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SOURCE: “Contemporary Performance: The Emergence of the Fairy Tale,” in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1989, p. 51-53, 60-61, 64, 66.
[In the following excerpt, Manken details the creation of Into the Woods. She describes the production, comments on how “the woods” serve as a metaphor for the world, and includes commentary from Sondheim.]
HISTORY OF THE PROJECT
After their collaboration on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George (an exploration into the dynamics of the creative spirit through the work of painter Georges Seurat), Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wanted to do something “lighter.” Lapine was struck with the idea of working on a subject that had long fascinated him theatrically: fairy tales. The psychology of fantasy and fairy tale is not a new context for Lapine, whose Twelve Dreams directly reflected his interest in Jungian and Freudian theory, a source he has turned to many times in his career as writer and director.
After reading as many versions of the tales as he could find, he narrowed down a list of less than a dozen whose plot structures were similar enough to interconnect. The first act would be a collective retelling of the stories while the second would be a departure into a more critical examination of the fairy tale characters’ earlier behavior. (Lapine and Sondheim had used a similar structure in Sunday in the Park with George.) Once he outlined the essential shape of the piece, Lapine turned to cultural and psychological theories of fairy archetypes, notably in the work of child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, and the writings of Jungian analyst Marie Louise Von Franz, psychologist Eric Fromm, and cultural historian Robert Darnton. Lapine also consulted a clinical psychologist who drew up contemporary character studies of the fairy tale personages. All of the characters would be taken from the traditional stories, with the exception of the tale of a childless Baker and his Wife (based loosely on “Rapunzel”) that was created by Lapine.
Andre Bishop, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons where Sunday in the Park with George was developed and originally performed, offered the same services for this new project. In November of 1985 the first informal presentation was given of the first draft and dominant musical themes. In June of the following year, there was a second reading of the completed draft and all the songs from Act One. In the fall of 1986 Into the Woods was given another workshop at Playwrights Horizons before being taken for an out-of-town run at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, for which the design team from Sunday was assembled. (These designers also collaborated on another Sondheim/Lapine collaboration, the reworking of Merrily We Roll Along, at the La Jolla Playhouse in June, 1985.) Another workshop followed the San Diego run, prior to rehearsals for Broadway.
Into the Woods opened on November 5, 1987, at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York City. It was presented by a group of young producers called The Dodgers, which is headed by Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn, and lighting designer Heidi Landesman. It is currently the only new American musical on Broadway.
Printed on the act curtain, as if in a child's book of fairy tales, are “Once upon a time,” and the first page of three fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and, asserting the legitimacy of the story Lapine created, The Baker and His Wife. The curtain rises to reveal a fairy tale landscape reminiscent of children's book illustration. Stage right, on the wing outside the...
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picture's frame, stands the Narrator dressed in period costume. The orchestra beginscon brio and the Narrator speaks: “Once upon a time …” As the Narrator introduces each story, a panel in the drop lifts to reveal the interiors of three fairy tale homes. The first act is an exercise in narrative logistics and staging devices. The four traditional stories intertwine around the fabricated story of the Baker and his Wife who search for “The cow as white as milk / The cape as red as blood / The hair as yellow as corn / The slipper as pure as gold,” which they must find in order to break the spell of infertility that has been placed on them by the Witch next door.
The drop is raised to reveal the vast density of the woods, an infinitude like the boundarylessness of the unconscious itself. Maneuvered through a complex system of hydraulics, the forest shifts subtly throughout the entire show, becoming at first thicker and more foreboding as the fairy tale characters have to go into the woods (literally and figuratively) in order to get what they desire from life.
The first scene in the second act follows the same thematic, visual, and musical structure as its counterpart in the first. Here the characters, ambivalent towards what they now have, are in their homes again singing a slightly altered version of the opening number. But when the wife of the giant that Jack killed comes down to avenge the death of her husband, the entire community is threatened; the characters are forced back into the woods to face the consequences of their earlier transgressions. The story is no longer a retelling of traditional tales, it has become social parable.
As the Giant wreaks havoc on their world, the forest becomes a war zone. The woods become less dense and protective and the sky turns progressively to deeper shades of red and purple. Five of the characters die, including Jack's mother, the Baker's Wife and Rapunzel who, driven mad from a childhood spent locked in a tower by a domineering mother, throws herself in front of the Giant. The Narrator, in a parody on the intellectual outsider, is sacrificed to the enemy. In the final image before the theme-song finale, a single tree is left silhouetted against the red sun of what is a changed world.
STEPHEN SONDHEIM, COMPOSER
There are certain themes in Woods that come out of nowhere and go nowhere—songs or song ideas that are never finished. In this respect, Woods is closest to Merrily We Roll Along, in that I decided to use musical ideas not as developmental leit motifs, but in the functional way you would use modular furniture. The same theme becomes an inner voice, an accompaniment, a counterpoint. It may be fragmented, but it is not really developed.
In terms of the relation between the book and the music, the model for Woods is closest to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in that a large portion of Woods is built like farce: very fast paced, with a quick, short song/scene format. But unlike Forum, in which the songs were deliberately designed to stop the action (to prevent the relentlessness of the farce from exhausting the audience), Jim and I wanted this piece to have a seamless flow. This has to do with two factors; firstly, with Jim's notion of maintaining a strong narrative line within the structure he created of crosscutting within the stories themselves. (Until the group scenes in the last quarter of the show, no scene goes on for more than about two pages.) Secondly, we have a narrator who is constantly interrupting the flow, so we wanted to keep the ball bouncing back and forth between him and the stage. This meant lots of little song fragments, and resulted in the sort of coitus interruptus technique that I've built into the score.
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Stephen Sondheim 1930-
(Full name Stephen Joshua Sondheim) American composer, lyricist, and scriptwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Sondheim's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 30 and 39.
Widely considered to be one of the foremost composers and lyricists of modern musicals, Sondheim has revolutionized American musical theatre, 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 lyrics for plays ranging from West Side Story (1957) to Passion (1994) Sondheim has spurned such long-standing traditions of musical theatre 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 theatre.
Born in 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 as 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 in 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. During the 1960s Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), two musicals which did not fare well at the box office. In 1970 Sondheim collaborated with George Furth and Harold Prince to produce Company, which garnered national attention and let him stage Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Candide (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979). Following the disappointing Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sondheim collaborated with James Lupine, producing Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1987). In 1990, Sondheim accepted a visiting professorship at Oxford University, where he lectured on musical theatre. Since the, he has written Assassins (1990) and Passion (1994). In 1999, he premiered Saturday Night, a musical he first wrote in 1955 but never produced. In addition to working on his long-delayed musical Wise Guys, Sondheim has associated himself with the annual Young Playwrights' Festival, which gives aspiring talents under the age of nineteen an opportunity to produce their plays with professional guidance.
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 Sondheim wrote many of his works—the 1960s and 1970s—when many Americans re-evaluated their cultural ideals. A common theme of Sondheim's repertoire addresses a disillusionment with the arts. Follies directly confronts the disrespect encountered by theatre 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 theatre. 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 not only recounts such fairy tales as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel,” and “The Baker and His Wife,” 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 illustrates the persecution of nonconformists in a conformist world, suggesting that the insane are in fact sane, and the sane are insane. Pacific Overtures dramatizes the United States' cultural invasion and “modernization” of Japan, from the Japanese perspective. Using the conventions of Kabuki theatre, the musical expresses disappointment in America's cultural subjugation of Japan, despite U.S. claims that the nation is a promoter of freedom. Sweeney Todd, examines corruption in American society and the improprieties of the U.S. 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. Assassins unites killers and would-be killers of American presidents from various time periods. He characterizes their motives as stemming from a deep political and personal discontent with society. 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? centers around 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 provided 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, providing their own ambivalent feelings toward commitment and marriage. A Little Night Music, inspired by Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, is one of Sondheim's more traditional musicals that 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 disillusionment toward romance that appears in Sondheim's other works. Merrily We Roll Along shows the callous nature that develops in relationships over time, tracing the lives of a group of friends backwards in time. Adapted from Passione d'Amore by Ettore Scola, Passion examines the idea of romance and the suffering inflicted by raw emotions such as love and passion. In the musical, Fosca, an irredeemably ugly woman, falls in love with a handsome soldier, who loves a beautiful married woman instead. By sheer will and unquenchable passion, Fosca eventually seduces the soldier.
Critics have generally praised Sondheim for his revolutionary ideas and his artistic sophistication—even those who find his work dark and depressing. Sondheim 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. Since then, Sondheim has staged two major critical disappointments, Merrily We Roll Along and Assassins. Critics attacked the unlikable characters in Merrily We Roll Along, and reviewers faulted Assassins for its obscure structure and violently disrespectful content in light of the Persian Gulf War. Sondheim's most critically acclaimed works include West Side Story,A Little Night Music, and Sunday in the Park with George. There is considerable disagreement among critics over the strengths and flaws in Sondheim's work. Reviewers typically acknowledge 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 incohesive. 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 a firm minority see 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, confirming his technical, aesthetic, and stylistic talents.
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SOURCE: “On the Verge of Opera,” in Opera Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring, 1989, pp. 76–85.
[In the following essay, Martin discusses the similarities and differences between Sondheim's work and opera, focusing on character, musical structure, orchestration, amplification, and musical style.]
Has Stephen Sondheim, the composer of such Broadway musicals as Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979), been masquerading all these years and actually composing operas? The question is raised vigorously by the new and greatly expanded edition of Craig Zadan's excellent book Sondheim & Co.,1 and it hovers above the many recent revivals of the works by opera companies that have staged them, without apology, as operas—emphasizing musical values.
The revivals are a phenomenon of the last five years. In the United States they began in 1984 when the Houston Grand Opera and the New York City Opera shared a production of Sweeney Todd, a Victorian melodrama; the Michigan Opera Theatre the next year mounted another. In addition, the Michigan company, the Lyric Opera of Cleveland, and the Opera Ensemble of New York all have produced A Little Night Music, a nostalgic love story in three-quarter time. In England, starting also in 1984, Sweeney Todd was put on by several small companies, and Pacific Overtures, a series of episodes about the opening of Japan to the West, by the English National Opera. The latter event led to an article in the English magazine Opera analyzing some of Sondheim's musical techniques and proposing that the question “Why doesn't Sondheim write an opera?” be answered: “He's been writing them for years.”2
Meanwhile, Follies, a sour summation of theatrical illusion, marital discord, and aging, after a long sleep following a problematic initial run, had two notable revivals, pulling in opposite directions. In 1985 the New York Philharmonic, with an extraordinary collection of Broadway's best performers, presented it for two nights in concert, preserving in a remarkable recording much of the work's astonishing bitterness. Then in 1987, in London's Shaftesbury Theatre, it reappeared as a West End musical with its book rewritten to provide a happier ending and with four numbers replaced, including the famous nervous-breakdown finale. And in this form it has had a triumph, causing the editor of Opera, who regrets the shift in tone and lost numbers, to lament: “Perhaps if Sondheim were to write operas, and admit it, he would need to pay less heed to popular taste.”3
Sondheim's three works following Sweeney Todd have added to the debate without in any way resolving it. The first, Merrily We Roll Along (1981), a story of theatrical people whose friendship is spoiled by success, was a failure on Broadway, though recent revivals in California and England suggest that it was dismissed too quickly.4 Next came Sunday in the Park with George (1984), whose first act is a fictionalized account of the painting by Georges Seurat of his masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and the second, a repetition of the situation and emotions in the career of his great-grandson, also an artist. Many persons felt that the two acts were very artificially joined, and that the first, if allowed to stand alone, would make a fine one-act opera.5 Lastly, there is his current Broadway hit Into the Woods (1987), in which three fairy tales twine into a message that we must go into the woods and face the mysteries of life in order to grow and that in doing so we will not be alone. It won the Antoinette Perry Award for the best original score in the 1987–1988 season, and yet, as usual with Sondheim, there is no agreement about its worth, or its form. Some reject it as sentimental Broadway slop with music to match; others rank it somewhere above Hänsel und Gretel.
The argument over what to call Sondheim's works, how to stage them and where—whether or not in an opera house—is not a semantic quibble in which mean-spirited conservatives attempt to deny an innovator the credit of serious composition. At issue are fundamental questions about what an opera is and what sort of works opera companies should mount.
Further, the questions imply that we may have arrived today at one of those grand shifts in cultural perceptions that put out the door the assumptions of one era while bringing in others that seem quite contrary or at least wholly new. But before examining the differences between Sondheim's musical techniques and those of a typical opera composer, let us consider the similarities, for it is they that have brought his works into the opera houses, unsettling the very definition of opera.
Take Sweeney Todd, generally acknowledged to be the most conventionally operatic of Sondheim's works and the one thus far most often staged by opera companies. It tells a story of revenge that, on being thwarted, turns into an obsession to murder. A London barber, Benjamin Barker, convicted and shipped to Australia on charges trumped up by a judge, returns to the city after fifteen years, seeking his wife, Lucy, his child, Johanna, and vengeance. Calling himself Sweeney Todd, he visits his former landlady Mrs. Lovett, a widow who makes meat pies, and hears from her that the judge had lusted for the wife, raped her most brutally, and after she had killed herself by poison, in remorse had adopted the child. Recognizing the barber, Mrs. Lovett produces his razors, which she has preserved, and the two enter a partnership to trap the judge—though if truth be told, Mrs. Lovett is more interested in trapping Barker/Todd into marriage.
They soon manage to lure the judge into Todd's barber chair, in the room above the pie shop, and Todd has the razor at the man's throat, dawdling with pleasure, when an interruption saves the judge, and he leaves unharmed. Todd, maddened by his lost opportunity, swears to kill all his clients, and Mrs. Lovett proposes that they put them into the meat pies. “Man devouring man,” is London's rule, and “who are we to deny it?”
The tasty pies attract a crowd, and Todd and Mrs. Lovett prosper. Once again they maneuver the judge into the chair, and Todd kills him; but in his haste, eager to get a crazy beggar woman out of the way, he kills her, too, discovering later, in his moment of triumph, that she was his wife, Lucy, who had not died as reported. Mrs. Lovett had lied. Apparently accepting her excuse that a wife without wits was of no use to him, he waltzes Mrs. Lovett around, nearer and nearer the oven, and then pops her in, only to have his own throat slit by her assistant who, having learned the reason for the pies’ success, has gone insane. At the end the only survivors in sound mind are the daughter, Johanna, and the sailor Anthony, who loves her.
In telling this story Sondheim has built character and musical structure, as any opera composer might, by giving the principals distinguishing motifs. A crazed beggar woman, one of the London crowd, asks for “Alms! Alms!” to a falling semitone, and when Todd, finally recognizing her, cries her name, “Lucy” it is to the same motif. The sailor's excitement on arriving in London merges neatly into his excitement on meeting Johanna, and thereafter he sings her name and expresses his emotion to a rising minor third and a whole tone. And the same motif of her name, though with different coloring, runs beneath the judge's song of lust, now transferred to Johanna, and Todd's of parental yearning. Mrs. Lovett has a four-note motif that begins two of her solos and is sung by Todd when he addresses her by name. There are other such motifs, some becoming clear only on repeated hearings, but one that is obvious, which most in any audience will recognize at once, underlies the cry of the London crowd, “Swing your razor high, Sweeney.” Most fittingly, it is based on the opening phrases of the Dies Irae.
Sondheim combines these motifs in duets, quartets, sextets—characters sharing, exchanging, and ignoring them—and in the choruses, of which the work has many. He also offers ballads and music hall and Victorian parlor songs for atmosphere, as well as a parody of mid-nineteenth-century Italian opera. No one, I think, will deny that the music is imaginatively used to reinforce the text, making music drama of a high order, much higher than is usual on Broadway. Why then the hesitation to call it opera? What in its forms and techniques seems incompatible?
Consider the work's orchestration. From Monteverdi onward part of the definition of an opera composer is that he does his own orchestrating. Mozart, Wagner, and Verdi speak with individual voices partly because each has clothed his drama in his own special sound. But this is not true of Sondheim, as the chapter on orchestration in Zadan's book makes clear.
Sondheim composes a vocal score with piano accompaniment that he turns over to an orchestrator, usually, but not always, Jonathan Tunick, and it is the orchestrator who chooses what sound will give meaning to the song. Thus in the Follies song “In Buddy's Eyes,” in which a wife sings ironically of her supposedly happy marriage, whenever she refers to her husband the timbre is “dry, all woodwinds,” and whenever to herself, “all strings.”6 The characterization is neat, but it is Tunick's, not Sondheim's so who is the composer?
The question, however, doesn't stop there. When Sunday in the Park with George, for which Michael Starobin was the orchestrator, came to be recorded, the recording producer, Thomas Z. Shephard, reconceptualized it: “I wanted to turn it into a dramatic cantata rather than a collection of numbers. … We had to create an opening where the orchestra would grow, the way the stage filled with light—as George kept adding color. We used three different-sized orchestras. The regular pit orchestra was used for most of the score; the midsized orchestra—with twice as many strings—was used for more sweeping and romantic numbers like ‘Move On’; and the biggest orchestra—with three times as many strings—was used for the finales of both acts.”7
It is a fascinating concept and makes a beautiful recording, but it has little relation musically to what happened in the theater. Again, though Sondheim had a hand in this reformation, who is the composer?
Further, if Sunday in the Park with George someday is produced in an opera house, which orchestration should be used: the one for Broadway or for the recording studio? Surely the second, if those who know the recording are not to be disappointed.
Then there is amplification, another question more complicated than at first it may seem. On Broadway the singing actors in Sweeney Todd wore body microphones; only so could their voices fill the huge and acoustically wretched Uris Theatre and be heard above the orchestra. There were, of course, all the usual problems. Their voices were harshened, made hollow and metallic, and forced to share a common electronic quality; and they came not from the bodies onstage but from boxes hanging on the auditorium walls and ceiling. If the players turned their backs to the audience, or started to leave the stage, their voices continued just as loud as if they remained facing the audience at stage front. All sense of direction, space, and distance was obliterated.
When the New York City Opera staged the work, its general director, Beverly Sills, at first hoped to do without microphones but then was persuaded that even opera singers such as Rosalind Elias and Timothy Nolen needed them if their words were to be heard—though none are necessary when the company sings Gilbert and Sullivan.8 Why the difference? Because Tunick's orchestration was conceived with amplification in mind, and so, unlike Sullivan, he did not thin the texture of his orchestration when he wanted words to be heard.9
How then should an opera company stage Sweeney Todd? With or without amplification? Or should the orchestration be revised, raising once more the question of who is the composer?
In the past most persons would have said that part of the definition of opera is unamplified sound, a human voice unenlarged, undiminished, and not colored electronically. Yet I wonder if the premise still holds. In May 1988 Philip Glass's Fall of the House of Usher had its world premiere at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It had been commissioned jointly by the resident American Repertory Theatre and the Kentucky Opera, a recognition on the part of the latter, according to Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe, “that opera is not simply a musical but a theatrical form.”10 The emphasis is his, but it does not clarify for me his meaning. When has opera not been a mixture of music and theater?
Though the Loeb theater is not large, seating perhaps 1,200, the voices and twelve-piece orchestra, which included a synthesizer and an electric guitar, were amplified. It so happened that a few months earlier I had heard one of the three principals, the baritone David Trombley, in an unamplified performance of Sondheim's A Little Night Music and the quality of his voice then had been considerably finer. But in their reviews neither Dyer of the Globe nor Michael Feingold of the New York Village Voice bothered to mention, even in passing, the fact of amplification, and John Rockwell of the New York Times merely stated that the performers had been “amplified in an undistorted but not always very helpful way.”11
I found the distortion bad, but I must report that it seemed not to trouble the audience, and the critics evidently thought it irrelevant. Today we may have reached an era when most producers, composers, performers, critics, and audiences no longer count an unamplified voice a premise of opera.
Finally, in an area much less precise than amplification or orchestration, there is Sondheim's musical style, which despite any operatic trimmings is unabashedly Broadway, and to many ears is simply not strong enough musically to be treated as opera. Of the City Opera's production of Sweeney Todd, Donal Henahan remarked in the New York Times, “The operatic setting served chiefly to focus more attention on Mr. Sondheim's sing-song score than was good for it.”12 Peter G. Davis of New York magazine wrote more bluntly, “The main problem is the drab, crabbed, and short-winded melodic invention. … The musical content is so impoverished that I fail to see why the special resources of an opera company should be wasted on it.”13
Possibly I can demonstrate a part of what the men mean by “sing-song” and “short-winded melodic invention.” Sondheim writes tunes of limited range because, for the most part, he works with limited voices, and he keeps his phrases short because Broadway voices cannot sustain a long line. Probably his most famous song is “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music. Here is the first verse written out with places indicated where most singers breathe, and with an [a] showing where additional breaths sometimes are taken:
Isn't it [a] rich (breath) Are we [a] a pair? (breath) Me here at last on the ground, (breath) You in (breath) midair … (breath) Send in [a] the clowns. (breath)
The tempo is lento, but even in a song at a faster pace, such as “The Right Girl” from Follies, to be sung agitato, the phrases are short. And all but operatic singers, and one or two of the very best on Broadway, tend to speaksing them, often only approximating the designated pitch of the notes. Dignify the singing style, if you wish, by calling it Sprechstimme, but when done to an English text set to Broadway rhythms it sounds like cabaret singing: the “chant-oose” speaking the words in an effort to fake the emotion she physically cannot sing.
Cabaret style certainly has a lot of fans, but it also has some difficulties in carrying an evening of what hopes to be opera. The greatest of these is that it does not lend itself to building finales that are musically bigger, longer, more spacious than anything that has preceded. Typically in a Sondheim show the finale of an act is the weakest part. In the score of Sweeney Todd the moment in which Todd, having failed to kill the judge, swears to turn his vengeance on all humanity is grandly titled “Epiphany,” but the music, hobbled by the many short phrases, cannot match it. The scene is the natural finale to act 1, but Sondheim, no doubt aware of its musical weakness, carries us on to a duet between Todd and Mrs. Lovett about what flavor the victims of different professions will give to the meat pies. The duet is enormously clever and humorous, but a letdown. The singers, or more likely those who control the amplification, merely turn up the volume with each verse until—curtain.
