follies (1971) directly confronts the disrespect encountered by theater actors in American society. Set at a reunion of former showgirls, the work portrays the death of the musical genre, represented by the imminent demolition of a once-famous theater. Sunday in the Park with George explores the nature of art, particularly the creative essence of George Seurat's painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte. A satire of the fantasy genre, Into the Woods (1986) not only recounts such fairy tales as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “Rapunzel” but the musical also depicts the negative repercussions of events ignored in the happy conclusions of the original stories. A number of Sondheim's works dramatize the disillusionment experienced by the individual in modern society. Anyone Can Whistle (1964) illustrates the persecution of nonconformists in a conformist world, suggesting that the insane are in fact sane, and the sane are insane. Pacific Overtures (1976) explores the United States' cultural invasion and modernization of Japan, from the Japanese perspective. Using the conventions of Kabuki theater, the musical expresses disappointment in America's cultural subjugation of Japan, despite United States' claims that the nation is a promoter of freedom. Sweeney Todd (1979) examines corruption and the improprieties of the judicial system. When Sweeney Todd is unjustly sent to prison by a corrupt judge, who also is plotting to rape Todd's wife and abduct his daughter, Todd turns to mass murder in order to exact revenge upon the judge and society as a whole.

Some of Sondheim's most famous works illuminate levels of discontent that exist within love and marriage relationships. In West Side Story, two lovers are kept apart by gang rivalry and the work concludes without the traditional “happy ending.” Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965) focuses on an American tourist who goes to Venice looking for love, but ultimately fails in his quest and remains alone. Company vividly portrays disharmony within marriage, an institution that generally provides happy resolutions in the musical genre. In this play, a bachelor contemplates the quality of several relationships at a birthday party thrown by his married friends, who appear in his thoughts, offering their own ambivalent feelings toward commitment and marriage. A Little Night Music (1973), inspired by Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, is one of Sondheim's more traditional musicals and examines a multitude of relationships experienced by people of various ages. The winner of Tony awards for best musical and for best music and lyrics, the play features “Send in the Clowns,” Sondheim's best-known song. Although somewhat sardonic about love, the lyrics depart from the disenchantment about romance that appears in his other works. Adapted from Passione d'Amore by Ettore Scola, Passion (1994) examines the idea of romance and the suffering inflicted by raw emotions such as love and passion. In the musical, an ugly woman, Fosca, falls in love with a handsome soldier, who loves a beautiful, married woman. By sheer will and unquenchable passion, Fosca eventually seduces the soldier. Sondheim's latest musical, Bounce (2003), chronicles the adventures of the Mizner brothers, Addison and Wilson, as they gain and lose fortunes, fall in love, and reinvent themselves in early twentieth-century America.

Critical Reception

Critics have generally praised Sondheim for innovative ideas and artistic sophistication, and he has been acknowledged for ushering modernism into the musical theater. Nevertheless, consistent critical responses to his work eluded him until Company, which was acclaimed for its honesty, realism, artistic maturity, and stylistic innovation. There is considerable disagreement among critics over the strengths and flaws in his work. Sondheim's musicals are often considered dark and depressing—a departure from the typical musical with a happy ending. Reviewers typically observe that Sondheim's musical compositions lack melody, with some speculating that this is due to his creation of the accompaniment before the melody. Many commentators view the lack of melody as the means by which Sondheim gives his works a sense of depth, originality, and intensity. Other critics have called this technique uninteresting and lacking cohesion. There are also vastly different opinions surrounding Sondheim's use of natural syntax and conversational lyrics in his plays. A majority of critics have hailed the technique as dramatically unifying, while others perceive it as inherently inferior to the synthetic style of the traditional Broadway musical. Most critics, however, agree that Sondheim is a major force in contemporary musical theater, asserting his technical, aesthetic, and stylistic talents.

Principal Works

West Side Story (musical) 1957

Gypsy (musical) 1960

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (musical) 1962

Anyone Can Whistle (musical) 1964

Do I Hear a Waltz? (musical) 1965

Company (musical) 1970

Follies (musical) 1971

Candide (musical) 1973

A Little Night Music (musical) 1973

The Frogs (musical) 1974

Pacific Overtures (musical) 1976

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (musical) 1979

Merrily We Roll Along (musical) 1981

Sunday in the Park with George (musical) 1984

Into the Woods (musical) 1986

Assassins (musical) 1990

Passion (musical) 1994

*Saturday Night (musical) 1999

Bounce (musical) 2003

*This musical was originally written in 1955.

Criticism: General Commentary

Thomas P. Adler (essay date winter 1978)

SOURCE: Adler, Thomas P. “The Musical Dramas of Stephen Sondheim: Some Critical Approaches.” Journal of Popular Culture 12, no. 3 (winter 1978): 513-25.

[In the following essay, Adler utilizes a number of critical approaches, including generic, formalist, and thematic, to assess Sondheim's dramatic philosophy as well as his contribution to American musical theater.]

In 1974 Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove collaborated on a musical adaptation of The Frogs, which does for Aristophanes pretty much what they had done for Plautus eight years earlier in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. In it, Dionysos believing that we “lack...

(The entire section is 6238 words.)

John Lahr (essay date April 1979)

SOURCE: Lahr, John. “Sondheim's Little Deaths.” Harper's 258, no. 1547 (April 1979): 71-8.

[In the following essay, Lahr views Sondheim's musicals as emblematic of American disenchantment, inertia, and spiritual emptiness in the late twentieth century, deeming him “an entrepreneur of modern anxieties.”]

How is it you sing anything?
How is it you sing?(1)

Sweeney Todd

Musicals celebrate two things: abundance and vindictive triumph. Tall tales of the urban middle class, musicals revel in the spectacle of material well-being. They cajole the audience that if you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true? In...

