Stephen Sondheim

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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 about what that means.

A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music is a romantic comedy that draws on the conventional comedic topic of mismatched lovers trying to find their true loves. The idea originally began with a desire by Sondheim and others to make a musical from Jean Anouilh’s play L’Invitation au château (pr. 1947; Ring Round the Moon, 1950). When Anouilh declined an adaptation of his play, Sondheim viewed films with similar plots including Jean Renoir’s 1939 Rules of the Game and Ingmar Bergman’s 1956 Smiles of a Summer Night.

The themes and mood of the play draw from a long theatrical tradition, evoking, for example, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596), which also...

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portrays mismatched lovers seeking their true loves on a magical evening. In proper comedic form,A Little Night Music ends with the lovers properly matched.

Beyond the follies and maneuvering of the lovers, the theme of youth and age is important to both the play’s meaning and its structure. Most of the action takes place at the country house of an old woman who, with her young granddaughter, watches the action. The grandmother teaches her young charge that a summer night smiles three times: at the young who know nothing, the fools who know too little, and the old who know too much. The primary plot could occur without the older and younger characters, but they deepen the drama’s scope by showing the lovers’ plots as part of a stage of life between youth and age.

The musical opens with a quintet of characters who are not part of the main story but who perform lyrics both at the beginning and later in the show that comment on the play’s main action. This use of choruslike characters serves to distance the audience from identification with the main characters because of the obvious artifice involved. This distancing evokes an intellectual or critical response from the audience.

Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd blurs the boundaries between musical theater and opera and has, in fact, been performed by various opera companies. The play retells a story about a mass murderer originally written for the stage in the nineteenth century, rewritten by contemporary British playwright Christopher Bond, and finally set to music by Sondheim. The play presents the challenges of portraying murders onstage without disgusting the audience or resorting to slapstick. Further, although the nineteenth century sources were not notable for their psychological subtlety, Sondheim’s version seeks to offer insight into the mind of the deranged killer. Beyond the psychological intrigue, the musical explores the themes of revenge and justice. Despite these serious themes, the drama contains significant, albeit black, humor. Todd’s accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, bakes the meat from the corpses into pies that she sells in her shop.

The play’s significant accomplishment is its ability to interweave tragedy and comedy as well as sophistication and base humor within a musical score that draws on sources ranging from Gregorian chant to contemporary, popular music.

Sunday in the Park with George

Inspired by the life and work of Georges Seurat, especially the painting Un Dimanche, Aprés-Midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte), Sunday in the Park with George explores what it means to be an artist and the relationship between life and art. In the musical’s first act, the people in the painting go about their lives as George sketches them. For example, his pregnant girlfriend Dot decides to marry the baker Louis, and two young women pursue an attractive soldier. At the end of the act, as the characters argue among themselves, the painter stops them and arranges them into the poses and positions for his picture. The dual statement is that the piece of art hides the tensions of life, and at the same time, the artwork turns ordinary life into something beautiful.

The second act continues to explore the meanings of art as Seurat’s daughter and her grandson George attend an opening for the grandson’s artwork. In contrast to his grandfather, who was focused solely on his artistic vision and never sold a painting, the younger George works the crowd of art patrons and critics, seeking funding for his work. As the play ends, he has decided to move on to new projects rather than repeating variations of his current work. His great-grandmother practiced writing in a book that has been passed down, and George reads from it some of his grandfather’s favorite words about art, including order, design, and tension. The grandfather is able, through this medium, to instruct his grandson on the importance of following his own artistic vision.


Sondheim, Stephen (Contemporary Literary Criticism)