Similarly, as the work nears its end, the music thins out, and the story is told increasingly in spoken dialogue or by musical reprise. This is a common form of ending on Broadway, and an unfortunate one, for the audience begins to feel that the piece is over before the last note has sounded. In Sweeney Todd for the grand finale the chorus and principals repeat “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” with its refrain based on the Dies Irae. The singers make an impressive amount of noise, but there is no new music for the ending, such as Verdi gave to Aida, or Mozart to The Magic Flute. A reprise, of course, is an old form of ending, exquisitely used by Verdi in Otello; but Sondheim, not at all to his discredit, has not yet equaled that.
Where then are we left with the questions: Are Sondheim's musicals actually operas? Should they be produced by opera companies? And how? With amplification? Rodney Milnes, the editor of Opera, suggests that we call them “light” music or operettas and, if necessary, amplify discreetly.14 Disliking amplification, I would try first reorchestration. Milnes also urges the opera companies take the works into their repertories as occasional substitutes for the old chestnuts that need a rest. And I agree. For the next few years I would prefer to hear Follies to Fledermaus,A Little Night Music to The Merry Widow, and Pacific Overtures to The Mikado.
Whether Sondheim is capable of composing an opera, as traditionalists understand the form, I am not sure. He apparently distrusts opera, even perhaps does not like it, and though Beverly Sills for some time has been trying to persuade him to compose for the New York City company, thus far he has refused. He is comfortable with the conventions of Broadway, and he does very well in expanding their limitations in ways that are natural to him. That seems to be his role in music, and he may be wise not to push it further than he feels he can sustain—though I, for one, wish he would try.
Craig Zadan, Sondheim & Co., 2d ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1986). For this second edition Zadan added eight chapters and revised, updated, and expanded the other twenty-one—in effect, a new book. With extended examples and quotations, he recounts not only Sondheim's career but also how Broadway producers, directors, composers, orchestrators, choreographers, and others create a musical and regard themselves.
Jeremy Sams, “Sondheim's Operatic Overtures,” Opera 38, no. 9 (September 1987): 1007.
Rodney Milnes, A review of Follies,Opera 38, no. 9 (September 1987): 1094.
Sams, “Sondheim's Operatic Overtures,” p. 1007; Zadan, Sondheim & Co., pp. 283–85.
Zadan, Sondheim & Co., p. 307. For what it is worth, I shared this opinion and, even after listening to the recording, still do.
Ibid., p. 157.
Quoted in ibid., pp. 177–78.
Ibid., p. 347.
This point was raised by Patrick J. Smith in his review of the New York City Opera production of Sweeney Todd,Opera 36, no. 1 (January 1985): 47. So far as I have discovered, no other critic has bothered to dig even this deeply into the reasons for and difficulties of amplification. The stunning silence of the critical community on these questions has contributed to the quick acceptance of amplification in many theaters and opera houses.
Richard Dyer, “House of Usher Is Due A Salute,” Boston Globe, 19 May 1988.
Ibid.; Michael Feingold, “Through Glass, Darkly,” Village Voice, 7 June 1988; John Rockwell, “Glass and Poe Combine In Gothic Goings-On,” New York Times, 21 May 1988.
Quoted in Zadan, Sondheim & Co., p. 347.
Rodney Milnes, review of Pacific Overtures, Opera 38, no. 11 (November 1987): 1317–21. He approved of amplification in this production, stating that it was “made necessary by the fact that Sondheim does not write with conventional operatic range in mind.” It is a curious statement, for about the only thing that amplification at the moment cannot do is extend a singer's range.
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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
A Little Night Music (musical) 1973
Candide (musical) 1973
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) 1987
Assassins (musical) 1990
Passion (musical) 1994
Saturday Night (musical) 1999 [originally written in 1955]
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SOURCE: “The Dream Shattered: America's Seventies Musicals,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 31–37.
[In the following essay, Fraser discusses the re-evaluation of American ideals in the seventies—specifically marriage, the women's movement, injustice of American society, and Western imperialism—and how those ideals are expressed throughout Sondheim's works.]
Every year high school, community theatres, colleges, and universities produce old American musicals because audiences flock to see them, and because actors love to perform in them. The musical is probably the most often attended theatrical form by the American people.1
The musical theatre is commonly regarded as America's single unique contribution to the field of theatre,2 and yet comparatively little substantial research has been conducted in this area. Existing research has been from a theatrically introverted point of view. The theatre is analyzed in terms of the play script, newspaper, magazine, and journal reviews of productions, the renderings of scenery and costumes, photographs of production or the director's prompt book. This historical method of analysis is important but not comprehensive. This method, which measures the theatre strictly in terms of the theatre, tends to separate the art and the artist from society. The artist is a member of his or her society; the art reflects that society (or even possibly the society is a reflection of the art?); thus some attention might reasonably be paid to the relationship between the art and society.
The American musical creates a set of myths around the common themes of faith, dreams, and love which change fairly consistently with the values of each era. A simple example which is the foundation of the articulation of the dream in the early musicals is the belief in love-at-first-sight and its natural evolution into a happily-ever-after marriage. These values are also cultural myths mirrored in the societies of their perspective eras.
By the time America was jolted into the Seventies’ many daily political and human realities changed perceptions about life, and those changes through their reflection in the musicals reveal insights into the human condition and allow Americans to share feelings about the pain and the growth. This art form, like so many others, helps people structure their emotional reality.3
The idealism of the Sixties’ era was suddenly shattered when on May 4, 1970, four students, among crowds who were protesting the Cambodian Incursion, were slain by National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. As the decade unraveled, more disgrace was destined to besiege our nation. With the revelation of Watergate, Koreagate, and Abscam, Americans were losing faith in the ethical and moral stature of their public officials. The assassination attempts on President Ford, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, her subsequent reincarnation as the bankrobber, Tanya, and the senseless murders of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone posed serious doubts about law and justice. The publication of the Pentagon Papers questioning “Peace With Honor” and the American hostages in Iran challenged the power of the American Nation. The decade led people to feel as if the American Dream had been shattered. Problems had existed in previous generations, but in the Seventies the basic institutions that had stabilized our country in times of trouble were the very culprits of the disillusionment.
The American musical, most often known for its optimistic and positive tone, followed the pessimism of America. Musicals present views of the insecure and unbalanced nature of the world, the murder and corruption within an American city, and the victimization of the people and political disease. Stephen Sondheim, the most significant composer of musicals of this era, is best known for his sophisticated, complex, and challenging musical structures, but Sondheim challenges the myths within the American dream with equal finesse.
This era not only reflects the pain of the American society, but it allowed the American musical to grow up. Love images of the Seventies are not so easily portrayed with simple songs and happy endings. The American people, living with the highest divorce rate in American history, were not as easily humored with love-at-first-sight and happily-ever-after as they had been in previous decades. The social history of the Seventies took its toll on the aesthetics of love, dreams, faith, and community in the musical theatre just as it did with the hopes and dreams of American life.
With the 1970’s divorce rate, many young people thought the institution of marriage a proven failure and preferred living together. Until that time love in the musical theatre had always taken shape in the form of marriage or engagement to marriage. In 1970 Stephen Sondheim's revolutionary musical, Company, dealt quite frankly with many of the variations surrounding love and marriage.
Company was innovative for both subject matter and lack of plot. Bobby is about to turn thirty-five and still unmarried, much to the dismay of his married friends. The audience watches Bobby interact with his friends who talk about relationships and marriage, but not in a very positive light.
It's not talk of God and the decade ahead that allows you to get through the worst. It's “I do” and “you don't” and “Nobody said that” and “Who brought the subject up first?” … It's not so hard to be married; it's much the simplest of crimes. It's not so hard to be married; I've done it three or four times … It's things like using force together, shouting till you're hoarse together, getting a divorce together, that make perfect relationships.4
Bobby's married friends share with many Americans of the Seventies the disillusionment about marriage. Those perfect marriages found in Brigadoon and Rose Marie were no longer believable.
Bobby's friend, Joanne, questions more than marriage. Much like many American women of the time, she is frustrated with all of the empty rituals that fill her life. She reveals her dissatisfaction to Bobby as proposes a toast:
Here's to the ladies who lunch—everybody laugh. Lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch on their own behalf. Here's to the girls who play wife—aren't they too much? Keeping house but clutching a copy of Life, just to keep in touch … Let's all drink to them …5
After Company addresses American problems with marriage and growing dissatisfaction with the women-in-the-kitchen phenomenon, it next delves into peoples’ basic insecurities in a beautiful number, “Being Alive,” Bobby is confused by all of the advice he has received and all of the marital unhappiness he has witnessed. Momentarily lost inside himself, he sings:
Stop! What do you get? Someone to hold you too close, someone to hurt you too deep, someone to sit in your chair, to ruin your sleep … Someone to need you too much, someone to know you too well, someone to pull you up short to put you through hell … Someone to crowd you with love, someone to force you to care, someone to make you come through, who'll always be there, as frightened as you, of being alive.6
As Bobby continues to process all of the information, he begins to realize that he is missing something in his life. His tone changes a little:
Somebody need me too much, somebody know me too well, somebody pull me up short and put me through hell and give me support for being alive. Make me alive … make me confused, mock me with praise, let me be used, vary my days. But alone is alone, not alive. Somebody make me come through. I'll always be there, as frightened as you, to help survive being alive.7
As the play closes, Bobby's answer to all of his questions does not produce another marriage. For a time, at least, Bobby places his faith in friendship. As the final number suggests:
Phone rings, door chimes, in comes company! … With love filling the days, with love seventy ways, to Bobby with love from all those good and crazy people, my friends … And that's what its really about isn't it? That's what it's really about … Company!8
Much like the young people of the Seventies, Bobby is still not ready to put his faith in the institution of marriage. He is more eager to trust himself and his friends than to rush into marriage because of social pressure. …
Several Sondheim musicals share similar Seventies’ perspective on love and marriage. Although A Little Night Music ends with the appropriate couples united, several moments suggest that marriage is not all the couple hoped. A much older Fredrik is frustrated and confused by his new youthful wife, Anne, so he seeks advice and sympathy of his ex-mistress, Desiree. Although distressed, he is also quite proud of his catch.
She lightens my sadness; she livens my days; she bursts with a kind of madness my well-ordered ways. My happiest mistake, the ache of my life: You must meet my wife … A sea of whims that I submerge in, yet so lovable in repentance. Unfortunately still a virgin, but you can't force a flower …9
Desiree is outraged by Fredrik's disclosure of his wife's continued virginity, which helps validate Fredrik's feelings of frustration. His marriage to Anne is clearly missing an element that Fredrik was anticipating—sex.
Anne and Charlotte join forces to express dissatisfaction with their lives as well. They are not happy with the boring daily activities of married life.
Every day a little death, in the parlor, in the bed, in the curtains, in the silver, in the buttons, in the bread … Men are stupid, men are vain, love's disgusting, love's insane, a humiliating business! Oh how true!10
These women do not share a relationship with their husbands, they simply live from day to day fulfilling obligations and moving closer to death. As the play ends, the Charlotte and Carl-Magnus rekindle their love, and the other lovers realize where their relationships and commonalities lie. When they switch partners, they have a chance for happiness. Like many Americans of this decade, the people choose divorce rather than remain in a stifling marriage because of social pressure.
Happily-ever-after, however, is an uncommon resolution in an era when most musicals reflect the growing dissatisfaction of the American people. Love turns sour. Dreams become more self-centered. The setting of the musical move from rural and peaceful locations to the impersonal metallic, plastic or dirty environments of unpleasant cities, or to other countries like Japan and Argentina who have suffered at the expense of the United States. When musicals enter the world of the theatre, it is not a glamorous world, rather a place of competition, manipulation, and inhumane treatment of ordinary people. Sweeney Todd,A Chorus Line,Applause,Chicago,Evita, and Pacific Overtures all expose worlds of ugliness that stem from the same loss of faith found in the American society.
Sweeney Todd has been betrayed by a corrupt judge who raped his wife and unfairly sent him to prison. The play begins as Sweeney Todd returns to avenge these injustices. His bitter view is expressed as he sees his old home:
There's a hole in the world like a great black pit, and the vermin of the world inhabit it, and its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit. And it goes by the name of London.11
Cynicism and evil permeate the atmosphere of this musical:
They all deserve to die! … There are two kinds of men and only two. There's the one staying put in his proper place and the one with his foot in the other one's face.12
These words express Sweeney Todd's bitter moroseness. Experience has taught him to trust no one so he places his faith in himself. His friends are his razors with which he intends to slit the throat of the judge, and his dream is revenge.
A texture of innocence is introduced into this dismal world through the characterization of two young lovers. These beautiful and naive victims are also physically confronted by the musical's main theme: “The history of the world, my sweet—is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.”13 Their flicker of optimism serves to enhance the viciousness of the society.
Accompanying these bleak ideas is a musical score marked by discordant complex orchestration which helps shape the messages of the play. Although this is not typical musical comedy fare, the injustices within the play were not difficult for American audiences to relate to after Watergate and Vietnam. …
Pacific Overtures opens with a description of “Nippon, the Floating Kingdom” enacted poetically through kabuki theatre's graceful style and form. As the story of Japan unfolds, the theatrical style slowly Americanizes with less grace and more greed. By its resolution, Japanese express their Americanized visions of the world in “Next”:
Streams are roaring, overspilling—Next! Old is boring, new is thrilling, keep exploring—Next! … Never mind a small disaster. Who's the stronger, who's the faster? Let the pupil show the master—Next!14
The Japanese people have learned well from the Americans. Pacific Overtures portrays a beautiful, lyrical, graceful Japanese culture which is slowly desensitized, corrupted, and commercialized by an American invasion.
Many musicals attacked established institutions during this era whether military, judicial, governmental or media. Three other musicals, Applause,A Chorus Line, and Follies, all expose American corruption through the metaphor of theatre that is less luxurious than the magazines and television talk shows suggest.
Follies reflects the theatre world, at the end of actor's careers. A reunion is being held at the Weismann Theater due to be torn down for a parking lot. Beneath the glamour and the beautiful costumes lie the fragile remains of lives in the American theatre as the performers sing on the Weismann stage for the last time. The songs are beautiful, charming, or lively, but the underlying texture of the orchestration points out twinges of bitterness reflecting the person under the performer as each questions the choices of their lives. In “The Road You Didn't Take,” Ben wonders what would have happened if he had opened a different “door.” Even the satisfactions of a more successful life by a strong character contains a bitter edge. Carlotta's strength let her survive, but the lyrics in “I'm Still Here” reveal the wound still stings:
I've gotten through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover. Gee, that was fun and a half. When you've been through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover, anything else is a laugh. I've been through Reefers and vino, rest cures, religion and pills, but I'm here. Been called a pinko Commie tool, Got through it stinko by my pool. I should have gone to an acting school, that seems clear. Still, someone said, “She's sincere,” so I'm here.15
This section from Carlotta's reminiscences includes reference to the blacklisting which was a terrible incident in the history of the American theatre as well as American society. During the Seventies, a younger generation suspicious of the government rediscovered the blacklisting of the television and film industry and recognized the older generation that had been victimized. Before Watergate, most were afraid to remember the times let alone talk about them. After the resignation of Richard Nixon (who had been a member of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities), the subject became less frightening to those who had been involved.
Carlotta is a survivor, but her memories do not speak very graciously about the way our society treats its artists. In fact, the musical, Follies subtly rebukes the way the “old are treated by our society, first through the premise of musical which is the demolition of the fine old theater, and then by examining the people whose lives were affected by the world of the theatre. Their young dreams for tomorrow were diluted by a stark reality which left them very much alone. They were used and discarded as easily as the theatre will be torn to the ground. This reunion is a look at a decaying society which has lost its heart and soul.
The images of the shattered dream are reflected in a world lacking family warmth, security, and societal loyalty. Past American Dreams such as family and marriage and community come under attack while innocence and beauty are raped or disfigured. The individual competes for survival in a selfish world where it is difficult to know whom to trust. Injured people put their faith in revenge. Struggling characters put faith in themselves and are afraid to trust others or to trust in institutions. The lack of faith in past American institutions shapes the definition of faith in this period. Cynicism has almost replaced the concept of faith. Some characters actually dream of revenge.
Love within these musicals is reflecting the insecurities of the times. Characters love themselves or are searching for a way to be able to love themselves. Love is a pretense in marriage which is unstable, in the process of divorce, or slowly decaying. Hope for the warmth of the real love, takes new form including homosexuality or friendship. Friendship is a more sincere form of love in the era because the commitment is free of traditional formalized conditions. People may set their own guidelines rather than relying on a formalized set of conditions to regulate their love for one and another.
As institutionalized behaviors are rejected, the togetherness and security which comes with a traditional sense of community are also lacking. They dream of a time when people shared or when old buildings were restored because memories were valued, and communities of people allowed themselves to learn from a shared past. Instead, the community within the musicals of this era are groups of victims of society, group of individuals who compete with one and another, or groups of lonely people who trust only themselves. Perhaps, the shattered dream is most clearly reflected in the musical through lack of community support and the rise of community distrust.
The Seventies’ musicals present a cynical vision of reality, but I often feel rejuvenated and exorcised leaving the theatre—especially with the Sondheim musicals. Someone is creatively and enjoyably identifying real problems that society must face and attempt to solve.
Oscar Brockett and Robert Findlay, Century of Innovation (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc., 1973), p. 567.
Gerald Bordman, American Musical Theatre, A Chronicle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 17.
Suzanne Langer, “Artistic Perception and ‘Natural Light’” in Problems of Art (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1957), pp. 59–74.
Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, “Company” in Ten Great Musicals of the American Theatre, ed. by Stanley Richards (Radnor, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1973.) pp. 36–37.
Sondheim, “Company,” pp. 42–43.
Sondheim, “Company,” p. 43.
Sondheim, “Company,” p. 28.
Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, “A Little Night Music” in Great Musicals of the American Theatre, Vol. 2, ed. by Stanley Richards (Radnor, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1076.) p. 48.
Sondheim, “A Little Night Music,” pp. 47–48.
Stephen Sondheim and High Wheeler, Sweeney Todd (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1979) pp. 8–9.
Sondheim, Sweeney Todd, p. 87.
Sondheim, Sweeney Todd, pp. 97–98.
Stephen Sondheim and John Wiedman, Pacific Overtures (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1975, 1976, 1977) pp. 125–126.
Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman, Follies (New York: Random House, 1971) p. 59.
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SOURCE: “A Shave too Close or not Enough?,” in New York, October 2, 1989, p. 82–84.
[In the following review, Simon offers a negative assessment of Sweeney Todd.]
The York Theatre Company revival of Sweeney Todd, which garnered raves in its initial modest premises, has reopened at the Circle in the Square to renewed critical paeans. It strikes me as a passable bus-and-truck production, ably directed by Susan H. Schulman, but musically and histrionically undernourished and hardly worth the raptures of our loose-tongued rhapsodies. The Stephen Sondheim–Hugh Wheeler–Harold Prince show is again the best musical on or around Broadway—as it would also be anywhere from Atlantic City to Cape May—but that is about as faint as praise can get.
It should come as no surprise if I say that the two most important things about any Broadway musical are the music and the spectacle, yet it is in these very areas that the Yorkle in the Square production has grave difficulties. Sondheim's music, which had been so cannily orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, is here fed into two synthesizers (or shredders) by David Krane, whence it emerges thin, jingly, and monotonous—hardly meat enough for one of Mrs. Lovett's pies—to reveal, unbedizened, the anorexia of the musical invention. But whereas the songs are now reduced both vocally and instrumentally, the notorious steam whistle has been intensified to a knife-grinder's stridency to make half the audience cry uncle every time it sounds.
You may recall Eugene Lee's décor for the original production: practically the whole Industrial Revolution compressed into one monumental set, seemingly peopled with the entire cast of Mayhew's London Labour in Franne Lee's imaginatively seedy costumes. There was an awful grandeur to this squalor. In its present straitened circumstances, Sweeney, despite brave efforts by the set designer, James Morgan, and rather less brave ones by the costumer, Beba Shamash, is unlikely to make you ooh, let alone aah. And this in spite of the designer's and director's handy way with making platforms and bits of scenery rearrange themselves swiftly and kaleidoscopically.
Those who saw Sweeney in its intimate York habitat were apt to praise it (though some dissented) for its immediacy: The action, like the blood from those slit throats, seemed to spill right into your lap. Personally, I've never been partial to being that close, not even at those sweaty sixties avant-garde offerings where the point seemed to be to smell the performers. Still, Sweeney is Grand Guignol, and for some, the closer they get to blades and blood, the scarier and better. With the show's move to the by no means small Circle in the Square, however, that immediacy is lost, except perhaps in the first couple of rows, without a compensatory gain in massiveness. So you may end up with neither fish nor fowl.
The performances, too, are a come-down. Bob Gunton is an accomplished musical-comedy actor, and he brings a suitable gauntness and hauntedness to the title part. But he is, in speech and manner, very much New York and now. He even has a certain exaggerated springiness in his movements—a modern show-biz strategy. I never thought the day would come when I would miss Len Cariou, but I did miss his quality of having been freshly exhumed and reanimated by some mad scientist. An even bigger loss is Angela Lansbury, whose Mrs. Lovett was congenitally funny with her batrachian face and froggy voice, and her ability to come apart at the seams without relinquishing a treasured store-bought dignity. It was a lovely, effortless performance. Beth Fowler, the incumbent, has to sweat out her accent and her whimsy, and suggests for all the world an earnest little schoolgirl trying to act old, British, and funny.
Even so, she is well ahead of David Barron, who turns the evil Judge Turpin into a diffident hobo suffering from rheumatism (or is it gout?), though it must be said that the song number cut from the original production and restored here lets him down: Why should a manifest sadist be shown as a self-flagellating masochist? Equally hopeless are the young lovers, Gretchen Kingsley (though she has a voice) and Jim Walton (though he has a creditable semi-permanent accent), with his fancy Madison Avenue hairstyling that would have landed him in a sea of troubles in Her Majesty's Navy. Nor did I care much for Sue Ellen Estey as the Beggar Woman, a performance all pasted-on attitudes.
By far the best work comes from Eddie Korbich as the waif Tobias, Michael McCarty as the Beadle, and Bill Nabel as the charlatan Pirelli. These three sing and act unexceptionably, and have the right accents to boot. I enjoyed watching them, as I also did, for different reasons, the two bored-looking keyboard players, paying no heed to either the stage or the conductor, who, however, conducted away at his two-piece band as if they were massed forces about to make the Hollywood Bowl overflow with sound.
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Adler, T. P. “Musical Dramas of Stephen Sondheim: Some Critical Approaches.” Pop Culture 12 (Winter 1978): 513–25.
