Stephen Sondheim Sondheim, Stephen (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

Sondheim's musicals typically explore disillusionment and frustration within the performing arts community, society, and personal relationships. These themes are influenced by the time period in which 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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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]

Nina Manken (essay date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.]


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...

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George Martin (essay date Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 &...

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Barbara Means Fraser (essay date Fall 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Simon (review date 2 October 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gerald Weales (review date 20 October 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter G. Davis (review date 20 August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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John Simon (review date 20 August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Greg Evans (review date 4 February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Brustein (review date 18 March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Phillips (review date April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Lahr (review date 23 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Simon (review date 11 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mark K. Fulk and Angela B. Howard (essay date Fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Variety (review date 9–15 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Simon (review date 16 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Lahr (review date 23 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Simon (review date 29 April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Markland Taylor (review date 13–19 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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John Lahr (review date 19 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Cecilia J. Pang (review date December 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brad Leithauser (essay date 10 February 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 570 words.)