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David Van Leer (essay date fall 1987)

SOURCE: Van Leer, David. “Putting It Together: Sondheim and the Broadway Musical.” Raritan 7, no. 2 (fall 1987): 113-28.

[In the following essay, Van Leer elucidates the reasons for the mixed critical and popular reaction to Sondheim's musicals.]

It may be hard these days to care much one way or the other about the Broadway musical, but people care passionately about Stephen Sondheim. Both ways. By most accounts he is the finest lyricist and composer now writing for the American musical theater. He has received more Tony awards than any composer. His last production—Sunday in the Park with George—won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, one of the few ever given...

(The entire section is 5929 words.)

Robert L. McLaughlin (essay date spring 1991)

SOURCE: McLaughlin, Robert L. “‘No One Is Alone’: Society and Love in the Musicals of Stephen Sondheim.” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 3, no. 2 (spring 1991): 27-41.

[In the following essay, McLaughlin examines the theme of love in contemporary society in West Side Story, Company, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods.]

The cliché about Stephen Sondheim's musicals is that the critics cheer them while the audiences stay home. This generalization, however, hides more truth than it reveals. Although his shows have never achieved the popularity of Phantom of the Opera or Les Misérables, their life on Broadway, in London, in National Tours,...

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Geoffrey Block (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Block, Geoffrey. “Happily Ever After West Side Story with Sondheim.” In Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from Show Boat to Sondheim, pp. 274-93. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Block assesses Sondheim's dramatic output and investigates his place within the American musical theater tradition.]


By 1960 Broadway had nearly completed the changing of the old guard. Among the giants who contributed significantly to Broadway during the 1940s and 1950s only Loesser and Styne managed to produce a truly major popular Broadway success in the 1960s: Loesser's...

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David H. Lewis (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Lewis, David H. “The Roads He Didn't Take.” In Broadway Musicals: A Hundred Year History, pp. 108-19. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2002.

[In the following essay, Lewis traces Sondheim's development as a writer and composer.]

One of the great ironies of musical theatre evolution was the strange sad saga of Oscar Hammerstein's prodigious protege, Stephen Sondheim, who would spend a life virtually deconstructing the populist notions of dramatic craft for which his great mentor had stood. Sondheim staged his futile revolution in a succession of increasingly independent works of abstract texture and fringe appeal. Not without precedent, his act of...

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Jim Lovensheimer (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Lovensheimer, Jim. “Stephen Sondheim and the Musical of the Outsider.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Musical, edited by William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird, pp. 181-96. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Lovensheimer argues that Sondheim dramatizes the figure of the outsider or outlaw in American musicals using “popular song styles in ways that subvert the connotations they have carried for a century or more, he is taking a drastic stylistic step, one that cannot but disturb and unsettle American audiences.”]

In a New York Times Magazine interview with Frank Rich, Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930) told an...

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Criticism: Company

SOURCE: Bristow, Eugene K., and J. Kevin Butler. “Company, About Face!: The Show That Revolutionized the American Musical.” American Music 5, no. 3 (fall 1987): 241-54.

[In the following essay, Bristow and Butler provide a thematic and stylistic examination of Company and appraise its place in American musical theater.]

Opening in April 1970, Company achieved a Broadway run of 690 performances, winning almost all Tony awards: best musical, director, designer, choreographer, author, lyricist-composer. It sent out a road company and later played in London. Aided by the brilliant choreography of Michael Bennett, by an exceptional cast, and by...

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Criticism: Pacific Overtures

SOURCE: Sutcliffe, Tom. “Sondheim and the Musical.” Musical Times 128, no. 1735 (September 1987): 487-90.

[In the following essay, Sutcliffe maintains that Pacific Overtures is “the most unusual of all Sondheim's musicals.”]

The English National Opera, like similar German opera houses, has sometimes extended its repertory beyond operetta to the American musical. In 1970 they did Kiss Me Kate at the Coliseum, the unfading 1948 Broadway hit by Cole Porter and the Spewaks, based on The Taming of the Shrew. But the decision to open the coming ENO season this month with Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, which had a short Broadway run...

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Criticism: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

SOURCE: Mollin, Alfred. “Mayhem and Morality in Sweeney Todd.” American Music 9, no. 4 (winter 1991): 405-17.

[In the following essay, Mollin asserts that although the main characters of Sweeney Todd have different “motives that prompt them to their common venture” in mass murder, the play “reveals the terms upon which these disparate characters can unite without sacrificing their individual perspectives.”]

The two principal characters of Sweeney Todd1 conspire in mass murder. However, the motives that prompt them to their common venture differ considerably, and these differences make intelligible much of the play's dramatic...

(The entire section is 3970 words.)

Criticism: Into The Woods

SOURCE: Fulk, Mark K. “Who Killed the Baker's Wife?: Sondheim and Postmodernism.” American Drama 8, no. 2 (spring 1999): 42-60.

[In the following essay, Fulk discusses Into the Woods as a postmodernist play and considers the role of adultery and gender inequality in the musical.]

The Baker's Wife falls victim to confusion and punishment in the woods in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1986 musical Into the Woods. Like the other characters, she is led into the woods by her desire. Initially, the characters of Into the Woods are shaping and controlling their own desires. The chorus of “I wish” that opens the play shows that desire is the...

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Further Reading


Banfield, Stephen. Sondheim's Broadway Musicals. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993, 453 p.

Biographical and critical study.


Goodhart, Sandor, ed. Reading Stephen Sondheim: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000, 280p.

Collection of critical essays.

Gordon, Joanne. Art Isn't Easy: The Achievement of Stephen Sondheim. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990, 343 p.

Full-length critical study of Sondheim's musicals.

Hirsch, Foster. Harold...

(The entire section is 214 words.)