Adler explores various critical approaches to Sondheim's work.
Banfield, Stephen. Sondheim's Broadway Musicals. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993, 453 pp.
Banfield examines Sondheim's background and discusses each of his Broadway musicals from West Side Story to Into the Woods.
Flatlow, S. “Making Connections.” Opera News 50 (November 1985): 18.
Flatlow examines the characteristics that Sondheim's musicals share with opera.
Garebian, Keith. The Making of “West Side Story.” Toronto: ECW, 1995, 160 pp.
Garebian discusses the creation and production of West Side Story.
Gordon, Joanne Lesley. Art Isn't Easy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990, 343 pp.
Gordon provides an analysis of Sondheim's musicals from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to Into the Woods.
Gottfried, Martin. Sondheim. New York: Abrams, 1993, 192 pp.
Gottfried discusses and interprets Sondheim's lyrics with a critical overview.
Griffiths, Paul. “Sunday in the Park with George.” Times Literary Supplement, No. 4538 (23 March 1990): 320.
Griffiths gives a negative assessment of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, claiming that Sondheim missed “endless opportunities for irony.”
Harris, John. “Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall.” Christopher Street, No. 1835 (21 July 1992): 9–11.
In this review of a production paying tribute to Sondheim, Harris tempers praise for the individual performances with condemnation of the overall lack of excitement elicited by the tribute.
Kaplan, James. “The Cult of Saint Stephen Sondheim.” New York (4 April 1994): 48–54.
Kaplan discusses Sondheim's departure from conventional Broadway productions and considers whether Passion will be a monetary success.
Kramer, Mimi. “Point Blank.” in New Yorker 66, No. 52 (11 February 1991): 68–69.
In this negative review of Assassins, Kramer condemns the plot as predictable and finds that the work as a whole lacks structure and cohesion, and possesses a superficial, amateur quality.
Kroll, Jack. “You Gotta Have Heart.” Newsweek 123, No. 21 (23 May 1994): 62.
Kroll gives a mixed assessment of Passion, commenting that the show would have been improved “if the musical fabric were stronger.”
Looms, Jeffery B. “‘White’ versus arranged ‘Shadows’: Aesthetic Physics and Metaphysics in Museum and Sunday in the Park.” Studies in the Humanities 21, No. 2 (December 1994): 96–104.
Looms analyzes the artistic dynamic in Sunday in the Park with George.
Schiff, Stephen. “Deconstruction Sondheim.” in New Yorker 69, No. 3 (8 March 1993): 76–87.
Schiff discusses an interview with Sondheim, focusing on Sondheim's revolutionary modernist style and themes, techniques he uses to compose, his use of variation to achieve dynamic progression, his ability to tailor his songs to individual characters, and his belief that art is achieved through effort as much as by talent.
Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1998, 461 pp.
Secrest provides an overview of the life and works of Stephen Sondheim.
Stoddart, Scott F. “Ever After? Marriage in Company and Woods.” Sondheim-Review 2, No. 2 (Fall 1995): 19–23.
Stoddart discusses the disillusionment toward love and marriage expressed in Sondheim's Company and Into the Woods.
Sullivan, Kathleen. “Stephen Sondheim.” In American Playwrights Since 1945: A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance. edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 437–46. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.
Sullivan examines Sondheim's achievements, reputation, production history, influences, and analyses of his plays. It also provides further bibliographic references.
Zadan, Craig. Sondheim and Co. New York: Harper & Row, 1986, 408 pp.
Zadan discusses Sondheim's successes and failures, focusing on the process of production.
Additional coverage of Sondheim's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 103; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 47, 67; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 11; Discovering Authors: Dramatists Module; and Literature Resource Center.
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SOURCE: “Spirited Revivals,” in Commonweal, Vol. 116, No. 18, October 20, 1989, p. 566–67.
[In the following review, Weales presents a comparison of the original 1979 production and the 1989 revival of Sweeney Todd, praising Sondheim's score.]
The new Sweeney Todd at the Circle in the Square inevitably lacks the shock and surprise of the original 1979 production of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical. Although it is a restaging of last year's revival at the tiny York Theater it does not have the intimacy of the television version (now available on VCR) in which George Hearn is an electrifying Sweeney, even more appealingly frightening than was the admirable Len Cariou. The ghosts of two heavyweight Sweeneys hover over this production, but Bob Gunton holds his own in their company—a forceful, scary, sometimes touching, even playful Sweeney. Beth Fowler, as Mrs. Lovett, stakes her own claim to a character, some small corner of which is forever Angela Lansbury. The two principals are surrounded by a small but strong company (particularly Jim Walton as the sailor), but the real star of the show is Stephen Sondheim. His score gets more impressive with every hearing.
Although London, as a place and as an image of injustice and greed, is at the center of this tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the original production turned the city into a high tech phenomenon, presumably a metaphor for the ugly side of industrialization. The current production retains the shrill factory whistle to punctuate the narrative at particular grisly moments (sound as exclamation point), but it has neither the space nor the funds for so elegant a set. Instead, the director (Susan H. Schulman) and her designer (James Morgan) have chosen to wrap the audience in a tatty suggestion of the city. Playgoers, who sit as usual on three sides of the Circle playing area, enter beneath hangings that look like a cross between tattered banners and wet wash. Neither these nor the long blue streamers through which the company weaves during the “City on Fire” number seems to have anything to do with Todd's “great black pit” of a London. The audience is enveloped in the city because it is enveloped in the story and the music and the characters. Banners aside, Schulman and Morgan have found the means in the awkward space at the Circle to let the musical happen as it should. There is a permanent set at one end of the playing area, but at the other is a movable, detachable, multilevel set that gives the production the flexibility to present the intermeshing stories and the restlessness of the urban setting.
When the show first appeared, it was labeled—in the program, on the record cover, in the published version—“A Musical Thriller.” Musical it is and thrilling, but that is a reductive label that hardly does justice to a work concerned with both social and personal evil. Sweeney, a victim of class privilege, was transported on a false charge to clear the way for the judge's rape of his wife and theft of his daughter. He returns to take revenge on those who wronged him, but he ends by killing at random because “We all deserve to die!” This kind of vigilante justice might be taken as a special case of a Sweeney driven mad had not a recent Philadelphia Inquirer carried a story about four white men who beat two black men, waiting on separate corners for buses, because three blacks with no connection to the victims had earlier mugged the girlfriend of one of the baseball bat wielders. Mrs. Lovett, like a looter in St. Croix, has a more practical response to societal inequities. She bakes Todd's victims into meat pies because it “Seems an awful waste. … With the price of meat what it is.” The figures were almost totemic in the original, grand grotesques by virtue of their make-up and the performance of Cariou and Lansbury. They are more human as Gunton and Fowler play them, easier to sympathize with, even identify with, which is one of the points of the musical, to elicit our complicity because we find such murderous people so attractive.
I am not quite sure what is intended by a scene, not in the original, in which the judge flagellates himself while he sings of Johanna, his ward, Todd's daughter, whom he is planning to marry against her will. More human? A masochistic hypocrite? A creative mistake? I vote the last of these; Sondheim should not have restored or added it to the musical.
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SOURCE: “Human Comedies,” in New York, Vol. 23, No. 32, August 20, 1990, p. 124.
[In the following review, Davis praises the New York City Opera's performance of A Little Night Music, yet criticizes Sondheim's music and lyrics as clumsy and unpolished.]
Perhaps one day in the not too distant future, the New York City Opera will feel confident enough to launch its midsummer season with a bold flourish. Long before Christopher Keene took command of the company, over a year ago, conventional wisdom dictated that sweltering urbanites and operagoing tourists would tolerate nothing more exotic than Carmen before Labor Day, and that comfy policy continues. At least the pop-opera repertory chosen from stock for the opening week this year—The Marriage of Figaro,Lucia di Lammermoor, and Madama Butterfly—seemed more thoughtfully considered and carefully prepared than in some summers past.
In this context, the new production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music looked very much like a visitor making a guest appearance, and in a way it was. Not that Sondheim has no business in the opera house—his cerebral operettas were probably always destined to find a more congenial home there than in the commercial theater that spawned them. Besides, whether one responds to these pieces or not, the music is bound to sound more attractive when sung by real voices than by those irritating adenoidal whiners usually heard on Broadway these days. Still, the City Opera edition was so heavily staffed by musical-comedy specialists imported for the occasion that it could hardly be said to represent a typical company effort.
Sondheim enthusiasts are unlikely to complain, especially since the City Opera production has such a smartly polished and sophisticated veneer—worlds removed from most of the company's previous dreary forays into light musicals. Michael Anania's mobile backdrops and quick-change stage furnishings may be modest compared with the ingenious intricacies of Boris Aronson's famed Broadway originals, but they artfully conjure up a Sweden of long ago and the romantic midnight-sun atmosphere that haunts Smiles of a Summer Night, the magical Ingmar’ Bergman film that inspired the show. Scott Ellis's fluid direction is also uncommonly graceful—the cast quite literally seems to waltz through the entire evening, keeping perfect time to the score's perpetual three-four beat.
One could quibble about a performance here and there, the show's central couple in particular: Sally Ann Howes seems rather plain as the worldly Desirée, and George Lee Andrews never finds the tart streak of self-awareness that prevents Fredrik Egerman from degenerating into a total fool. At least Regina Resnik's whiskey contralto and low-key comic delivery almost rescue Madame Armfeldt, the cut-rate variation on Lady Bracknell that Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler created out of Bergman's fascinating sibyl. Maureen Moore successfully suggests the troubled vulnerability behind Countess Charlotte's acid tongue, Susan Terry finds some of the down-to-earth honesty that makes Petra, the maid, such a wonderful character in the film, and the other principals blend in smoothly.
In the end, though, I will never understand how anyone who savors the warmth and wit of the Bergman original, its elegant Mozartean perspectives on class society and human behavior, can possibly respond to the icy brilliance, clickety-clack rhymes, and Erector-set waltz tunes of A Little Night Music. Those who do, though, should be pleased with the City Opera production, which takes the piece at face value and does well by it.
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SOURCE: “Penned in and Pent Up,” in New York, Vol. 23, No. 32, August 20, 1990, pp. 120–22.
[In the following review, Simon gives a positive assessment of the New York City Opera's production of A Little Night Music, focusing on the staging, costumes, and orchestration. However, he finds fault with the performance of the cast.]
Of course it's desirable to revive our best musicals, and why not put them into opera houses if those are the ones willing and able to stage them? What does it matter whether you consider Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music opera, operetta, or musical comedy, when, by any name, its good parts—to wit, the music, the lyrics, and their wit—smell equally sweet? But if the State Theater can perhaps just make it as an opera house, nonoperatic voices are in trouble here. I shall not harp on it—and certainly not trumpet it—but amplified in this barn, a show affects the ear as tomato juice, consumed can and all, would affect the stomach. But once you get past the tinny sound, there is much to enjoy in this production.
Not least of the virtues is Scott Ellis's staging, which uses relatively simple and inexpensive sets for maximum suggestive value and deploys the actors across a large and not undemanding stage in elegant configurations that are nevertheless not at war with the sight lines. With his set designer, Michael Anania, Ellis has devised mostly fluid, leafy, floral, cloudy panels and backdrops that can quickly and easily accommodate a dropped façade or a few well-chosen sticks of furniture—without ever relinquishing their bucolic airiness.
Lindsay W. Davis's costumes are tastefully aware of how far opulence can go without becoming ostentatious, or exquisiteness without becoming effete. And Dawn Chiang has done everything lighting can to keep things playfully pastel and knows how to turn a scrim into the very fabric of protective memory. Susan Stroman's choreography is rather rudimentary, but there being no dancers present, anything more might easily have been less. And Paul Gemignani's conducting gently nudges an always sympathetic orchestra toward such empathy that we would not be surprised if there was waltzing in the pit.
The cast, however, is a mixed bag, and not only because some have operatic, some show-biz backgrounds. The key figures, you'll recall, are the worldly and wise actress, Desirée Armfeldt, and her worldly but not so wise—indeed, charmingly befuddled—soul mate, the lawyer Fredrik Egerman. Neither role is well enough filled. Sally Ann Howes, with top-heavy wig and one uncharacteristically unflattering costume, does not, for all her amiable ways and graceful singing, have the presence to be the pivot of this swirling action. Glynis Johns did better on Broadway, and just listened to on records, Jean Simmons can move and enchant you. As for George Lee Andrews—who was Frid, the non-singing butler, on Broadway—his voice is well rounded and engaging, but his Egerman is still more butler than lawyer.
Although he sings with brio, Michael Maguire is a humorless and charmless Count Malcolm, but Maureen Moore gets the Countess across tidily though unsubtly. Susan Terry would be a fine Petra if she weren't so American, but Kevin Anderson, as Henrik, is a real find as singer and actor, and looks if anything too good. Beverly Lambert is a tolerable Anne Egerman, Danielle Ferland is a rather too weird Fredrika, and the chorus of five ubiquitous commentators, albeit somewhat overdirected, is efficient enough. As the aged Madame Armfeldt, Regina Resnik, even if not exactly aristocratic, comes through, like the old pro she is, with steady voice, ringing diction, and tart timing. And she does have the unearned advantage of not being Hermione Gingold.
With Sondheim in top form in a nicely flowing production, not even Hugh Wheeler's lumpish book (from Bergman's film—a masterpiece, though Bergman himself, I am sorry to say, has turned against it) could dampen the fun. But won't Miss Resnik, please, correct the terrible English in “Don't squeeze your bosoms, dear”? A woman has two breasts, but always, except perhaps in a Schwarzenegger movie, one bosom.
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SOURCE: “Crix Hang ‘Assassins;’ B'way Out of Range?,” in Variety, February 4, 1991, p. 95.
[In the following review, Evans explores the controversy surrounding the eligibility of Assassins to appear on Broadway, highlighting some of the overwhelmingly negative criticism.]
Long before it opened, Assassins, Stephen Sondheim's new musical, had sold out its nine-week run at the 129-seat Playwrights Horizons Theater. But mixed notices probably have nixed a Broadway extradition.
No decision has been made regarding the show's life beyond Horizons, though Assassins generated plenty of interest from producers. Sondheim told Variety that discussions about the next step would take place this week, and that RCA will record a cast album. The show is scheduled to close Feb. 16.
Most sources are dubious about the musical's potential for commercial success.
With music and lyrics by Sondheim, book by John Weidman and direction by Jerry Zaks, the offbeat Assassins tells the stories of nine presidential killers and would-be killers. John Wilkes Booth, Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme and Lee Harvey Oswald are among the characters who populate the 90-minute, intermissionless tuner.
Reviews have been mixed, with the unfavorable notices out-numbering the positive by a considerable margin. Frank Rich, chief critic for the New York Times and a Sondheim admirer, wrote that Assassins will have to fire with sharper aim and fewer blanks if it is to shoot to kill.”
Several reviews questioned the wisdom of the project in the first place, and at least one thumbs–down—New York magazine's John Simon—also attacked Sondheim and company for going ahead with the show once war in the Persian Gulf got underway. The production's only unqualified rave came from David Richards, the Times' Sunday reviewer.
“I think there's a market for it Off Broadway,” says Promenade Theater owner Ben Sprecher. “I think Assassins could have a life in a small theater.” Sprecher lobbied Sondheim's camp heavily about moving Assassins to the 399-seat Promenade but decided to book another show when a decision was not forthcoming.
“I didn't want to be the mule who starved to death between two bales of hay,” Sprecher said. Breaking Up, a new play by Michael Cristofer starring Matthew Modine, has been booked into the Promenade for an open-ended run with a March opening. Although the city's major theater owners declined to speak for the record about possible Assassins negotiations, the consensus was that the unfavorable reviews have dampened enthusiasm among legit producers already skittish over the show's controversial theme. Some said the show suffered in its enlargement from a workshop to the full production at the Horizons.
Despite the drawbacks, Assassins is far from death row. In addition to the interest surrounding any Sondheim musical, Playwrights Horizons’ record for Broadway transfers is stellar, especially in recent seasons. Both Once On This Island and The Heidi Chronicles started at the theater and moved to Broadway, while Falsettoland jumped to the larger Off Broadway house, the Lucille Lortel Theater.
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SOURCE: A review of Assassins, in New Republic, Vol. 204, No. 11, March 18, 1991, pp. 34–35.
[In the following negative review of Assassins, Brustein focuses on the lack of connection between the content of the show and the musical genre, Sondheim's lack of insight, and the show’s failed attempts at irony.]
Assassins is the latest work of another auspicious talent, Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics to a book by John Weidman. In its present incarnation at Playwrights Horizons, it is a singularly bizarre performance. Sondheim has never been known for timidity in choosing material for musicals. Sweeney Todd, after all, was about a barber who sold off the dismembered parts of his murdered victims for consumption at dining room tables. With Assassins, however, he has chosen to memorialize tunefully the careers of that coterie of killers who aimed a variety of lethal weapons at the hides of American presidents, with John Wilkes Booth presiding as the tutelary spirit. People have reacted to his project like the stunned audience in Mel Brooks's The Producers, paralyzed by “Springtime for Hitler” sung by a chorus of high-stepping Nazis.
The difference is that Zero Mostel was purposely trying to achieve a flop; Sondheim's flop was thrust upon him. But what could he expect when he begins his show with a carny singer in a shooting gallery warbling, “Hey, pal, come here and kill a president,” and ends it with the sentiment that “everybody's got the right to be different. … Everybody's got the right to their dreams.” One suspects that irony is intended. In fact, the disjunction between form (musical comedy) and content (murder) leaves the evening dripping with irony, not all of it conscious. Sondheim's songs, for the most part, could be detached from their context and handed to disc jockeys, arousing the disquieting impression that these aberrant historical figures have been resurrected partly for the sake of selling platinum records. The assassins of Assassins are lurking in Tin Pan Alley.
Weidman's perfunctory book tracks the careers of John Wilkes Booth (who shot Lincoln), Charles Guiteau (who killed Garfield), Leon Czolgosz (who assassinated McKinley), Guiseppe Zangara (who tried to kill FDR), Samuel Byck (who planned to crash a plane into Nixon's White House), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (who both made attempts on Ford), and John Hinckley (who shot Reagan). The show concludes with Lee Harvey Oswald in the Texas Book Depository. Assassins contends that the common motive of all these people was a passion for notoriety, that Booth, for example, “killed a country because of bad reviews” (“Lincoln, who got mixed reviews, because of you now gets only raves”). Not political conviction, then, but celebrity is the spur, a view that even informs the scenes in which Booth persuades Oswald to eschew suicide and make a name for himself instead (“You can close the New York Stock Exchange”). It is history seen through the eyes of show business. What is difficult to determine is how much of this is intended as mockery. Ironies begin to cohere only in the scenes featuring the incompetent failures. An imaginary encounter between Squeaky Fromme (Annie Golden) and Sara Moore (Debra Monk) is genuinely funny, replete with Manson stories and a shared love of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and so is the passion of Samuel Byck (Lee Wilkof in a Santa Claus suit) for Bernstein musicals. Still, the whole enterprise seems a little desperate, as does the staging of the normally confident Jerry Zaks. Scorsese's Taxi Driver provided much more insight into the motives of political assassins, and Altman's Nashville accompanied such insights with better music.
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SOURCE: A review of Company, in Dance Magazine, Vol. 67, No. 4, April, 1993, p. 54.
[In the following review, Phillips offers a positive assessment of a revival of Company.]
For those unlucky enough to have missed the original 1970 staging, the January 23, 1993, abridged version of Company—titled Company: The Original Cast in Concert—had to suffice for this lifetime. Which it did. Produced and directed by Barry Brown at California's Long Beach Civic Light Opera, the concert combined elements of a reunion (of all but two of the original Broadway cast members), a party, and a tribute to the talents involved, both living and deceased. It also veered occasionally and astonishingly into a musical-theater time warp. During “Side by Side by Side,” the spoken line about how bachelor Robert stays pretty much the same while everyone else gets older garnered an added laugh: Dean Jones hasn't changed in twenty-three years.
Strong whiffs of the original were everywhere. George Martin's musical staging borrowed heavily from Michael Bennett's original choreography, especially in the tug-of-war with Robert and his friends in “Side by Side,” and in the simplified essentials of Donna McKechnie's “Tick, Tock” solo dance. If anything, Elaine Stritch has gotten more aggressively Stritchian; no one barks and sloshes through “The Ladies Who Lunch” like she does.
The evening was dedicated to the memory of Bennett, Larry Kert (who took over for Jones shortly after the Broadway opening), and the show's original production stage manager, Fritz Holt. Unlike the New York Philharmonic's 1985 Follies in Concert, which paid much-needed homage to Sondheim's 1971 score for Follies (badly mangled and abbreviated on the original cast album), Company in Concert wasn't a corrective or an all-star affair. It was simply an evening with the originals.
As such, it carried an element of suspense: Can they still do it? The songs certainly can; too many of them have been excerpted and reviewed for comfort, but they remain bright, sharp gems. In Long Beach, Beth Howland couldn't quite spit out “Getting Married Today,” and Stritch didn't always know when to call out “Robbo.” But these were small things, inevitable, perhaps. To answer other pertinent questions: Yes, Barbara Barrie can still do a cartwheel; McKechnie, Susan Browning, and Pamela Myers were vocally so secure on “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” it was as if a day hadn't passed; the supple Jonathan Tunick orchestrations were beautifully negotiated by musical director John McDaniel, who managed to downplay the now-dated synthesizer flourishes while warming up the string section.
Director Harold Prince and his colleagues cast this show very shrewdly back then, and Angela Lansbury, the concert's emcee, was right: That same cast made for a “magnificent, wonderful evening” in 1993, too.
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SOURCE: “Love in Gloom,” in New Yorker, Vol. 70, No. 14, May 23, 1994, pp. 89–92.
[In the following negative review of Passion, Lahr condemns Sondheim's lack of distinction between psychotic obsession and true passionate love, his conversational tone, his lack of melody, his use of a predictable gothic Romantic formula, and the musical’s failure to be convincing.]
There are animals in the jungle that survive by playing dead and Fosca, the heroine of Stephen Sondheim's Passion, is one of them. Ugly, hysterical, unrelenting, joyless, she's an amalgam of alienations, and personifies both romantic agony and the dead end to which Sondheim, in his perverse brilliance, has brought the American musical. In Passion, the charm of angst replaces the charm of action, and the American musical, once a noisy, vulgar, bumptious exhibition of our appetite for life, is deconstructed into an elegant flirtation with death. Sondheim's “revolution” is not really one of form (most of his shows are lyric-heavy and not well integrated) but one of intellectual ambition: his shows substitute the prestige of pain for the prestige of enjoyment. Here, for instance, the audience is encouraged not to applaud but to listen. The songs are treated as narrative, and are not even listed in the program. Sondheim, whose musical ideas are rarely as bold as his lyric ones, is in rebellion against “tunes” (which is why he doesn't provide many) and the notion of himself as a “tunesmith.” We are coaxed to see Sondheim as a thinker and the musical as a statement. But the formal qualities of verse—rhyme's combination of rigor and delight—make it a blunt analytic instrument, “unsuitable for controversy,” as W. H. Auden has pointed out. Nevertheless, the public, ever mindful of Sondheim's greatness (“Is Stephen Sondheim God?” a New York headline asked recently), sits reverently, without intermission, to receive the pieties and the pontificating of Passion, which, typically, has no passion, only ratiocination. What we get in this listless epistolary musical, where the main characters spend much of their time singing love letters to and from each other, is the results of Sondheim's recent experiments with the play's director and librettist, James Lapine: not the big heart but the dead heart; not the joy of the pleasure dome but the hush of the lecture hall; not dancing but reading.
Sondheim's eye for excellent material far exceeds his ability to plumb it. Assassins (1991), for instance, offered him the extraordinary panorama of American psychopathy and infamy, but from it he drew merely a dark cartoon. Passion, which is set in Italy in the eighteen-sixties and was adapted from the Ettore Scola film Passione d'Amore, poses a mesmerizing psychological conundrum in the story of Fosca's erratic behavior and her eventual seduction of the handsome, promising captain, Giorgio (superbly sung by Jere Shea), but Sondheim can't musically come to grips with its issues of love and emotional tyranny. The production prefers to stay on the surface of the Romantic formula of suffering without reward. The startling first image—the naked body of Giorgio's lover, Clara (the voluptuous and fine-voiced Marin Mazzie), astride her hairy-chested package of military testosterone—has the look of passion but not the hunger. They are talking their pleasure, not taking it, and this mutual meditation on ecstasy is cut short at the end of the first song by Giorgio's announcement that he's being posted to a backwater. The lovers’ words speak of perfection with a lyric conviction that the music can't match:
Some say happiness Comes and goes. Then this happiness Is a kind of happiness No one really knows.
Giorgio's happiness and his heroic reputation (he has rescued a wounded soldier in a skirmish with the Russian infantry) are tested by Fosca, an orphan, whose only kin is a cousin, the colonel of the regiment to which Giorgio is posted. She interrupts the banality of military dinner-table badinage with an offstage scream. It's the first we hear of her, and the noise is sensationally appropriate. Fosca (in a stunning performance by Donna Murphy) is intrusive. She knows no boundaries, and the scream broadcasts her inability to contain herself. “She is a kind of medical phenomenon,” a doctor tells Giorgio. “A collection of many ills.” As staged, she is also a collection of iconic trappings from gothic romance: the shadowy figure descending the long, gloomy staircase; the black-shrouded silhouette; the doomed, spectral presence. Fosca buttonholes Giorgio with her sharp intelligence while Clara, in a gorgeous pink gown, simultaneously materializes before us to sing her letter to him. Clara conjures a world of joy: the “sultry afternoon” and their sumptuous sex. Fosca, on the other hand, is a gourmand of griefs. She clutches a book; and when Giorgio, out of politeness, offers to lend her material from his library his decency gives Fosca an opening and an audience. She has taken death as her dominion, and she loses no time in selling herself as an aristocrat of anguish. “Sickness is normal to me, as health is to you,” she tells Giorgio, startling his soldier's imagination. Sondheim's characterization of military life is wholly unconvincing—drum rolls, marching soldiers, and some trite lyrics:
Group: This military madness This military All: Uniforms, uniforms Giorgio: Military madness.
But when Fosca sings to Giorgio about why she reads, at once disguising and admitting her defensiveness, Sondheim is in his element, and he delivers a brilliantly insightful soliloquy about resignation. “I do not dwell on dreams,” she sings to Giorgio in the show's finest song. “I know how soon a dream becomes an expectation.” She goes on, exalted:
I do not hope for what I cannot have! I do not cling to things I cannot keep! The more you cling to things, The more you love them, The more the pain you suffer When they're taken from you … Ah, but if you have no expectations, Captain, You can never have a disappointment.
Fosca haunts the outpost with both her grief and her envy. She is inconsolable. She will not eat. She will not laugh. She humiliates herself. She can take pleasure only in things that reflect her sense of collapse, like the ruined castle to which she offers to take Giorgio. “I find it lovely,” she says. “Probably because it's ruined, I suppose.” She uses her sense of blighted life to extract pity from Giorgio, whose mind is full of Clara, and whose mouth is full of romantic, symbiotic mush about “love that fuses two into one.” Giorgio is a victim of his own decency. He struggles to fend off Fosca's panic-stricken emotional demands. “This woman has no friends. No one to talk to. I know the power I have over her,” he explains to Clara, who has cautioned him to keep his distance. “I didn't ask for this power—she bestowed it upon me, but somehow it carries responsibilities that I can't seem to shed.” Fosca plays on Giorgio's youthful omnipotence. “Understand me, be my friend,” she sings to Giorgio—a plea whose pathos and empowerment he finds impossible to refuse. “They hear drums / We hear music. / Be my friend.”
No barrier that Giorgio can put between them keeps Fosca away. She will not be denied. She is beyond hope or shame. This is not passion but obsession—a distinction that Sondheim's show doesn't make clear. Fosca follows Giorgio up a mountain, onto a train. She is even prepared to kill herself to get his attention, taking to her bed after she receives his Dear Fosca letter. “You rejected her love—which doesn't surprise me,” the doctor tells Giorgio. “This woman is letting herself die because of you.” The doctor prevails on Giorgio's chivalrous nature to help save a life, but in agreeing to be a savior Giorgio loses control of his own life. Fosca is so emotionally impoverished that she doesn't trust the world to give her pleasure, and the musical's best scene is a chilly display of her overweening narcissism. Giorgio, thinking Fosca is dying, allows her to dictate words of love, and he dutifully writes them down and signs them as his own. The letter will later be misconstrued by Fosca's cousin and lead to a near-fatal duel, but the writing itself is a death-dealing moment. The eerie act of ventriloquism, an un-love song, demonstrates the insidiousness of Fosca's control and shows Sondheim at his dramatically most astute. It's powerful moment of psychological wretchedness, couched in the language of the romantic sublime:
For now I'm seeing love Like none I've ever known, A love as pure as breath, As permanent as death, Implacable as stone.
Sondheim and Lapine fudge the issue of Fosca's infantile behavior by giving her a history (doting parents; a feckless first husband, who absconded with her money) that in no way adequately explains the trauma of abandonment that her hysteria acts out. They opt for glib sociological shorthand: shame at her husband's rejection, and humiliation, as an unmarried woman in a patriarchal society, at forever being a “daughter.” Similarly, Giorgio's emotional volte-face after Clara refuses to run away with him (she's married, and would lose custody of her child) is dramatically confusing. On the rebound from Clara, he sees Fosca with new eyes, and transfers his romantic hyperbole to her almost instantaneously—as if losing the ideal of love were worse than losing the object of it. The moment is meant, I hope, to be ironic, but it is not played or received that way. Giorgio is betrayed by his romantic imagination. Fosca's possessiveness is refashioned by him into a delirium of unrequited love:
Love without reason, love without mercy Love without pride or shame. Love unconcerned With being returned …
“Unconcerned with being returned”? Fosca's tyrannical behavior has been entirely devoted to forcing a response from Giorgio. He doesn't hear his own befuddlement; and although the lyrics address the confusion, the words have no proper purchase on the audience's imagination, since we don't hear lyrics in the same way we hear prose. Fosca and Giorgio's embrace is the creepiest I've ever seen onstage—a kind of vampire clinch, in which Giorgio's health is exchanged for Fosca's sickness. The production cops out on this ambiguity, which the stage directions emphasize in the penultimate scene, when Giorgio thinks he has killed Fosca's cousin and lets out a high-pitched scream—“a cry that could only be reminiscent of Fosca's.” But Passion won't explore, or even acknowledge, this irony. It is just as commercially compromised as the musicals it pretends to be in rebellion against—it's forced, presumably for box-office reasons, to claim a triumph for love at the finale (“Your love will live in me!” Fosca and Giorgio sing to each other), while never dramatically proving it. In fact, everything we've been shown in the musical belies the purity of the finale's romantic ardor. The author can't quite admit his ambivalence toward the predatory Fosca, but it makes itself felt anyway, in the curious absence of pulse in his workman-like score.
Sondheim's music has a surface sophistication, a fussy accompaniment that allows no strong melodic arc but serves the conversational tone of the lyrics. Lapine's book also promises more than it delivers. Only Giorgio and Fosca are vividly drawn; the others are given a wash of personality, and an occasional line that gets a titter. The military scenes—and there are a lot of them—are uniformly lacklustre, and some are actually repetitious, reminding the audience of what it already knows: Fosca's unhappy, Giorgio's got a future, and soldiers are boorish. Lapine's organization of plot points is clunky; and the dialogue is too often of “The pheasants will be ready shortly” variety. His staging is more elegant. A former set designer as well as a filmmaker, Lapine conjures up strong, if sedate, stage pictures, using bold vertical lines made by panels that slide in from the wings and also work, in a cinematic way, to create dissolves. But, in a play where so much is verbalized and so little said, the grandness of the design trivializes rather than enhances the play's statement. In between the romantic wafflings, you find yourself studying Adrianne Lobel's beautifully painted backdrops, which suggest the hazy Italian countryside, or admiring the well-lit stippling on the movable panels.
On the night I saw Passion, the audience was both unmoved and unconvinced. They were right to be. Passion feels like a rushed and unfinished portrait, in which the head and the hands are complete but the rest remains an unexplored outline. Yet again, Sondheim and Lapine have loaded a musical with fascinating intellectual freight—a burden that, finally, it can't carry.
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SOURCE: “The Sour Smell of Success,” in New York, Vol. 27, No. 27, July 11, 1994, pp. 48–49.
[In the following review of a revival of Merrily We Roll Along, Simon offers a negative assessment, focusing on Sondheim's lack of melody, the absence of character likability, and the weakness of the retrogressive structure of the musical.]
The history of painting stretches from Anonymous to Untitled, from where only the work was essential to where the work can be anything at all and only the signature in the corner matters. Things may have come to the same pretty pass in the theater, with the pretentiously inflated, artistically bankrupt Passion a sure flop if it weren't for the prestigious signature “Stephen Sondheim” and, it must be admitted, the feebleness of the competition from Beauty and the Beast. Now, however, the York Theatre Company has revived Sondheim's 1981 fiasco, Merrily We Roll Along, so we can check out whether the old failure is better than the new success.
To be sure, this is no longer the 1981 show: Through several productions from California to England, Merrily has been fairly extensively tinkered with on book and score, though the changes have brought about scant improvement. All these revivals attest to the magic of the Sondheim signature, which even had several reviewers recanting their initial bad notices of 1981 upon reseeing the show a few days later, thus giving rise to the myth that a Sondheim opus was something like, say, a Berg opera, whose depths could not be plumbed on first hearing. This conjures up a vision of audiences having to leave future Sondheim musicals—the scenery, like the score, being unhummable—humming their hopes for a second visit.
Merrily, granted, is still in the traditional musical mold, and has some winning numbers, even if others are merely ground out, smelling a bit of midnight oil and a bit more of the sausage machine. Although Sondheim has an unbeatable way with lyrics, and a solid academic background in composition (he studied with Milton Babbitt), he lacks the natural gift of melody as it spontaneously and idiomatically wells up from the likes of Cy Coleman, Jerry Herman, and Charles Strouse. With Sondheim, as most of the Merrily score demonstrates, the key elements are rhythm, which is his own, and orchestration, which is someone else's. Except for three genuine songs—“Old Friends,” “Our Time,” and especially “Not a Day Goes By”—an aura of laboriousness attaches to this score, a sense of stubborn doodling, more kinetic than incantatory.
The show has a book by George Furth based on a play by Kaufman and Hart, whose gimmick is to move backward in time as we retrace the steps of a group af artists and friends. Franklin, a composer, and Charley, his lyricist, are old college chums. Mary, a novelist unrequitedly in love with Franklin, is the third musketeer. They have all made it, but at what cost! Franklin has dumped his sweet actress wife, Beth, to marry Gussie, an ambitious and jealous prima donna, herself hounded by an ex-husband, a once powerful producer, now a washout. Franklin has become a sharklike film producer; Mary is now an obstreperous lush and a critic (which is worse?); Charley has succeeded with a straight play of his own, but has left the group to their relentless careerism and corrosive partygoing.
Through phase after phase, the story regresses to the trio's beginnings, until these hard, unlovable characters reach their likably idealistic youth, and the viciously barbed story turns cutely sentimental—a doubtful improvement. But the first half makes for extremely unpleasant onstage goings-on, exemplified by a woman's tossing the contents of an iodine bottle in a younger rival's eyes, all of which prevents even the music from rolling along merrily. The retrograde structure is strategically self-defeating: We might care enough about decent people as we watched them gradually turning into rotters, but people we loathe on sight are unlikely to move us with the buried sweetness of their early days. Especially not if there is confusion in the authors’ minds, so that we cannot tell whether success itself is automatically corrupting—a rather stale formula—or whether the characters themselves are intrinsically flawed, which is not properly brought out.
The current production is no help, either. As Franklin, Malcolm Gets is, from start to finish, undistinguished as actor, singer, and presence. As Charley, Adam Heller has the right comic-sidekick persona, but he can't sing. Amy Ryder's Mary is so aggressively unappealing in every part of her vast anatomy and puny personality that one cannot imagine what would have drawn the others to her in the first place. As Beth, Anne Bobby delivers “Not a Day Goes By” with such an edgy shrillness (perhaps demanded by the director) as to effectively scuttle it. As Gussie, Michele Pawk hardly changes from scene to scene—a fault shared by some of the others. Only Cass Morgan, in several supporting parts, makes a definite impression.
On a small stage and budget, a unit set must convey many locations, which requires the taste and ingenuity James Morgan's décor vainly strives for, despite a useful assist from Wendall K. Harrington's projections. Costumes, lighting, and choreography try hard, but succumb to various constraints. Susan H. Schulman's direction is merely competent: It manages individual scenes more or less, but fails to achieve a propulsive and purposive whole.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7363
SOURCE: “What We Laugh about When We Laugh about Stephen Sondheim's Assassins,” in Popular Music and Society, Vol. 19, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 105–23.
[In the following essay focused on Assassins, Fulk and Howard examine the dysfunctional family, both biological and adoptive, as the cause of each killer's actions and as the source of their personal and political discontent. They also focus on Sondheim's gender abasement within the musical and the use of guns as phallic symbols.]
The culmination of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's musical Assassins, at least from a comic standpoint, is the failed assassination(s) of Gerald Ford. In this scene (scene 13), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore join forces in an attempt to gun down the President in a public park. Through the ineptness of both women, Ford escapes unharmed. All three of the characters are portrayed as ineffectual: Moore cannot control her gun, Fromme cannot control her temper, and the President does not even realize he is in danger. The audience is positioned treacherously by this spectacle. The scene is approached from the perspective of the two women, thus positioning the audience in a sympathetic relation to them, but the audience is then prompted to laugh at their failure. However, this laughter becomes as much about Ford and his unmitigated, naive politeness, which embodies one type of political and historical agency in America, as it does about Fromme and Moore.
Fromme and Moore are real would-be assassins of Ford, though their attempts were not made at the same place or time. As they do with all the assassins represented, Sondheim and Weidman draw judiciously on the available historical evidence about Moore and Fromme, presenting it partially and fictionalizing as necessary to shape the historical events and personalities to their own vision of America. Their musical's presentation of Moore, Fromme, and the other assassins becomes a polemic about America and its history using the family as its central metaphor. The musical examines how the family, as a locus and collapsing site of the private and the political, becomes both an institution of nurturing and, when dysfunctional, of destruction. Although the musical makes a profound and provocative statement about the fatal flaws of American culture, it also uncritically implicates itself in some of those very flaws. An examination of the characters of Fromme and Moore as contrasted to the other, male, assassins reveals a deep sexism at the heart of this representation.
Assassins premiered off-Broadway on January 27, 1991. It closed after only a short run, and has never played on Broadway. Reviews of the show at the time were overwhelmingly negative. In a review entitled “Dumb, Dumb Bullets,” John Simon asked, “What the hell were [Sondheim and Weidman] thinking when they came up with this idea for a show?” While acknowledging that the work is “rich with complex and powerfully disturbing strokes of artistry,” Michael Feingold claimed in the Village Voice that “it never goes deep enough to be taken with total seriousness as a work of art” (87).
In the following year, 1992, Assassins made its European debut in London. Here, the show was a smashing success. Variety, which in 1991 had commented, “Dozens of shots are fired off loudly in Assassins, but few of them hit their mark,” in 1992 published a review by Matt Wolf that claimed that “when the cast takes aim with Sondheim's loaded score, the evening almost invariably hits its mark.”
Several factors probably combined to produce this drastic shift of opinion about the show. First, nearly all reviewers agree that the decision made in the off-Broadway production to accompany the songs with a trio (on percussion, synthesizer, and piano), rather than a full orchestra, was a mistake. Second, for the British production, Sondheim and Weidman inserted new material to soften the impact of the Kennedy assassination scene, easily the most disturbing moment in the show. Finally, the European audience was less invested in American cultural icons than the New York theatergoers, and hence less troubled by the show's subject matter. For very similar reasons, we believe, the crowd at our own university's production of the show was deeply divided along generational lines. Those old enough to remember the assassination of President Kennedy were offended by its portrayal onstage, while those, like us, who were too young to remember it were much less affected. As a result, our perceptions of the show's quality were radically different than those of our older friends.
Like Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats, Stephen Sondheim's Assassins is more a series of character depictions than a sustained narrative. In Assassins, nine individuals who have at some point in history killed or attempted to kill the President of the United States sing and dance their way across the stage, telling their stories. The show provides a transhistorical setting in which characters from two centuries of American history meet and discuss their grievances before enacting their crimes. The culmination of the piece is Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination of John Kennedy, a moment that, as the show explains, forms the center and the connecting link for all assassination attempts before or since.
In Sondheim and Weidman's musical, family becomes the central concept that binds the group of American assassins and would-be assassins. The members of this “family” exert pressure on one another, support and even share one another's motives and lives across history. They represent a group that disrupts the patriotic fervor surrounding past presidents and presents a potentially subversive challenge to the conventional American historical narrative. As the assassins comment in the song “Another National Anthem,” their tales disrupt the “game” of the status quo: “They may not want to hear it, / But they listen, / Once they think it's gonna stop the game” (85). This surly, quixotic, multinational family lies at the heart of this history of American assassins and provides a place from which a dystopian vision of the American dream can be created.
The term “family” emphasizes the roles that encompass the stereotypical American family: father and mother, of opposite genders, and their children. However, the term broadens as the musical progresses to include those roles even when not fulfilled by the stereotypical members. The roles and responsibilities involved become mutated, showing finally a dysfunctional family that ends in destroying its “greatest” member while trying to rewrite history. Family and history join in a strangely American way, suggesting that history itself is a family with its own rules of recognition and obliteration.
Giuseppe Zangara, attempted assassin of FDR and assassin of Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago, is the first “family member” in the piece to demonstrate how his actions are motivated by the dissolution of his family. In the song “How I Saved Roosevelt,” Zangara replies to the voices of onlookers describing his failed attempt. Zangara, constantly in pain from a stomach ailment, blames both his family and “the rich” for his condition. As he explains, “When I was a boy, / No school. / I work in a ditch. / No chance. / The smart and the rich / Ride by, / Don't give no glance” (31). He then explains that, ever since his childhood labor, he has blamed “the rich.” For Zangara, it did not matter who died (Hoover or Roosevelt), as “Long as it's king!” (32). Finally, Zangara balks at the way the onlookers characterize him in political jargon: “You think I am Left? / No Left, no Right, / No anything! / Only American!” (34). Zangara dies angry—at his father, the presidency and the United States.
In the histories of Zangara, the emphasis on family and its overlap with rulership is crucial. In his sworn statement to Dade County after his assassination attempt, Zangara explains how his father took him out of school at too young an age:
I was two months in school. My father came and take me out … and say “You don't need no school. You need to work.” He take me out of school. Lawyers ought to punish him—that's the trouble—he send me to school and I don't have this trouble. Government!
(qtd. in Clarke 168)
Later in the same sworn statement, he links more blatantly his father, the stomach pain, and the rich: “Because rich people make me suffer and do this [stomach pain] to me. My father he sent me to school and then made me work” (qtd. in Clarke 168). Again, it did not seem to matter who Zangara shot, as long as it was a ruler. At a much younger age, for instance, Zangara had planned to kill King Victor Emmanuel III of his homeland, Italy (Clarke 169).
For Zangara, then, a father's misrule and a government's inability to respond led to the fateful assassination attempt. For Lynette Fromme, however, a father's hostility and a Messianic fraud combine to lead to an attempted assassination of Gerald Ford. Fromme relates on her entrance in Assassins how her father's cruelty led to her ties with Charles Manson. In her discourse, also, the personal and the political blend. As Fromme explains, “I'd just had a big fight with my daddy about, I don't know, my eye make-up or the bombing of Cambodia. He said I was a drug addict and a whore and I should get out of his house forever” (42). Her anger at her father leads to emphatic support of Manson, this “dirty-lookin’ little elf” who met her on the beach and claims he is “the son of God” (42, 44). Fromme explains later in the song “Another National Anthem” that she attempted to kill Ford “to make them listen to Charlie”: “I did it so there'd be a trial, and Charlie would get to be a witness, and he'd be on TV, and he'd save the world!” (79–80).
The actual reports of Fromme's reasons for attempting to kill Ford are not very disparate from what Sondheim and Weidman represent, though far less comic. After Manson was jailed for the Tate-LaBianca murders, Fromme became the person connecting Manson with the world outside his cell. She communicated to the press Manson's and apparently her own ideas about the injustice of Ford's never being elected to office. In a release possibly penned by Manson himself, Ford became a transgressor, running the country against the law:
If Nixon's reality wearing a Ford face continues to run this country against the law without any real truth, trust and faith—if Manson is not allowed to explain what you are too sheltered to face, your homes will be bloodier than the Tate-LaBianca houses and My Lai put together.
(qtd. in Clarke 150)
Fromme in her own trial repeatedly refers to Manson, telling Judge McBride at one point that “all the laws were broken when Manson was put in prison” (qtd. in Clarke 154). Fromme's conviction that Manson was Messiah led her to sacrifice her own freedom in an attempt to assassinate Ford.
In the play, Samuel Byck (who attempted to assassinate Richard Nixon) uses parenthood metaphorically to suggest what a two-party system of government does. In real life, Byck was ambivalent about his father, a kind but inept and financially unsuccessful man (Clarke 129). The character Byck uses extended metaphor about parenthood to suggest that in a two-party government, truth is never visible:
We want to make things better! How?! Let's hold an election! Great. The Democrat says he'll fix everything, the Republicans fucked up. The Republican says he'll fix everything, the Democrats fucked up. Who's telling us the truth? Who's lying? Someone's lying. Who? We read, we guess, we argue, but deep down we know that we don't know.
(Sondheim, Assassins 77)
Then he compares our government's relationship to its citizens to a child waking in the dark from a nightmare and being comforted by his parents, only to find the family falling apart. Once more, government and patriarchy become conflated with the personal and private:
Like children waking in the dark, we don't know where we are. “I had a bad dream! Mommy! Daddy! Sammy had a nightmare!” And daddy comes and takes me in his arms and says, “It's O.K., Sammy. Daddy's here. I love you, kid. Your mommy doesn't, but I do.” And mommy comes and holds me tight and says, “I've got you, Bubala. I'm here for you. Your daddy isn't, but I am.” … And then where are we? Who do we believe? What do we do?! (a beat) We do what we have to do. We kill the President.
Byck explains in a tape-recorded message to Leonard Bernstein what he intends to do:
I'm gonna change things, Lenny. I'm gonna drop a 747 on the White House and incinerate Dick Nixon. It's gonna make the news. You're gonna hear about it and I know you're gonna ask yourself: What kind of world is this where a decent, stand-up guy like Sam Byck has to crash a plane into the President to make a point?
Byck approaches the assassination of Nixon as something he has to do, but sees the love songs of composers like Bernstein as the saviors of the wreckage and ruin of America.
In both the musical and historical narratives of their lives, Zangara, Fromme and Byck conflate the rulers and government with their personal oppression. Fromme and Zangara emerge from dysfunctional families, while Byck's historical family seems only financially insolvent. Their assassination attempts on stage enact their despair and, in each case, again lead to personal failure. Other assassins invoke the idea of a family of assassins to right the imbalance they see. If any two characters emerge in the play as father and mother, then they are John Wilkes Booth and Sara Jane Moore. Yet, their failures in these roles make up the comic and tragic climaxes of Assassins, ultimately destroying the very things the assassins should preserve to insure their own inclusion in history.
Booth becomes the patriarch and progenitor of the other assassins. The proprietor of the shooting gallery in the first number of Assassins introduces Booth as the assassins’ “Pioneer” and calls him “chief”; the other assassins “view him with a certain deference” (11). Booth also defines for the assassins what “free country” means: first, it “[m]eans your dreams can come true” (12); second, it “[m]eans they listen to you”; finally, it “[m]eans you don't have to sit … And put up with the shit” (12–13). As father/pioneer of American assassins, Booth defines the dream and the limits of justifiable anger. Furthermore, in the bar scene early in the play, Booth fathers the other male assassins, giving them a classical precursor (Brutus) and pushing both Zangara and Leon Czolgosz towards their assassination attempts. In response to Zangara's complaints about his stomach pain and inability to find relief, Booth asks, “Have you considered shooting Franklin Roosevelt? … It couldn't hurt” (25–26). Booth also pushes Czolgosz, assassin of William McKinley, to break a bottle, which represents Czolgosz's enslavement as an immigrant worker. Czolgosz's refusal to break the bottle causes Booth to reflect, “Men at some times are masters of their fates: / The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (28). Later, shortly before Czolgosz assassinates McKinley, Booth tells him that “all you have to do / Is / Move your little finger … You can change the world” (45–46).
Not only does Booth provide Brutus (and later, as a counter-example, Willy Loman) as inspiration for the assassins, but his death after Lincoln's assassination provides the assassins’ legacy. The character of the balladeer, whose music is done in a folk-ballad style and who often acts as a representative of traditional American history and values, operates in tension with Booth's assassination of Lincoln. The balladeer, after Booth's demise, tells the audience that he “left a legacy / Of butchery / And treason we / Took eagerly / And thought you'd [Booth] get applause” (22). Then, in spite of this legacy, the balladeer bitterly mocks and dismisses Booth, saying, “Lots of madmen / Have had their say— / But only for a day” (22). In the play, Booth has left a legacy that ultimately consumes all its followers, including Booth.
Sara Jane Moore's ineptness as housekeeper, mother, and wife becomes the central focus of her failure in trying to kill Gerald Ford. Moore attempts but fails to shoot Ford (and, ironically, the stationary image of Colonel Sanders), but does manage to kill her pet dog and almost kill her son. Historically, Moore attempted repeatedly to disrupt her assassination attempt. She called the police and told them what she was planning, then drove recklessly to the St. Francis Hotel where Ford was, hoping to be pulled over (Clarke 164). As she told an interviewer in 1976, “There was a point when anything could have stopped me and almost did. The most trivial little thing and I would have said, ‘Oh, this is ludicrous. What am I doing standing here?’” (qtd. in Clarke 164). Sondheim and Weidman turn Moore's ambivalence into ineptness. When Moore target-practices on a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Moore tells Guiteau, “I couldn't hit William Howard Taft if he were sitting on my lap” (62). At the assassination attempt, Moore brings her child and her dog. The scene opens with Moore accidentally killing her dog. When Fromme inquires why Moore brought her dog, Moore shows that her desire is to preserve the home, not realizing the severity of assassination:
Fromme: … You brought your dog to an assassination? Moore: What was I supposed to do with him, leave him in the car? Fromme: You could've left him home! Moore: And come back to find the couch all chewed up? No, thanks!
Moore also characterizes Fromme's radicalism as being outside of the traditional role for women. When she describes Fromme, she calls her a “teenage slut” and states, “I'd rather be a stupid housewife than a teenage slut! Sitting in a stupid mall someplace, listening to some stupid music with a bunch of stupid girlfriends. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. No wonder you wound up with a creep like Charlie Manson” (73). Fromme in turn suggests that Moore has failed as a mother and a wife, cavalierly reminding her that she has failed five times at marriage, and actually saves Moore's son when Moore prepares to shoot him (72–73). Moore and Fromme both fail ridiculously in their attempt to assassinate Ford. The cylinder of Moore's gun falls open and spills, and Fromme's gun fails to go off. Moore and Fromme's attempt ends with Ford himself strolling off-stage after helping Moore collect her bullets, and Moore pathetically hurling bullets after him and yelling “Bang … Bang!” (75).
While Moore and Fromme's failed attempt on Ford becomes the comic climax of the play, Oswald's successful assassination becomes the epitome and downfall of the family of American assassins. When this climactic scene opens, Lee Harvey Oswald is preparing to commit suicide. Booth walks in and reads part of Oswald's suicide note aloud. The partial text tells the audience that Marina (Oswald's wife) was “oppressed” by Oswald (91), suggesting Oswald's apparent failure as a husband and father. When Booth tries to draw Oswald into conversation, Oswald refuses until Booth uses his familial nickname Alik, a pet name Marina used when they were in Minsk. After he has Oswald's ear, Booth rehearses how Oswald just wants some recognition: “It's just so sad … I mean, it's all you ever wanted, isn't it? Someone who won't leave you alone. Someone who wants to hear about your day. Someone, anyone—your mother. Mother Russia. The Marines. Your wife Marina” (93). Booth conflates for Oswald the political and the personal, as Oswald seeks recognition from both (or either). Booth coerces the admission from Oswald that all he really wants is to be loved. However, as soon as he confesses it, Booth tells him that it will never happen, even demonstrating how Oswald's planned suicide is merely another doomed attempt to get love. When Oswald in desperation asks what he should do, Booth dryly states: “You should kill the President of the United States” (94).
To convince him, Booth provides contrasting histories that further conflate the personal and the political. Booth labels Oswald as a “victim” and tells him how he is a victim of both his family and the country:
All your life you've been a victim, Lee. A victim of indifference and neglect. Of your mother's scorn, your wife's contempt, of Soviet stupidity, American injustice. You've finally had enough, so how are you planning to get even? By becoming your own victim.
Even the rifle that Oswald eventually uses to kill Kennedy is configured as oddly familial. When Booth points to the weapon he wants Oswald to use, Oswald's curtain rods (which Marina asked him to return) become the fateful rifle. Then, to further his point that Oswald should direct his rage outward, against American society, if he wants to be remembered, Booth mentions his own hero, Brutus, whose name Oswald immediately recognizes. Booth contrasts Brutus with the character Willy Loman from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, who committed suicide and still could not get attention.
When Oswald seems finally to be considering assassinating the President, Booth invites the other assassins to come out of the shadows. The other assassins (past, present, and future) surround Oswald and assert that through him they gain the notoriety of “history” (96). Oswald's assassination of Kennedy becomes the stellar moment that will give all the assassins meaning. As Hinckley says, “With you we're a force of history” (100). Moore introduces the concept of familial connection, claiming that “[y]ou think you can't connect. Connect to us” (100). In the dissonant number “You Can Close the New York Stock Exchange,” Moore cries in mesmerizing rounds, “We're your family … Make us proud of you … We're depending on you” (100–01) as the music builds, crescendoing into the fatal gunshot. The assassins crowd around Oswald as he prepares to shoot, giving him support and coercing him toward his (and their) finale.
However, the moment the shot is fired, the music changes to a dissonant “Hail to the Chief.” Flashed on the screen in the darkness is a picture of Oswald's death at the hands of Jack Ruby. Booth takes the suicide note (the only writing that Oswald has presented and that explains his despair) and burns it, thus closing away forever Oswald's own commentary on his history. This act is paralleled in an earlier scene, where Booth's written record of his reasons for assassinating Lincoln is consumed in a barn fire. While the assassins claim to be a family, they set in motion their own demise and often destroy the very record of their reasons for their attempts.
Family and history become the great themes of Sondheim and Weidman's Assassins, The assassins join to connect with the historical narrative that surrounds them: the American dream of prosperity and the promise that if you work hard enough you will succeed. In their own ways, each assassin has failed. Moore cannot succeed at marriage, family, or political change; Fromme is still confused, still under the spell of deranged Charles Manson; Zangara ends dying, healing his stomach and bitterness not with understanding but death in the electric chair. The cry in the final convocation of assassins to “connect” finally fails as they fail to connect to American history or each other (106).
The family further becomes the locus through which most of the failures start. Byck uses the metaphor of family to explain his own (mis)understanding of the government; Fromme, Zangara, and others come from dysfunctional families. Even Gerald Ford at his assassination attempt pats Moore's slain family pet. These images not only undercut the American dream but suggest that the family is not even recognized by politicians and patriarchy except in meaningless gestures that show their very misrecognition.
While Sondheim and Weidman's musical explores and exposes the problems surrounding family, government, and even American views on history, it is also a product of the very flawed culture that it problematizes. Though an exceptionally provocative and challenging piece, the musical falls into the same kinds of gendered denigration from which American society still suffers. Nowhere is this co-optation of Assassins with American gender inequality more evident than in the portrayal of the two female assassins, Fromme and Moore. Sondheim and Weidman choose to portray the women as inept and humorous. Never really perceived as dangerous in the way the other assassins are, the two women are the production's main source of comic relief. The gender politics behind Sondheim and Weidman's characterizations can be studied in terms of two broad ideas: that of male types vs. female types of bonding, and that of the gun-as-phallus.
In order for Assassins to form a coherent whole, assassins who actually lived more than 100 years apart in time must be seen to bond together as a group onstage. Sondheim and Weidman choose to construct this bonding by establishing a male/female friction in the opening scene, the shooting gallery. In this masculine space, the male assassins create a bond that is reinforced by their attempts to exclude the women from it. This bonding is really an alternative to the more striking view of family presented at other points in the piece. Though family often contains its own inequalities, Sondheim and Weidman work to create at times a space that is revered exclusively as male. The male assassins’ scripted behavior follows closely the customary real-life pattern of male bonding described by Lionel Tiger in his anthropological work, Men in Groups: “[M]ales bond in a variety of situations involving power, force, crucial or dangerous work … they consciously and emotionally exclude females from these bonds” (112). Presumably, male audience members who are not particularly receptive to murderous figures, or perhaps to family imagery, can identify with this bonding behavior and will become, as a result, more sympathetic to the male assassins.
As Assassins opens, the spectators behold a carnival set, with a shooting gallery booth in the center. Calliope music plays in the background, a cheerful though slightly mechanical and tinny 3/4 time melody that evokes a typically American second-rate carnival scene. The characters who pass by dressed in various clothing styles ranging over the past 125 years and the revolving silhouettes of American Presidents as shooting-gallery targets give the opening scene a surrealistic quality.
As the music shifts into 4/4 time and a soft, bluesy shuffle, the proprietor of the shooting gallery is the first voice heard by the audience. He sings temptingly to the male assassins one by one as they walk by, “C'mere and kill a President” (6). He actively recruits the men, suggesting various problems each has, which might be resolved by assassinating a President. Five men parade by, and to each (except Samuel Byck, to whom he never speaks directly) the proprietor sells a gun, explaining how it will solve all problems.
The men, though not yet bonded into a cohesive group, are given a common enterprise—assassination—and share a sense that their grievances are validated within the group. The shooting gallery setting provides what Tiger regards as another essential ingredient of male bonding: an “object of aggression” (160). In this case, of course, the object is not just the painted target, but the President it stands for.
At this juncture in the show, the two women enter from opposite sides of the stage. Both are attracted by the shooting gallery, but the proprietor makes it clear that this is a man's world where they do not belong. Only the sight of the women's money causes him to reluctantly sell them guns. He patronizes them in a sexist manner, addressing Fromme as “Yo, baby!” and Moore as “Jeez, lady—!” (10). These means of address, both accented by an octave jump—first down, then up—between the three syllables, reflect the way each character is subsequently portrayed: Fromme as the sex object of dangerous madman Charles Manson and Moore as a disorganized and confused housewife. Though he had acknowledged the men's motives for attempting assassination, the only motive he ascribes to the women's desire to join the group is his query to Fromme, “Looking for a thrill?” (10). The women's grievances go unacknowledged in this scene. He attempts to direct both to safer, childlike pursuits: the Ferris wheel and the bumper cars. His final words to Moore again treat her as a child, as he reminds her, “Don't forget that guns can go boom” (11).
The women are not present in the subsequent bar scene where the male assassins air their political complaints and receive validation from each other. Excluded from the male space, they are also excluded from the comradeship among the men and from the sympathy of the audience. Traditionally, Tiger writes, women have been excluded from groups dedicated to violence (171). However, despite Tiger's findings that females “do not form groups which are expressly devoted to violent activity or to potentially violent action” (172), the female assassins are given their own “female bonding moment” in Scene 6. Unlike the male bonding scene, which takes place in the socially sanctioned space of the bar, the women's bonding takes place in the open space of a public park, which they must appropriate for the purpose. Here, while Moore eats Kentucky Fried Chicken and the two share a joint, they tell each other bits of their respective backgrounds. Like the men, the women here describe their motives for assassination, but instead of gaining the audience's sympathy they are made to appear ridiculous and mentally unbalanced.
Moore makes clear from the beginning her desire to bond with Fromme, a representative of the counterculture to which Moore would like to belong. When Fromme labels the KFC “plastic” (the Manson family were vegetarian [Sanders 79]), Moore is quick to agree (40). She also admires Fromme's “groovy … psychedelic” beads, wishing she had a similar set (41). Moore's motive for her assassination attempt on Gerald Ford is thus arrived at indirectly through this desire to emulate Fromme. In real life, Moore's attempt followed and was inspired by Fromme's. Her main motive was to reestablish her ties with radical leftist movements. Moore had been an FBI informant assigned to infiltrate these groups, but her loyalties became confused, and after she purposely blew her cover, neither side trusted her. Shooting the President was one way of permanently defining her own identity. All of this biographical information is hinted at, but never fully stated, in her conversation with Fromme in Scene 6.
Fromme, in this scene, reveals her passionate loyalty to and dependence on Charles Manson almost from the first. In her first six lines, she repeats the words “Charlie says” five times, quoting over and over again from Manson doctrine (40–41). She tells the story of how she first met Manson on a California beach. He took the place of the father who had just kicked her out of his house. Charlie filled a void in her life; she allowed him to take control, and now she even speaks with his words more than with her own. Her motive for assassination is her zealous belief in Charlie, and thus he often speaks through her actions.
When Fromme in the musical describes her father's throwing her out of the house, Moore starts to cry. She explains that the picture of Colonel Sanders on the chicken bucket reminds her of her father, who also threw her out. Fromme, who up until this point has remained aloof from Moore and her concerns, speaking only of Charlie, becomes willing to help now that Moore has identified a common grievance. Sympathetically, Fromme suggests killing Moore's father by making the sign of the evil eye at the “graven image” on the bucket. In a very comic tableau, the two women contort themselves into strange positions, staring balefully at the chicken bucket. Moore eventually becomes impatient with this slow form of magic, whips out her gun, and shoots the bucket. Fromme joins her, and the two fire repeatedly at the Colonel's image, “laughing and shrieking like schoolgirls” according to stage directions (44). The very real problems both share in relating to their fathers are thus made to look childish and ridiculous in the context of the musical.
The scene ends with the mutual discovery that the Charles Manson whom Moore knew when both were in high school in West Virginia is the same Charles Manson Fromme believes to be the Son of God (an accurate, though strange, historical fact [Clarke 157]). When this coincidence dawns on them, the two women simply scream repeatedly with excitement, in much the same schoolgirl way, as the scene fades to black. The women have now clearly formed an enduring bond, though the final image of the scene once again reinforces the notion of the two as childish. In contrast to the male bonding scene, which left an impression of men seriously engaged in political and social debate, this scene shows women reacting to personal problems in bizarre and puerile ways.
From the very first scene of Assassins, set in a shooting gallery, the gun is prominent as the weapon of choice. The obvious association of the gun and the phallus, prevalent throughout the show, is the primary reason the women seem so out of place in the brotherhood of assassins. In the shooting gallery, the men are naturally reluctant to give control of a gun to the females. Susan Lurie writes that men fear woman because “she is not castrated despite the fact that she has no penis” (qtd. in Sexual Subject 8). As women who possess guns, and, therefore, phalluses, Moore and Fromme are a disturbing presence within the show that must be neutralized. Sondheim and Weidman have created the characters of the women so as to neutralize each in a different way. Since “gun” equals “phallus,” it is also not surprising that Fromme hides her gun under her skirt and Moore keeps hers in her purse. Not much is said in the musical about Fromme and her gun, but Moore's is a constant source of amusement.
Moore is portrayed as a clumsy housewife, unable to handle a gun. In the scene following the two women's bonding in the park, she joins Czolgosz, Booth, and Guiteau to sing a number entitled “Gun Song.” The men wax eloquent about the philosophical implications (and phallic power) of their own weapons, heralding the fact that “[i]t takes a lot of men to make a gun” and approaching the gun with almost religious regard: “all you have to do is move your little finger … and—you can change the world” (45–46). At the chorus, the three join to harmonize in barbershop style. Obviously, one more member is needed to complete the quartet, but the entrance of Moore that follows is more disruptive than complementary. The presence of a female breaks the carefully set up pattern. As the music's tempo increases to a frenetic staccato, she sings, “I got this really great gun—Shit, where is it?” (47). She has lost the gun in her purse, and spends the rest of her solo verse searching for it, pulling other (potentially phallic) objects, out of her purse, and all the while assuring her audience that her gun is “really great.” Moore not only cannot find her gun, but she is unable to describe it in the same eloquent terms as the men. After Moore finally locates her gun, the song moves into its (modified) barbershop-style quartet chorus. At a fixed point, the four pull their triggers in unison. The men's guns click harmlessly; Moore accidentally fires hers. She is shown in a later scene (Scene 11) using the fried chicken bucket for target practice and missing every time. Moore is the only assassin shown doing target practice, and the only one whose gun ever goes off except during an assassination scene. She not only cannot wield the phallic power she has been given, but she is unable to understand its nature in the sophisticated terms that the men do. A figure like this character cannot be perceived as dangerous by the audience (except insofar as she cannot control where and when she shoots), and cannot possibly be taken seriously.
Interestingly, the immediate media reaction in 1975 to Moore's assassination attempt seemed to focus more on the gun than on her, touching off renewed agitation for gun control. CBS Morning News on September 23 of that year referred to Moore as “the woman with the gun” (Rudd). Had Moore been male, the newscaster could have described her with the single word “gunman,” which has been part of the English language since 1624. “Gunman” suggests a fusion of person and weapon that is not possible for our society to apply to a woman mentally or linguistically. Calling Moore “the woman with the gun” reflects the impossibility of a female ever laying rightful claim to a gun/phallus. “Woman” is kept linguistically separate from “gun”—the object that caused all the trouble. Blaming the gun denied Moore agency in real life just as Sondheim and Weidman deny it in the show by not allowing her to control the gun.
Fromme, by contrast, is portrayed in the show as dangerous, but only insofar as she is controlled by the ever-present figure of a man who is eminently dangerous—Manson. His words issue from her mouth; she takes up a gun solely for his sake. The audience, perceiving her as deluded and harmless in herself, yet shudders at the reminders of her master. Fromme, as she is portrayed in Assassins is a perfect illustration of Richard Dyer's theory of phallic power:
Because only men have penises, phallic symbols, even if in some sense possessed by a woman … are always symbols of ultimately male power. The woman who wields phallic power does so in the interests of men.
Fromme's gun/phallus does not belong to her, but to the controlling male figure of Charles Manson, never present on stage but constantly evoked through Fromme's dialogue.
While it is true that Fromme believed herself to be serving Manson's ends by attempting to assassinate Ford, she was most likely acting as an individual rather than under his orders. The media in 1975 also saw Fromme completely controlled by Manson. CBS News described her as “a young woman identified as a disciple in the cult of mass-murderer Charles Manson” before her name was revealed (Rockefeller). Like the real Fromme, whose identity was removed by the media in favor of identification with the notorious Manson, Fromme's character in the show has lost all sense of herself as an individual. She, like the gun in her hand, is a tool of Charles Manson.
Moore and Fromme's assassination scene is played for comedy from beginning to end. In reality, the two women never met before their assassination attempts, though they have since been imprisoned in the same maximum security hall (Livsey 189). In the show, however, the two join forces to make a single attempt. As has been suggested, this dual assassination attempt becomes the comic climax of the piece, thus suggesting that we cannot take these “women with guns” seriously.
In real life, Fromme's gun did fail to go off at the crucial moment, though there is some doubt as to whether she really intended it to. Her gun had four rounds of ammunition in the clip, but none in the chambers, and she might have been either surprised or defensive as she repeated to Secret Service agents, “It didn't go off. It didn't go off” (Livsey 54). Many have suggested that Fromme knew very well how to handle a gun, and would not have failed to fire if she meant to. An earlier film of her shows her caressing a rifle and saying, “You have to make love with it. You have to know every part of it so that you could pick it up any second and shoot” (Sanders 450). This quotation not only reinforces the image of gun-as-phallus, but suggests that Fromme may have never intended to fire. Pointing the weapon was enough to insure the trial she wanted to spread Charlie's message. In addition, when Fromme was apprehended, she was not aiming the gun at a mortal spot such as Ford's head or chest—she aimed the gun at his genitals (Clarke 153). A symbolic act was sufficient.
Moore did not, in fact, bring her son to the assassination attempt, though if Ford had not emerged from the hotel when he did, she would have needed to leave to pick him up from school. She really did not want to kill the President—hers was an act of desperation in response to personal problems that had little directly to do with Ford. In fact, she alerted the police to her assassination plan several days before it happened, but they deemed her not a sufficient security risk to worry about. When the authorities failed to stop her, and the crowd was so packed she could not turn around and leave, she apparently felt trapped into going through with her act. She did practice her aim at a shooting range, and we have found no evidence to indicate that she was a particularly bad shot or incapable of handling a gun (Clarke 163–64). Certainly her gun went off. She missed Ford perhaps only because her aim was joggled, and wounded a bystander instead (Bell 72–73).
Not only do Sondheim and Weidman's double-standard gender politics prevent the female assassins from achieving true phallic power, but also from getting the same sympathy and attention to their motivations that even the unsuccessful male assassins are given. Both Byck and Hinckley are seen as dangerous, demented, violent men, although Byck (all but forgotten by history because his attempt on Nixon was overshadowed by Watergate) could easily have provided a comic model of ineptness and a grandiose bravado. Though Fromme and Moore were motivated by very different forces, their fundamental problem was the same. Both sought to define their own identities in relation to outside forces—Fromme to Charlie Manson, Moore to the various leftist organizations that had rejected her. Poignantly, both gave strikingly similar reasons for deciding to take up a gun. Fromme once explained, “Well, you know when people around treat you like a child and pay no attention to the things you say, you have to do something” (Bell 72). Moore explained, “There comes a point when the only way you can make a statement is to pick up a gun” (Clarke 165). Both these women were frustrated by society's not taking them seriously, not listening to what they had to say, and even treating them like children. Their assassination attempts were made without intention to kill—Fromme didn't load her weapon, and Moore attempted to leave the scene before Ford appeared. Both women wished only to be taken seriously at last. Fifteen years later, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman have denied them even that consolation.
A deeply flawed piece, Assassins contains much material that should make it a vital part of American culture. Though possibly Sondheim's least regarded musical, the text and music have found revival in many college and community theaters. It proves controversial every time it appears, pitting gender against gender, even generation against generation. The humor in the piece makes the audience complicit in the potentially revolutionary action of its central cast. Though ignored and derided by Broadway audiences, Assassins deserves recognition as a significant and sardonic commentary on the American dream as it has played out over the past 150 years. Thus Assassins becomes a representative of both the problems and paradoxes that fracture American lives—then and now.
Bell, J. Bower. Assassin! New York: St. Martin's, 1979.
Clarke, James W. American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982.
Dyer, Richard. “Don't Look Now: The Male Pin-up.” The Sexual Subject 265–76.
Feingold, Michael. “Hit after Hit.” Rev. of Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. Village Voice 5 Feb. 1991: 87, 90.
General Introduction. The Sexual Subject 1–11.
Livsey, Clara. The Manson Women. New York: Marek, 1980.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Sexual Subject 22–34.
Rev. of Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. Variety 28 Jan. 1991: 78.
Rockefeller, Nelson et al. CBS News 5 Sept. 1975. Off-air audio recording.
Rudd, Hughes. CBS Morning News 23 Sept. 1975. Off-air audio recording.
Sanders, Ed. The Family: The Manson Group and Its Aftermath. Rev. ed. New York: Signet, 1989.
The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality. London: Routledge, 1992.
Simon, John. “Dumb, Dumb Bullets.” Rev. of Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. New York 4 Feb. 1991: 38.
Sondheim, Stephen, and John Weidman. Assassins. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1991.
Tiger, Lionel. Men in Groups. New York: Random House, 1969.
Wolf, Matt. “Assassins.” Rev. of Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. Variety 2 Nov. 1992: 98.
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SOURCE: A review of Company, in Variety, October 9–15, 1995, p. 99.
[The following review presents a positive assessment of a revival of Company, yet condemns the production's orchestration, its sluggish commencement, and the choreography.]
Few musicals have captured their times as perfectly as Company, Three bars of Jonathan Tunick's guitar-accented orchestrations, a line from “Another Hundred People” and you can be nowhere else but New York City, 1970. Awaiting the Roundabout Theater Company's much-anticipated revival, one held one's breath. How would Company hold up? Would the Roundabout be up to the challenge? The answer to the first question is, just fine; to the second, a qualified yes.
After a shaky start, the show builds, expanding, finally, to greatness. The show needs some time to settle down, and for Boyd Gaines to fully recover his voice. But a transfer to a larger Broadway house seems inevitable, because a lot of people are going to want to see this show, and they won't be disappointed.
As with the Roundabout's recent revival of She Loves Me (with whom the present show shares a director, choreographer, star and set designer) Company recreates a period piece without reinventing it, trusting the material. In the present case, the material developed from a series of plays written by actor George Furth and later transformed by Sondheim, at the instigation of director/producer Harold Prince, into a musical.
It's impossible to re-experience exactly the feeling one had, seeing Company for the first time 25 years ago at what is now the Neil Simon Theater, knowing that the musical theater would never be the same; indeed, that one's own life would never be the same. The Beatles had broken up, and for the rest of America, the Me Decade would be defined, at least in pop music terms, by James Taylor and Jackson Browne. But on Broadway, on the musical-theater stage, the revolution was evolving differently, and here was Company, to lead the way: A grown-up show that cast the era's personal obsessions—“space,” “commitment,” “compromise,” “fulfillment”—in a mature, not to say skeptical, light.
Company had no plot, only a concept: 38-year-old Bobby (Gaines) lives a freewheeling life as an adorable single man, juggling girlfriends while being pampered by a pentad of married couples. They wish to see him paired off so that he, too, may partake of the daily terrors and comforts offered by wedded bliss.
Bobby is surely the musical theater's most passive leading man: He observes these couples with a mixture of bemusement and envy, noting the passion—along with the compromises and lies—that go into making a marriage work, best captured early on in “The Little Things You Do Together,” sung by Joanne (Debra Monk) and the company. Is it worth it? Bobby wonders. Well, it's a matter of always being “Sorry-Grateful,” his men friends respond, with grateful tipping the scale.
Bobby cherishes his friendships in the songs “Company” and “Side by Side,” even as he witnesses such shattering scenes as “Getting Married Today,” in which Amy (newcomer Veanne Cox) confronts her doubts about marriage to the wonderful man she's been living with for years (Danny Burstein), while the wedding guests wait.
The number—a patter song on methedrine delivered by Cox with exquisite pathos—is brilliantly undermined by the dramatic scene that follows, in which Amy finally negotiates a convoluted way to go ahead with the wedding, only after showing a determination to break up the relationship.
The dark secret of Company, of course, is that for all the lip service paid to the idea of wedded bliss, Bobby's not really interested, as is apparent in the show's most revealing song, “Barcelona.” After an athletic night in bed with a brainless stewardess (the entirely adorable Jane Krakowski) whose name he can't remember, his phony enticements to make her stay actually succeed—to his horror—and he can only lie back in bed and mutter, “Oh, God!”
The neat resolution that soon follows—the anthem “Being Alive” suggesting Bobby's having come around—still never quite convinces. (In its Boston tryout, the final song was a renunciation of couplehood so bitter it scared off even Prince.)
For the original Company, Prince brought in Michael Bennett to stage the musical numbers. The revival represents the best staging Scott Ellis has ever done. But Rob Marshall's choreography—which includes movement for the entire company as well as the solo “Tick Tock,” originally staged by Bennett for Donna McKechnie and performed here by the talented Charlotte d'Amboise—more closely resembles calisthenics than dance. You get really tired of seeing actors thrusting their arms heavenward, and you soon wonder whether Marshall has any interesting ideas in his head.
That's not the only reason Company takes some time taking off. Gaines, afflicted by a throat ailment, is clearly not up to speed, though just as clearly, he will get there. Moreover, the stripped-down, synthesizer-dependent (and guitarless!) orchestra sounds thin and, at the top of the show, was frequently out of synch with the singers.
But the minute La Chanze launched into “Another Hundred People” about two-thirds of the way through the first act, Company was off and never stopped running, from Cox's febrile, heartbreaking “Getting Married Today,” to the great ensemble number “Side by Side,” to Monk's bruising, rafter-raising “Ladies Who Lunch.”
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SOURCE: “Mixed Company,” in New York, Vol. 28, No. 41, October 16, 1995, p. 62–63.
[In the following favorable review, Simon compares the 1970 original production to a 1995 revival of Company, citing some disparity between the presentations.]
How nice to have Company, on its silver anniversary, keeping us company again. Stephen Sondheim's New York diptych (Follies is the other panel) is still the best work he has done, even if it pulls its punches in the end. This is the story of Bobby, a not-quite-so-young-anymore bachelor who serves to liven up the humdrum lives of five married couples, who, in turn, provide him with their clucking friendship. The musical, as Sondheim and Harold Prince conceived it from some playlets by George Furth, shows the bachelor both deploring and envying these labile couples, even as they both yearn for and feel superior to his footlooseness. A standoff: Neither singleness nor coupledness, despite certain advantages, is a total solution, and the grass will remain forever greener on the other side of the fence.
In this spirit, Sondheim originally ended the show with the sardonic song “Happily Ever After,” which left the already puzzled Boston audiences of 1970 with a decidedly bitter aftertaste: Whether the song was for or against marriage, it surely wasn't cheerful. Prince, as director, recognized the need for a more upbeat ending, so he made Sondheim write “Being Alive,” which incorporates some of the marital drawbacks from the earlier song, but with a rather more affirmative ambiguity. Yet as an unprepared-for semi-happy ending, it is in its way as fishy as the standard Hollywood climax. The honest conclusion was deferred to the next Prince-Sondheim show, Follies, which duly paid the price of honesty: failure.
Had Scott Ellis really wanted to be daring with his revival of Company for the Roundabout, he would have restored that “Happily Ever After”—perhaps, just perhaps, today's audience could have lived with a bit of unsugarcoated skepticism. Instead, Ellis reinstated at the end of Act One “Marry Me a Little,” a charming song but rightly cut from the original version for making Bobby too receptive to marriage too early in the game.
But think: Company was the first concept musical, essentially plotless, with the cast of fourteen doing all the singing and dancing (there was to be sure, a backup quartet, the Vocal Minority, now dropped). The show introduced a new subtlety: no underlined points, simple explanations, neat resolutions. For the first time, the set, the steel-and-glass vertical labyrinths of Manhattan, played a central alienating role. Spoken dialogue and songs were innovatively interwoven, each commenting on the other, and even the time frame was left teasingly, non-naturalistically vague: Did it all take place during several surprise parties or just one? And was Bobby present at his party or did he fail to show up? What was reality, what fantasy?
Alas, Roundabout's limited space and budget cannot reproduce Boris Aronson's history-making original set: a giant Cubist-and-constructivist Manhattan with steel girders, glass façades, louvers, two elevators taking the characters up and down for climactic moments, 600 projections onto this set or behind it. That gave us a sense of suprahuman immensity, constantly changing and yet congealed in its iciness, a Tatlinesque city of glittering cages in which movement, though frantic, remains meaningless. With the help of Wendall K. Harrington's amusing projections, Peter Kaczorowski's bold lighting, and William Ivey Long's snappy costumes, Tony Walton does his considerable best to create something equally suggestive without slavish imitation. However, on a modest scale, it simply can't be done; awesome imaginativeness is reduced to winsome ingenuity. The show also needs a full-size orchestra right in front of it, not a small one seeping in discreetly from behind. And Jonathan Tunick's undernourished new orchestrations fall well short of his original, more muscular ones.
Ellis's direction becomes too strenuous at times, and Rob Marshall's decent choreography is not up to Michael Bennett's groundbreaking original work. The cast, too, is a letdown, starting with the able Boyd Gaines, who turns Bobby into an attractive innocent instead of a rudimentary roué; couldn't one have got someone like Michael Rupert for the role? Among the others, Jane Krakowski and La Chanze (despite somewhat sloppy elocution) manage nicely, and Charlotte d'Amboise dances compellingly; but only Veanne Cox, as the confused Amy, turns in a spellbinding performance rich in disturbing detail, sharply etched and enunciated. And though no one in the cast is bad, Debra Monk is cruelly miscast in a role where a Kelly Bishop is needed.
Is, with all these strictures, Company, still worth catching? You bet! Compare it with any recently seen musical, and you will be struck by its unfaded originality, intelligence, and wit in word and music. It provides sophisticated pleasures and—so rare in a musical—food for thought.
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SOURCE: “The Wizard of Loss,” in New Yorker, Vol. 71, No. 33, October 23, 1995, pp. 103–05.
[In the following favorable review, Lahr discusses the original production of Company, calling it revolutionary and focusing on the Sondheim's examination of the ambiguity of emotion and the fear of loss of self in marriage. Lahr also offers a comparison of the original and revival productions.]
Company was a watershed event in the history of the musical. When it arrived on Broadway, in April, 1970, the American conscience was reeling from two jolts: Vietnam and the sexual revolution. The nation had lost both its sense of blessing and its sense of sin; the musical, which had traditionally made a myth of well-being, suddenly found itself with nothing to celebrate. Company, engineered by the composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the playwright George Furth, the director Harold Prince, the choreographer Michael Bennett, and a terrific ensemble led by Elaine Stritch, proclaimed the nation's newest abundance: emptiness. Instead of providing the backbeat of promise, Company, with its sour dissection of five marriages in Manhattan, put words to the collective numbness. Exhaustion, not energy, was its theme. Once a call to action, the musical was now a hymn to impotence. At the finale, the hero of the show—the passive, charming, and unmarried Robert—pleads for life instead of inspiring it:
Somebody need me too much, Somebody know me too well, Somebody pull me up short And put me through hell and give me support For being alive, make me alive, Make me alive.
At a stroke, loss had found its Broadway laureate, and experiment had found its new champion, who, with Company, began to do away with plot and take the musical in new expressive directions.
George Furth's script was adapted from a series of eleven one-act plays he had written for the actress Kim Stanley. “George writes the kind of people who do not sing,” Sondheim told Craig Zadan, the author of Sondheim & Company. “To spend time exploring the characters was wrong, because they were primarily presented in vignettes. All the songs had to be used, I'm sorry to say, in a Brechtian way as comment and counterpoint. And as such, next to Forum, it was the hardest score I ever had to write.” As its terrific title implies, Company is an ensemble piece: it inhabits that slippery emotional zone between not quite intimacy and not quite isolation—a gray area that is well suited to the composer's paradoxical sensibility. Sondheim abjures the old illusion, of romance, only to establish a new illusion, of skepticism. He boldly accentuates the negative. “We wanted a show where the audience would sit for two hours screaming their heads off with laughter,” Sondheim said, “and then go home and not be able to sleep.”
Company’s first revival on Broadway, directed by Scott Ellis, at the Roundabout Theatre, is a problematic production, but it does provide the pleasure of reëxperiencing the songs: “The Little Things You Do Together,” “Sorry-Grateful,” “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” “Another Hundred People,” “Getting Married Today,” “Side by Side by Side,” and “The Ladies Who Lunch.” It's an imposing lineup. While the god of casting does not shine on this production, nothing can dim the brilliance of a score whose themes of fear, loneliness, and anxiety in relationships have, if anything, become more urgent as the battle between the sexes has intensified over the decades.
The musical is set on Robert's thirty-eighth birthday, at a surprise party that serves as a linchpin for the show's an ecdotal structure. At the party, Robert (Boyd Gaines) blows out the candles on his cake. “Actually, I didn't wish for anything,” he says. Robert doesn't know what he wants or what he feels. He needs connection, but he doesn't have the will to sustain it. He has no identifiable work, just a narcissistic problem. He won't give of himself, because, really, he has no self to give. He is a shell of a man, who plays at feelings. Still, Robert's boyish, tortured aloofness gives Sondheim a way to speak about the paralyzed heart, a subject that is both his strength and his limitation. When I saw the original production, I was a newly married man of twenty-eight; twenty-five years later, with a grown son and a new partner, and poised somewhere between regret and hope, I find that certain songs resonate with more power. “Sorry-Grateful,” an astute love song that honors the ambiguity of emotions, now seems an extraordinary accomplishment. Robert asks his alcoholic friend Harry (Robert Westenberg) if he's sorry to be married, and gets this eloquent reply:
You're always sorry, You're always grateful, You're always wondering what might have been. Then she walks in. And still you're sorry, And still you're grateful, And still you wonder and still you doubt, And she goes out.
This is not to say that Company dramatizes maturity. Although the characters sing about loss, none of them accept the notion of it as the basis of maturity. The consequences of commitment—you choose and you lose—keep Robert from taking action. He can't accept loss, and therefore won't surrender to another. Even at their most caustic moments, Sondheim's songs remain tangled in a particularly American state of mind, an adolescent attitude that insists on having everything all the time. “Marry Me a Little,” which was cut from the original score and is restored here at the end of Act I, makes the point. Robert sings:
Marry me a little, Love me just enough. … Keep a tender distance, So we'll both be free That's the way it ought to be.
From this production's first beats, Company bristles with Robert's fear of engulfment. With the rest of the cast of fourteen ranged around Tony Walton's suitably austere black-and-chrome set, Robert stands center stage, and the ensemble, archly choreographed by Rob Marshall, goes through its semaphore of possessiveness—hands grope, wave, and plead for his presence, and the theatre resounds with the predatory chorus “Bobby Bobby / Bobby Baby / Bobby Bubi”—an effect vulgarly overstated by the projection of Bobby's name in different typefaces on the cyclorama behind them all. Robert and his friends are a symbiotic network, a group of lost souls distracting each other from their emptiness. Robert goes through the motions of affection and sex, but nothing penetrates him. “You impersonate a person better than a zombie should,” his three frustrated girlfriends sing in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” And, of course, they're right: deadness (Sweeney Todd,Passion,Assassins) is Sondheim's dominion, and terror is his most eloquent emotion. In “Getting Married Today,” Veanne Cox, as the would-be bride, Amy, gives fear its most delightful outing, in the show's best-written scene. With her bandy legs and bony hands shaking, she works herself into a tizzy on the morning of her wedding. Pale and bug-eyed, she's a whirlwind of self-loathing who knocks the audience dead when she crawls across the stage and sings:
We'll both be losing our identities— I telephoned my analyst about it But he said to see him Monday, And by Monday I'll be floating In the Hudson with the other garbage.
She tells her fiancé, Paul (the sad-eyed, convincing Danny Burstein), that she can't go through with it. Before Paul stalks out, he asks her, “Do you know if other people did to you what you do to yourself, they could be put in jail?” Robert, standing by as Paul's prospective best man, witnesses the quarrel. When Paul leaves, Robert abruptly asks Amy to marry him. Amy's comeback is an admonishment: “You have to want to marry somebody, not just somebody.” Robert tosses Amy the bouquet, and she catches it at the threshold. “I'm the next bride,” she tells him, and she exits in search of Paul.
In the original production, the orchestration was for twenty or so; here, it is for nine. And the orchestra is not the only sound that's attenuated. The air is full of miked, thin voices. Boyd Gaines, who had been suffering from laryngitis, strains in the higher registers, and, I'm sorry to report, goes flat in the big ballads; this diminishes the impact of “Marry Me a Little” and virtually snuffs out “Being Alive.” Debra Monk, as the foulmouthed, slouch-shouldered dipsomaniac Joanne, gives two boffo songs, “The Little Things You Do Together” and “The Ladies Who Lunch,” plenty of attitude. She doesn't so much sing as blare “Ladies,” but when her voice cracks, the stridency works for the boozy broad she plays. Monk knows how to deliver a punch line, and her rendition of the song zeroes in on the impasse that her drunken mockery represents:
Another chance to disapprove, Another brilliant zinger, Another reason not to move, Another vodka Stinger— Aaah—I'll drink to that.
La Chanze, who plays Marta, one of Robert's beleaguered squeezes, has the voice but not the attitude. her rendition of “Another Hundred People,” a dark, jaded report on “a city of strangers,” becomes merely a Broadway “numba,” all teeth and smiles but no texture. Why is she smiling? It's a secret between her and the director and is lost on the audience, which, in any case, can't hear the best lines of the song, because of her poor diction.
At the end of the show, Robert decides not to walk through the door into his birthday party. It may come as a surprise to some theatregoers—it was to me—that the past two and a half hours have been flashbacks of Robert's past, and that he has been poised at the threshold throughout. (Scott Ellis never properly prepares the audience for this chronological trick.) Along with Robert's friends, we've been stiffed. By the logic that only a Broadway musical can sustain, the finale proposes that Robert has made a choice to love—or, at least, to be open to the possibility of involvement. But his first gesture is to cut himself off from his community of friends. Growth is shown as isolation. The implications of this are even more unsatisfactory than the romantic tosh that Sondheim is rebelling against: it is the forced victory of the failed heart over the full heart. The lameness of this finale foreshadows the pretentiousness and aridity of many of Sondheim's later shows: a new path that is really a dead end. Yet in Company, the first product of the composer's most prolific period, Sondheim's skepticism is still rooted in a recognizably real world, where feelings are not postures, and doubts have not ossified into nihilism. I suppose I'll always have my quarrels with Sondheim, and with the direction in which he has taken the musical. But when he is good, he's great. Even the Roundabout's lacklustre production can't keep the show's daring from coming through. So let's call Company a triumph, and the hell with it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 831
SOURCE: “Ignoble Romans” in New York, April 29, 1996, pp. 56–57.
[In the following review of a revival of Something Happened on the Way to the Forum, Simon offers a negative assessment of individual performances, choreography, and the direction in contrast to the original production.]
Some gloomy things happened on the way to the revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. One of our wittiest, sexiest, smartest, and most songful musicals has undergone a sea change from high to ebb tide. Some of the old felicities are still there, but an essential string is untuned, some crucial tesserae are missing from the mosaic of merrymaking—Thalia, the comic muse, has averted her face from the proceedings.
The original 1962 staging by George Abbott and the choreographer Jack Cole had a marvelously bawdy, lustily heterosexual character, with male and female flesh palpably yearning for each other and the air thick with Plautine bawdry. The cast comprised several mature, even elderly comedians, their Borscht Belt rowdiness as blissfully chomped on as a down-in-the-mouth stogie. Take Zero Mostel, whose Pseudolus I described at the time as “pungent, fatty, succulent, infinitely malleable … the memorial of (at least) twelve Caesars rolled into one, carved out of goat cheese and lecherous as the goats it came from.” This fellow, after many accumulated years of slavery, craved his liberty as hotly as he panted for the courtesans in Lycus's next-door establishment. That round face and round body joined the bulging eyes in one ball of beady concupiscence. Nathan Lane, the currently slimmed-down pseudo-Pseudolus, is too young, too hyper, too campy—and largely unconvincing as the womanizing Pseudolus.
As Hysterium, his fellow slave and castrato co-conspirator, we once had Jack Gilford, an older actor with a meltingly melancholy face, oozing comic plangency, and, in drag, scaling vertiginous heights of absurdity. Mark Linn-Baker is too chipper, not properly hysterical, almost believable in female disguise. Where is the tart savor of Gilfordian chopped liver in the voice, where the innate sweetness peeking through layers of downtroddenness? As Senex, the pussywhipped oldster, we had David Burns, the archetype of overripe, innuendomongering Catskill savvy; now, young Lewis J. Stadlen rasps up a storm, but must we recruit our geezers from among the artful whippersnappers?
Ernie Sabella, however, offers a zesty tub of a Lycus, a pumped-up pimp of full-bodied farce. Even so, John Carradine's 1962 dourly cadaverous procurer was a more dazzlingly original creation. As the formidable termagant Domina, Ruth Kobart was huge, hatchet-faced, and horrific; compared with her, Mary Testa is a mere soubrette. But the usually lithe Cris Groenendaal provides an exemplarily strutting, vainglorious hulk of a Miles Gloriosus, puffed up with ludicrous grandeur. And exquisitely befuddled as Raymond Walburn's Erronius was in the original, the emaciated William Duell, in his different way, is equally droll.
George Abbott made the young lovers, despite the madcap maelstrom around them, obviously in love, with a grace that commanded our empathy and had us rooting for their nuptials; Preshy Marker and Brian Davies contributed a duly lyrical strain. The current Philia, Jessica Boevers, looks goony and acts goofy; Jim Stanek, the new Hero, is nearer the mark, but a silly wig and sillier staging hobble him. Jerry Zaks's direction swamps the romance with farce. And the gorgeous courtesans? The twins do not convey twins, the giantess is the size of one of the other girls, and none of them is remotely as stunning as Lucienne Bridou was back then. Even the all-purpose male trio, the Proteans, though nimble and versatile, prove flimsy in their martial mode.
Most of the singing passes muster, although Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations are brassy and acidulous even where the original ones, by Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin, were ingratiating. Several songs in Stephen Sondheim's ear-entrancing score—one of his two or three best—suffer accordingly, and the frisky “Pretty Little Picture” is, unaccountably, cut altogether. Sad to say, even the incomparable Tony Walton, whose first Broadway assignment was designing the 1962 production, has tried too hard to compete with himself, and cutesiness sneaks in, with the courtesans’ mourning garb worthy of Frederick's of Hollywood. But Paul Gallo's controlledly brash lighting nicely conjures up orange sunbursts and pomegranate nightfalls.
Rob Marshall's choreography, like Zaks's direction, has spots of inspired tomfoolery but is frenetically overzealous, with choreographic and directorial gags bordering on hysteria. It is like an illusionist who—not content with producing one elegant white rabbit—lets his top hat sprout an entire motley warren, thus turning magic into mere mass production.
What remains indestructible is the book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, arguably the most urbane and literate musical-comedy text ever conceived. But much of this sophisticated comedy gets swallowed up by the sight gags, and the often less-than-spot-on delivery by a would-be ensemble frequently on the spot. As the Emperor Augustus upbraided his dead general, Quintilius Varus, for losing him an army in the Teuton forests, I say to Jerry Zaks, “Give me back my legions of joyous moments!”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 708
SOURCE: A review of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in Variety, May 13–19, 1996, pp. 78–79.
[The following review gives a positive assessment of a revival production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.]
The Goodspeed Opera House has been decidedly tardy in mounting its first Stephen Sondheim musical. Now that it has, however, it has done so with considerable style and, particularly, musical excellence, for which musical director Michael O'Flaherty and his pit band of 10 must be given due thanks. What with its spurting blood and sundry severed body parts, Sondheim's mischievous piece of grand guignol may still be a mite hard to take by the squeamish, but given just the right edge of macabre humor via its lyrics and its staging by Gabriel Barre, this Goodspeed Sweeney Todd may well do what Goodspeed executive director Michael Price is claiming for it, i.e. bring in a new audience to a theater better known for tap-dancers and singing moppets than mass murder and cannibalism.
Critics of the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd in 1979 felt that Eugene Lee's vast Industrial Revolution constructivist settings overpowered its essentially intimate story. An acclaimed 1989 York Theater Company revival, later transferred to Broadway's Circle in the Square, proved that it could work in intimate circumstances, a fact further verified in the even more intimate Goodspeed.
Obviously inspired by Lee's original Broadway sets, Charles E. McCarry sets suggest the grubby, sooty seaminess of much of Victorian London on the tiny Goodspeed stage, making use of pulleys and chains, steep staircases, and bits and pieces of scenery with cast members atop them moved about by other cast members. McCarry and lighting designer Phil Monat have also worked very closely together (Goodspeed has never seen so much lighting equipment), offering numerous examples of shadowplay: Joanna undressing while a self-flagellating Judge Turpin leers at her through a huge keyhole silhouetted on a sheet; the inmates of the asylum having their hair slashed from their heads behind a vast paper scroll.
Mrs. Lovett's oven smokes ominously, blood spurts generously, and all told here's a vicious, nasty London most travel brochures would avoid. Director Barre adds to the mayhem by having his cast frequently invade the theater aisles.
The Goodspeed has called on several performers who have played in previous productions of Sweeney Todd led by Timothy Nolen who has sung the title role for the New York City Opera and elsewhere. He is completely at home in the role and he certainly doesn't let the Goodspeed production down. Yet he never really dominates it as strongly as a Sweeney Todd should, at least in part because he's sometimes vocally weak.
Barbara Marineau is probably the rosiest, most buxom Mrs. Lovett the musical has yet seen, and if she occasionally goes too far with her broad acting, she does so with skillful good humor and pragmatism. David Bursley and Bill Nolte are just fine as the two villains, the judge and his beadle. Rebecca Judd is splendid as the mysterious beggar woman.
Nancy Anderson's Johanna is aptly feather-brained, Jesse Bush as her ardent wooer equally aptly impetuous and manly. Michael Brian clearly enjoys himself as the Italian operatic barber Pirelli. James Holdridge acts young Tobias better than he sings him. On the musical side of the production things are, for the most part, splendid.
Musical director O'Flaherty and his musicians play Jonathan Tunick's wondrous orchestrations (expertly cut down from the originals) with real luster, as is so important in this musical in which the orchestra is virtually an additional character, only once slighting the score. Unfortunately it is at a crucial moment, the duet “Pretty Women.” This is the melodic and emotional high point of a fascinating score that's nevertheless not big on melody, and “Pretty Women” played and sung with the right lyrical passion can be a heartbreakingly beautiful interlude. But at Goodspeed it's performed with a curious jerkiness that robs it of its full value.
One other problem that comes and goes is the matter of articulating the important lyrics; at the Goodspeed they can be heard and understood only most of the time, rather than all the time. Still, this is a more than acceptable Sweeney Todd that gives a clear indication of what the musical is like.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1190
SOURCE: “Not Quite Utopia,” in New Yorker, Vol. 73, No. 12, May 19, 1997, pp. 98–99.
[In the following review, Lahr gives a negative assessment of a revival of Candide, calling it degenerative from the onset and slow-moving. He also finds that the musical possesses an incoherence of orchestration and score.]
Nobody can say that Voltaire didn't suffer for his wit. He was imprisoned in the Bastille for apparently spoofing the Regent, throttled by a courtier's henchman for his ridicule, and exiled from Paris for his acid thoughts about church and state. In the course of three weeks in 1758, at the age of sixty-four, he wrote his picaresque novella Candide; or, Optimism, which was a belly laugh at the Enlightenment notion of a harmonious Christian universe. Now, in Hal Prince's revival of the revival of the revised Leonard Bernstein–Lillian Hellman–Richard Wilbur 1956 musical version of Candide (at the Gershwin), we are made to suffer for Voltaire's wit.
The musical Candide is against every “ism” except commercialism. Here spectacle substitutes for satire. The drama of the musical is not the expense of Candide's spirit but the spirit of Candide's expense. The massive two-thousand-seat auditorium is turned into a gaudy carnival sideshow: the walls of the orchestra are filled with painted panels of Candide's adventures and of the continents that the credulous, lovelorn hero travels in pursuit of his beloved, the frequently raped Cunegonde. The set, designed by Clarke Dunham in hues of muted blue, red, green, and crimson, is itself a huge, ugly hodgepodge of carnival clutter, dominated by a fairground sign propped up on candy-cane poles and broadcasting “Dr. Voltaire's Freaks and Wonders”; in the foreground, on both sides of the stage, are double-decker carnival wagons, one of which houses a calliope that turns out, significantly, to produce no sound. In the background, a cardboard public leans forward in its seats as if at a tent show and stares out into mostly unutilized space.
Candide begins well enough, with the rambunctious elegance of Bernstein's wonderful overture, which he called a valentine to European music. The music holds out the promise of talent and caprice—a bold assertion of Bernstein's credo that “man's capacity for laughter is nobler than his divine gift of suffering.” Then two rearing pantomime horses appear and pull the overcostumed and overmiked cast into view. We are in the slaphappy world of burlesque, but without an iota of anarchy or inspiration. Voltaire himself is produced from another part of the show's rolling stock, and from almost the first beat of the first song, “Life Is Happiness Indeed,” Candide starts to wheeze like a party balloon deflating. The song itself, a journeyman job by Stephen Sondheim, who contributed a few other lacklustre numbers to the revised hokum, is meant to solve part of the problem of Voltaire's sprawling story by introducing the main characters with a wash of attitude. The lyric unwittingly acknowledges the show's cumbersome narrative problem. As the Old Lady (the expert Andrea Martin, who actually knows a laugh and how to get it) sings in her Polish accent:
Life is Happiness —Or not— Let's get goink vith the plot.
But it takes a long time to wind up this musical fun machine. Hugh Wheeler's dishevelled book—a revue disguised as a romp, with no emotional or thematic progression—focusses first on Voltaire and then on the Pollyannaish tutor Dr. Pangloss, and finally gets around to the eponymous hero, whom the late Wolcott Gibbs called in these pages “one of the great imbeciles in literature,” who “surely deserves all the dreadful things that happen to him.” A quarter of an hour passes before Candide's story actually gets under way, but by then the audience hardly cares. The Old Lady turns out to be prophetic. “I'm no singer, but I ask you,” she sings at the opening, “When the story's getting boring / Who'll be coming to the rescue?” In this production, the answer is the producer, Garth Drabinsky, who is the deep-pocketed chairman of Livent, Inc. The show makes speed the correlative of Voltaire's giddy disenchantment: Prince and Drabinsky—the general and his treasury—send their recostumed cast into scene after scene, like foot soldiers into the trenches, trying to overwhelm the audience with bigger and bigger effects.
Voltaire's joke is about man's capacity for denial. Candide clings to the belief that this is “the best of all possible worlds” and “everything will turn out right,” but he bears witness to greed, rape, corruption, and murder, some of it by his own hand. Candide doesn't see the barbarity in himself or in the world. Likewise, this production seems unaware that it has laid a Fabergé egg. It doesn't hear how the metallic sound of the orchestra muddies the scintillating humor of Bernstein's score; in its gargantuan ambition, the production doesn't even listen to the wisdom of its own script. “Never seek for greatness,” says Dr. Pangloss (Jim Dale, finally getting laughs at the end of the show, when, dressed like a swami, he is suspended by wires above the audience), “for the higher the aim the harder the fall.” The production drowns out personality. Candide (the fine-voiced Jason Danieley) makes his journey by sidling through the front row, where the audience gets up close but never personal with his character. As Cunegonde, Harolyn Blackwell shows more power in her big contralto than in her presence. In her comic aria “Glitter and Be Gay,” Bernstein's parody of the “Jewel Song” from Gounod's Faust, she rocks the audience with her coloratura, only to have the bravura singing dissipated by banal comic business as she clumsily filches her accompanist's jewels.
But not all the slapstick is so lame. “I Am Easily Assimilated” (a Carmen Miranda sendup written by Bernstein and his wife, Felicia) gets deliciously silly as Andrea Martin rumbas with New World peasants, who, once they are roused from their siesta and lift their sombreros, all look like members of ZZ Top. In the folderol department, Arte Johnson, a little comic who is large on charm, wins the prize. He brings oxygen to the struggling evening every time he is killed, goosed, or stabbed. His impish, seasoned presence allows him to make a real connection to the audience, who are grateful. And at the finale Bernstein's gorgeous hymn “Make Our Garden Grow” translates the skepticism of Voltaire's “Il faut cultiver son jardin” into a stunning C-major affirmation. Prince has the orchestra cut out, and the cast's thrilling, full-throated a-cappella voices resound:
We're neither pure nor wise nor good We'll do the best we know We'll build our house, and chop our wood And make our garden grow, And make our garden grow.
At the curtain call on opening night, Jim Dale stepped forward and asked the collaborators to join the cast onstage. This lap of honor seems to be de rigueur at Livent shows. One by one, the major players of the production team, led by Drabinsky himself, made their way from the audience to the stage, where they were high-fived, hugged, and applauded. It's a terrific thing to do when you have a hit, but it's unseemly when you have a miss.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899
SOURCE: A review of Pacific Overtures, in Theatre Journal, December, 1998, pp. 537–40.
[In the following review of Pacific Overtures, Pang examines Sondheim's commentary on the Western cultural invasion of Japan, focusing on his use of cultural satire and juxtaposition of Japanese tradition with modernism.]
To christen its new expanded theatre in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo, East West Players (the nation's oldest Asian American theatre company) mounted its second production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Pacific Overtures. It is a fitting choice for the company, which seeks to prove that, despite the disappointment surrounding the outcome of the Miss Saigon controversy, the cultural war is not over; in fact, parody is the sweetest revenge. The Asian-Americans’ protest did achieve one victory: the awareness of a neglected voice. Thus, the all-Asian cast in the East West Players’ production of Pacific Overtures, with the use of half-or hand-held white masks for non-Asian characters, is one expression of this awareness.
The move to a mid-size 240-seat Equity house is an important step for East West Players, increasing professional opportunities for Asian-American actors. Aesthetically, it is a vast improvement over its old 99-seat home, but its insufficient wing space makes Lisa Hashimoto's set design of five mobile shoji screens and countless assemblages of wooden blocks and fly drops appear overbearing, though perhaps intentionally configured to represent the American invasion. Designer Naomi Rodriguez's ornamental and elaborate costumes worked best in the comic numbers. Her inventive dressing of the geishas and madam in kimonos with American flag motifs in “Welcome to Kanagawa” was the show's highlight. However, when the flag design was used again on Commodore Perry and on the American Ambassador, the effect proved heavy and unwieldy.
Initially, Sondheim and Weidman set out to devise a musical about Commodore Perry's subjugation of Japan from the Japanese point of view, by liberally borrowing elements from traditional Kabuki theatre. East West Players faithfully adopted such conventions including Kurogo, the invisible stage hands, a Reciter (the narrator), elaborate white-face make-up, and males impersonating female characters. While the presence of a hanamichi (bridge) and the technically demanding mie (poses) are sorely missed in this production, director Tim Dang took gender-bending one step further by having women play some of the male roles. At times, it worked effectively, especially Deborah Nishimura who displayed virtuoso acting and singing range with her portrayals of the insidious Emperor's Doctor in “Chrysanthemum Tea” and the innocent Boy in “Someone in a Tree.”
Addie Yungmee, on the other hand, was ineffectual as Commodore Perry. Her “Demon Dance” betrayed more of her training as an LA Laker cheerleader than as a Kabuki performer. The choreography was filled with enough hair tossing, jumping, and vaulting to suggest a caged bird in heat rather than the author's intent of a “strutting, leaping dance of triumph.” Nevertheless, this might have been part of the director's concept, since Dang acknowledged that he got permission from Sondheim to reinterpret the “Lion Dance” as a “Demon Dance.” His goal to transform the triumphal arrogance of Perry into a demonic expression of his monstrosity would have been an appropriate one, had the artistry sufficed.
Dang managed to establish East-West conflicts throughout, using cross-cultural satire. From the outset, he positioned the musicians on opposing sides of an upper-level proscenium platform. On one side sat the Japanese percussionists in kimonos, and on other, the keyboard players dressed in contemporary jeans. Perhaps the cultural artifice worked best at its quietest moment, in the ode to “A Bowler Hat.” Manjiro, a peasant turned samurai who personified cultural resistance, was pitted against Kayama, a Westernized convert, in a symbolic dressing ritual. As Manjiro conducted the tea ceremony and put on his samurai garments, Kayama donned the accoutrements of the West: monocle, bowler hat, steel pen, pocket watch, and a cutaway. Beneath the simple, disharmonious picture, lay many irreconcilable cultural struggles.
So, at what price progress? The economic expedition of Perry not only shattered Japan's isolation forever but turned its feudal society upside down. In the end, the success of the foreign infiltration is symbolized in the duel between Kayama and Manjiro. After the Western plunder, the new Emperor proposes “to drop the sword and learn the lesson from the West.” The lesson, ironically, is to attack China and Seoul, and eventually invade the American economic markets. A clever lesson, but one based on vengeance nonetheless. The politics of the moral are bewildering. Before we can recover, Dang abruptly segued into “Next,” which he adapted with contemporary references. One by one, the chorus entered, dressed respectively as a Honda racing driver, Godzilla, sushi chef, businessman, UCLA cheerleader, and ballroom dancer, while corporate banners (AT&T, Sumitomo Bank) dropped from the ceiling—an image of America awash in Japanese imports flooding the stage. The revenge is complete.
Tim Dang crowned this bold ending with an effective image by having Kayama and his wife reappear in traditional kimonos with fishing rods amidst the chorus in contemporary costumes. This sole frozen image of traditionalism within modernity suggests that Dang is looking into the past to examine the future. This parallels his new role as Artistic Director of the East West Players as he continues to fight for the rights of artistic expression for the Asian Pacific community. In spite of uneven and flawed production values, Pacific Overtures is an honest attempt to continue to raise consciousness. The war is still on.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5015
SOURCE: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Broadway,” in New York Review of Books, February 10, 2000, pp. 35–49.
[In the following essay, Leithauser examines Sondheim's strong professional recognition despite the lack of finality in his productions, his dark motifs, his use of rhyme, and his complex characterizations.]
A few years ago I took a trip to the Galápagos Islands and heard the sad tale of Lonesome George. No one knows how old George is, though he's clearly getting on in years. George is a giant tortoise of a subspecies found only on Pinta Island—apparently the last remaining Pinta tortoise on the planet. When he was discovered, back in 1971, scientists hoped that a mate for him might soon be located—and that a pair of these creaky, winsome, deliberative creatures, an armored Adam and Eve, would repopulate the world in their own image. No mate was found.
I suppose there are different ways to view George's fate. He might be regarded as a victor of sorts. These days, as another hell-bent American presidential campaign heats up, we're repeatedly informed that the goal is to be the “last man standing.” Well, George is the last Pinta tortoise standing. Even so, one imagines it couldn't be much fun for George to contemplate a day when the last Pinta shell will be as cold and lifeless as the surface of the moon.
A similar ambivalence attends the career of Stephen Sondheim, the Lonesome George of American musical theater. A quarter of a century ago, Leonard Bernstein said of him, “On Broadway, he's now the most important theater man writing.” Succeeding decades have only confirmed and solidified Sondheim's position, as an older generation of composers and lyricists have retired or died. He is the unquestioned monarch of an increasingly depopulated terrain.
It's startling to contemplate how altered is the scene since Sondheim entered it half a century ago. When he graduated from Williams at the age of twenty, in 1950, he already knew what he wanted to do. He'd grown up under the wing of the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, a family friend who served as both mentor and “surrogate father,” and young Stephen quickly gravitated toward Broadway. By 1955 he'd completed his first full-scale musical, Saturday Night, the romantic tale of an ambitious, appealingly slick young man seeking to make his millions as the 1929 stock market collapse approaches. (For complicated reasons, Saturday Night went unproduced, and Sondheim himself eventually dismissed it as apprentice work. But last summer I caught a resuscitated production by the fine Pegasus Players in Chicago, and was struck by how winning and precociously adroit was this piece of old-fashioned juvenilia.)
Back in 1955, as Sondheim went about plotting and polishing Saturday Night, he must have envisioned himself as laboring in a crowded and illustrious field. Rodgers and Hammerstein were bustling along, with Oklahoma! and South Pacific behind them and The Sound of Music ahead. Irving Berlin, that good businessman whose business was the manufacturing of hits, was still marching off to the office every day. Cole Porter's greatest—in every sense—triumph, Kiss Me, Kate, was only seven years old and Can-Can less than two. Lerner and Loewe, whose Brigadoon had been one of the most popular musicals of the Forties, were readying the lovely My Fair Lady, much the most popular musical of the Fifties. Jule Styne, Johnny Mercer, and Frank Loesser were all flourishing.
It was also in 1955 that Sondheim joined a project that, even today, remains his most widely known accomplishment: West Side Story, for which he provided the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's score. That collaboration, which also included choreographer Jerome Robbins and librettist Arthur Laurents, seems to have infused all participants with sanguine expectations. Although it has its moments of gaiety and sharp humor (“I Feel Pretty,” “Gee, Officer Krupke!”), West Side Story, with its knifings and gunshots, its dead hero sprawled in the street, successfully brought a new gravity to the American musical. Bernstein later wrote: “I was perfectly confident that there would be dozens of kids who would take the next step and pick up on the hints of West Side, developing the Broadway musical into “some form of American opera” or “whatever it's going to be.” And Sondheim must have felt fully justified in his optimism when, only a few years after West Side Story closed, he created both lyrics and music for the greatest commercial triumph of his career, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a comedy inspired by Plautus and set among ancient Romans. Nonetheless, and all the while, on that particular Galápagos island which is Broadway, an irreplaceable line of talent—Berlin, Kern, Hart, Arlen, Porter, Rodgers, Hammerstein—had already died or was dying out. The musical's glory days were fading.
Why the near-extinction? The most common, and often tiresome, explanation usually plays some variation on the old adage “They don't write them like that anymore.” The assumption is that Broadway lost the ability to carry a tune. Or the talent dried up. It's an explanation which, so instinct tells me, explains very little. I know a number of gifted people, composers and lyricists, who at the outset of their careers, a couple of decades ago, hoped to make a living in musical theater. None eventually did. Confronting an altered, forbidding Broadway in which few new musicals get produced, and those that do can cost many millions of dollars, they moved in time to other ventures—to films, television, advertising, teaching.
The dominant music of our era, rock, is frequently cited as another culprit, probably with more justification. For all the ballyhooed success of an occasional rock-inspired “event,” like the Who's Tommy or Leiber and Stoller's Smokey Joe's Café, the fact is that Broadway has never found a way to assimilate rock's rumbling guitar lines and mumbled lyrics—all its anarchic raw energy—into a tradition of clean enunciations and carefully scripted turns. Speaking about “pop-rock,” Sondheim himself regretfully noted that its “lyrics rarely have a desire to be clear, much less to gleam. They seldom take joy in the pleasures of technique, such as rhyme and wordplay.”
Any satisfyingly comprehensive explanation of the Broadway musical's decline would doubtless require some sort of futuristic monster-computer that could absorb, quantify, and apportion a dizzying range of influences, including: the evolution of increasingly breathtaking cinematic special effects, rendering quaint the hocus-pocus of the stage; the rise of various forms of popular music, everything from folk to rap, that favor spontaneity and sincerity over the studied and the artificial; the omnipresence of television, with its own cadences and patterns of aesthetic payoff; escalating production costs and a consequent conservatism about new ventures, as in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, a hugely successful musical evolved from a hugely successful animated film; an increasingly pervasive informality of dress and speech and manners, all conspiring to make theatrical spectacle look stilted; and, finally, something as elusive as a wholesale alteration in the national psyche.
In describing Sondheim as a solitary monarch, I've conveniently ignored the presence of a figure whose box-office appeal utterly dwarfs him, indeed dwarfs everyone: Andrew Lloyd Webber, the creator, along with his frequent lyricist Tim Rice, of Phantom of the Opera and Evita and Cats. More than anyone who has ever flourished on Broadway, Webber divides the world between admirers and detractors. I'm afraid I'm in the latter camp, his music leaving me feeling as though—like a lactose-intolerant person stranded in a Dairy Bar—I'm surrounded by gooey and indigestible things.
Any talk of the decline of the Broadway musical must confront a second, related complication: today's hits are bigger than ever. Decline—what decline? Back in 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein rewrote the book on Broadway longevity, when Oklahoma! began its run of 2,212 performances (more than five times longer than any musical of the Thirties). A few musicals surpassed that record over the next few decades, but it wasn't until the Seventies and Eighties, when A Chorus Line kicked through 6,137 shows, that an old notion—an inexhaustible gold mine, the show that “never closes”—suddenly looked feasible. In an era of an ever-replenishing supply of Manhattan tourists (many of them first-timers, drawn by cheap domestic and transatlantic fares), why couldn't something run forever? Cats is now the longest-running musical in Broadway history, and shows no signs of stopping. Miss Saigon,Les Misérables,Beauty and the Beast, the newly rampant Lion King—all have run, or look set to run, endlessly. To an audience with little regular exposure to Broadway, shows like these become “name brands”—whose desirable logos are stamped all over the dizzying variety of merchandise on sale in theater lobbies.
Yet audiences leave many of these shows, my guess is, not knowing who wrote the music or the lyrics. In the old days, the names of Irving Berlin or Cole Porter had luster. People went to a Rodgers and Hammerstein production; the team was the primary draw, and their often unorthodox subject matter may well have been secondary. We've entered a peculiar era in which blockbusterdom doesn't necessarily translate into name recognition.
In this regard, too, Sondheim is unusual. If his productions are not spectacular hits, there's a sizable audience out there who will go to see a new Sondheim show because it's a new Sondheim show, however unlikely its subject. While Sondheim was still in mid-career, Bernstein predicted he would eventually shift genres—“He is suddenly going to write an opera that will knock your eyes out.” Sondheim has resisted calling any of his creations operas (although a number of them, particularly Sweeney Todd, have been taken up by opera companies), but questions of nomenclature aside, Bernstein was certainly correct in foreseeing that Sondheim would find the conventions of the musical increasingly confining. In the Nineties, he fashioned musicals about ugly souls (Assassins, in which John Wilkes Booth, John Hinckley, Lee Harvey Oswald, et al. are given voices) and ugly people (Passion, whose sickly, homely heroine pursues with pathological intensity a handsome soldier). The oddity of Sondheim's position isn't fully evident until one understands that this man who has repeatedly hauled the musical into new territory where it was seemingly never intended to go—the opening of Japan (Pacific Overtures), the creation of Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (Sunday in the Park with George), a serial killer who turns his victims into foodstuffs (Sweeney Todd)—has managed to maintain a traditional base of followers rooted in personal loyalty.
The twists and turns of Sondheim's curious life are ably set out in Meryle Secrest's recent biography, which draws on extensive interviews with its subject. An only child, born in 1930, Sondheim grew up in an apartment in the San Remo, on Central Park West. He was the son of a father who amassed a fortune in the fashion business, chiefly in women's dresses, and a mother who was a dress designer. The turning point in Stephen's childhood arrived in 1940, when his father abruptly abandoned his mother for another woman in the fashion business. Ten-year-old Stephen was left in the hands of his mother—a woman who was, by his own report, a “truly compulsive liar” bent on “poisoning his mind” against his father.
Sondheim later spent decades in therapy and his interviews with Secrest have the practiced, ratiocinative feel of someone who has frequently surveyed his internal terrain. He explains: “When my father left her, she substituted me for him. And she used me the way she had used him, to come on to and to berate, beat up on, you see.” The “coming on” was an act of psychological seductiveness: “Well, she would sit across from me with her legs aspread. She would lower her blouse and that sort of stuff.” He adds: “She was completely inept, even when she was trying to commit suicide.” She died, at the age of ninety-five, of natural causes. Sondheim did not attend her funeral.
For all his family's money, young Stephen, shuttled from one nanny to another, from summer camp to boarding school, was precariously situated, with an absent father and an erratic and often absent mother. In his religion, too, he was unsettled. Although his parents were Jewish, his mother falsely claimed a convent education, and Secrest reports that Stephen first entered a synagogue when he was nineteen.
It's easy to see where Sondheim came by the ambivalence and the wariness that serve as both the governing style and occasionally the content of his musicals. At times to the detriment of his work, he avoids rousing conclusions, stirring affirmations. As many of his collaborators acknowledge, he has had trouble with second acts and final scenes—precisely the moment when musicals are traditionally at their most rousing. I'm hardly alone in thinking that Company, which centers on a thirty-five-year-old emotionally withdrawn man surrounded by friends in bad marriages, fails to find a satisfying resolution for its irresolute hero; that the first acts of Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, which seek chiefly to enchant rather than to resolve, are far more gratifying than what follows; that the last number of Pacific Overtures, which catalogs the business triumphs of modern Japan, is a thumping answer-that-is-no-answer.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Sondheim's life was his decision to devote himself to a genre for which he would seem temperamentally maladapted. His long and splendid career can be viewed as a highly resourceful attempt to bend the cheery conventions of the American musical into forms congenial to his clever, eclectic, circumspect, and often cynical disposition. Or as he put it: “I can't bear the phony vitality of musicals.”
The obstacles in his way were spotted at the outset by an avuncular Oscar Hammerstein, who, asked to evaluate one early Sondheim effort, fretted that it offered neither appealing characters nor happy events: “I feel quite certain that you will not succeed in getting an audience's interest, and certainly not in sustaining this interest throughout an evening for this group of characters.” There's something wonderfully implausible to the notion that Sondheim, the creator of desolate little songs like “My Husband the Pig” (“The swaggering bore / I'll do anything for. / What a pig!”) and “Every Day a Little Death” found a mentor in the man who set the Alps echoing to “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” It's as though T. S. Eliot apprenticed under James Whitcombe Riley, or Thomas Pynchon studied at the knee of Booth Tarkington.
Of course in his professional life Hammerstein was never quite the genial rube that others would have him. (As Sondheim has observed, he was “more hard-headed and more quirky than people who think of him as a native and dreamy idealist might expect.”) Nonetheless, he was someone who open-heartedly yearned to see his audience leaving the theater with untroubled grins on their faces and jolly lyrics on their lips. Arguably, Sondheim hasn't aspired to any such thing since A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in 1962. In Into the Woods, his reworking of a number of classic fairy tales, it's not surprising that the “happily ever after” refrain closes the first but not the final act. Still to come are knives, wandering blind women, murders, and betrayals. It's a disenchanted tale of enchantment.
Nor is it surprising to read in Secrest's book that romance was slow to enter Sondheim's life. By his own account, he was “very late blooming”—slow to recognize and slower still to act on his homosexuality—and he reached his mid-thirties before taking up with a man he had a strong “emotional crush” on. True love didn't arrive until he was past sixty. In a detail just right for an icy, affecting Sondheim lyric, he suffered a heart attack years before love first opened his heart.
More than a hundred years ago, W. S. Gilbert, writing for his composer-partner, Arthur Sullivan, produced the line “If we're weak enough to tarry ere we marry, you and I. …” It would later form part of a duet in Iolanthe. Tarry ere we marry? Gilbert must have smiled at setting those three disyllabic rhymes in immediate succession. So far as I know, there's no prosodic term for this little feat, but it's a comic turn with a purpose, one opening up fertile possibilities of repetition and variation for the composer. Sondheim must have smiled as well when he did the same thing in “Please, Hello,” from Pacific Overtures: “Com-modore Perry very merry.” And smiled more broadly still when he did Gilbert one better, setting a trio of tri syllabic rhymes in immediate conjunction:
But no one dared to query’er Superior exterior.
Sondheim has the born light verse writer's love of verbal pirouettes and somersaults. He once called lyric writing an elegant form of puzzle, and he has had a lifelong interest in games. One impressed, but evidently somewhat wearied, Sondheim house guest has reported being confronted with “charades, anagrams, arithmetical puzzles, double-acrostic crosswords …, three-dimensional noughts and crosses, four-handed chess, jigsaws constructed from abstract paintings or cut out of black-and-white circles …, elaborate toy mazes, boxes and trays and jars of colored marbles, numbered bricks, geometric shapes, which must be arranged in sequences of patterns.” It's like Sondheim as well to adopt an unusual form of rhyme, sometimes called pararhyme or rim rhyme (the linking of two words like love and leave, whose internal vowels differ but whose exterior consonant sounds are identical), and to play one twist after another upon it:
What's the muddle In the middle? That's the puddle Where the poodle did the piddle.
Better stop and take stock While you're standing here stuck On the steps of the palace.
It's a very short road From the pinch and the punch To the paunch and the pouch and the pension.
This last example has the look of empty or forced rhymes, but actually Sondheim has his eye set fixedly on his subject: a young woman's contrary tuggings between girlish romance and maternal respectability (“There are mouths to be kissed / Before mouths to be fed”). The journey that devolves from the amorous pinch to the sedentary pension yawns before her.
Sondheim has spoken slightingly of Richard Rodgers's first collaborator, Lorenz Hart (“You try for surprise but not so wrenchingly that the listener loses the sense of the line. Larry Hart is full of that kind of wrenching, that's why I'm so down on him”), but he shares with Hart (in addition to a fascination with hustlers and con men) an ear that readily disassembles and reconfigures word sounds, discovering rhymes in word fragments. When Sondheim rhymes common with (phe) nomen (on), or chameleon with really un (derneath), he's venturing firmly into Hart terrain. Both men are rhyme-mad. One difference between them is that Hart, feeling defensive about his talent, downplayed it (“Everyone knows me for triple rhyming,” he lamented, insisting that he knew how to put together a “simple lyric”), whereas Sondheim over the years has confidently, defiantly rolled out one verbal tour de force after another.
Where Sondheim turns defensive is when he is confronted with the frequently repeated accusation that his songs aren't hummable: “Obviously if it can be sung, it can be hummed. When people say it's not melodic, not hummable, it makes my blood boil. It's really a question of how many times you hear it. People have lazy ears.” Lazy or not, to my ears Sondheim has a sizable but finite gift as a melodist—like Cole Porter or Hoagy Carmichael, and unlike George Gershwin or Richard Rodgers, who apparently warehoused an inexhaustible store of tunes in their heads.
In the long, glorious tradition of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley lyric-writing that comprises Hart and Porter and Hammerstein and Fields and Mercer, few can match Sondheim for wit. He can be as nimble and funny as Hart or Porter. And he has explored a wider and more surprising range of incidents and psyches than either of them, displayed a greater dramatic or novelistic breadth; in a genre that thrives on “types”—the bombshell bimbo, the thuggish boss—he has worked hard to create rounded characters. His imaginative gifts have made possible a range of projects that sound, on their face, foredoomed. A musical about Georges Seurat as he paints La Grande Jatte? Surely, a musical about a painter painting is the theatrical equivalent of a film about a writer writing—and, as Hollywood has repeatedly learned, the largely internal process of scribbling words on paper makes for poor cinema.
Yet in Sunday in the Park with George, with its restless, often staccato themes (reminiscent of Seurat's discrete dabs of pigment) and its insistent, recurrent clusters of words, Sondheim evokes something authentic about the obsessive, exultant nature of artistic creation, as where Seurat contemplates the breakup of a love affair while going about the business of painting a lady's hat:
And when the woman that you wanted goes, You can say to yourself, “Well, I give what I give.” But the woman who won't wait for you knows That, however you live, There's a part of you always standing by, Mapping out the sky, Finishing a hat … Starting on a hat … Finishing a hat … Look, I made a hat … Where there never was a hat …
Anyone who has stood awhile underneath Seurat's colossal canvas, one of the glories of the Art Institute of Chicago, knows what an improbable triumph it is. How could he have done it—capturing for all time, with dots of simple color, and blocky shapes, an afternoon of sunny leisure in fin de siècle France? Sondheim's lyrics, in their clean understatement, succeed in translating Seurat's simple, mysterious accomplishment:
Sunday, By the blue Purple yellow red water On the green Purple yellow red grass, Let us pass Through our perfect park, Pausing on a Sunday By the cool Blue triangular water On the soft Green elliptical grass As we pass Through arrangements of shadows Toward the verticals of trees Forever.
The close of the first act may well be Sondheim's artistic apogee. The painter, arranging each of the actors on stage into the ordained poses of La Grande Jatte, at last beholds his vast canvas as a totality. All chatter is silenced. All movement is frozen. The actors are no longer actors but immaterial immortals, and Sondheim has brought about something rare in American theater, and all but nonexistent in the American musical: a tableau of shimmering wonder.
On the subject of songwriting, it seems everybody who has ever written words for music—everyone from Oscar Hammerstein to W. H. Auden—makes one cardinal point: song lyrics need to be simple, even simpler than lyric poetry. If a lyric poem often looks vulnerable on the page (its plea is, Shakespeare reminds us, “no stronger than a flower”), song lyrics, when stripped of the melody that clothes them, appear more defenseless still. I usually find myself cringing whenever some musical's lyrics are printed and lambasted in the press. Those particular lyrics may indeed be limp and hackneyed and everything else the critics call them, but I remain uneasily aware that some of the best songs I know—“standards” that will surely be standards a century hence—carry lyrics that run very close to the maudlin:
What'll I do When you Are far away And I'm so blue … What'll I do?
The way you wear your hat, The way you sip your tea, The mem'ry of all that— No, no! They can't take that away from me!
This funny world Can turn right around and forget you It's always sure To roll right along when you're through.
For all his love of verbal finery, Sondheim can be a master of reticence. I've long admired the dead-on spareness of the opening to “Losing My Mind”:
The sun comes up, I think about you. The coffee cup, I think about you.
What more needs to be recorded? We hardly require a melodramatic I sip from my cold coffee cup or I stare into my coffee cup in order to enter the sort of consuming, helpless passion that colors even the most minute components of a day. And the lyrics deepen, as a phrase that often connotes a heady infatuation—I'm losing my mind—takes on sinister undertones, hinting at the paralysis of a full breakdown:
All afternoon, Doing every little chore, The thought of you stays bright. Sometimes I stand In the middle of the floor, Not going left, Not going right.
It's something of a cliché—particularly among singers hoping to come across in interviews as serious artists—to speak as though every song ever written were a short story by Chekhov or James, and any performer worth his or her salt must be a discerning literary critic. But the finest of Sondheim's songs really do have the narrative richness and compression of artful short fiction. Songs like “A Bowler Hat” from Pacific Overtures, in which a Meiji-era Japanese official uneasily embraces Western dress and habits, or “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from Sweeney Todd, where a beautiful young woman, kept under a sort of house arrest by her guardian, ponders a bird seller's singing captives, offer glimpses into lives complexly lived—over time, through hindrances and irritants, alongside fears and temptations.
After a ritual nod to Kern and Hammerstein's Showboat (1927), most writers about Broadway credit Rodgers and Hammerstein with encouraging the musical to grow up and handle adult themes and intricate but plausible stories. But for all the authentic pleasures of Oklahoma! or The King and I or South Pacific, there seems a good argument to be made that musicals—like puppies, or station wagons, or shopping streets—generally ought never to grow up. Over time puppies have a way of turning into dogs, and station wagons into minivans, and shopping streets into malls—and modern musicals into overweight, over-serious concoctions that don't seem to recall that their forebears wore can-can outfits and baggy clown pants. Today, songs must spring naturally from the text—they must be “integrated”—but naturalism comes at a cost. Fewer and fewer musicals yield melodies that can float free of their surroundings, providing pleasure in their own right. This is certainly true of Sondheim, who has produced only one song, “Send in the Clowns,” whose first few chords on a piano are likely to raise a whoop of recognition from that dependable arbiter of musical values, the drunk in the hotel cocktail lounge.
Gershwin, Berlin, Porter—other masters of Broadway songwriting turned out some of their finest work as unattached, free-floating songs. Sondheim, though, has always responded best to the ambient pressure of some larger narrative. As one of his earliest collaborators, Burt Shevelove, pointed out: “Steve could never write a song without some dramatic situation to base it on.” In Sondheim's case, it's probably idle to wonder what the Broadway musical's “growing up” has cost. It seems he couldn't work wholeheartedly in any other medium.
This may explain why the revue—called a “review”—at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Putting It Together, succeeds only fitfully. (Far more winning was the funnier, less reverent Side by Side by Sondheim, a revue assembled in the Seventies.) It draws largely on Sondheim's early work—Company,Merrily We Roll Along,Follies—as well as the songs he supplied for the film Dick Tracy. Despite the best efforts of its talented stars, who include Carol Burnett (in her first singing role on Broadway in thirty-five years), George Hearn, and Ruthie Henshall, Putting It Together doesn't feel fully put together. Sondheim's songs are so tightly integrated into their respective musicals that it's as though they've been extracted here with claw hammers and chisels in order to construct a new, loose, suggestive narrative about four Albeeish people—the Husband, the Wife, the Younger Man, and the Younger Woman—who get up to various sorts of mischief. They drink, and flirt, and reminisce, and betray each other, passing an evening no less assorted than the audience's response. Some of the melodies are attractive, the lyrics are unfailingly sharp and clever, and yet somewhere in the wings phantom casts are singing. Putting It Together summons other shows—the original shows for which its songs were written—and never wholly drowns out their echoes.
On March 22, 2000, Stephen Sondheim will turn seventy. For a while there were reports that his long-delayed new musical, Wise Guys, would open this spring, roughly coinciding with his big birthday. Recently we were informed that it won't. Sondheim has decided to go back and rework it. Twenty years ago, as he was turning fifty, he worried that musical theater was a young man's game—one for which he'd grown too old. Like the aging showgirl in one of his best-known songs, “I'm Still Here” from Follies (“Top billing Monday, / Tuesday you're touring in stock / But I'm here”), he has hung on.
By coincidence, while assembling my nots on Sondheim I once more came upon that creature I'd long associated with him, Lonesome George the Pinta tortoise, who had crawled into The New York Times. It seems George, too, is still hanging on. A brief article explained that recent DNA analysis had revealed, much to the surprise of researchers, that George's nearest relatives were not tortoises from neighboring islands but a species from San Cristóbal and Española—the most distant islands in the Galápagos archipelago from Pinta. It was possible that George might successfully be bred with one of those. The line might go on …
These days, whenever some young Broadway songwriter emerges to any prominence, the press inevitably dubs him a young Sondheim. And now and then, chasing after that elusive quarry, the Next Sondheim, I've bought one of their CDs, or gone to one of their shows. Results have mostly been disappointing. No heir is apparent yet. Still, the update on the Pinta tortoise, Lonesome but Longevitous George, may be heartening. If a wonderful new line of Broadway musicals emerges, perhaps it will spring from some unexpected source, some distant island.