Stephen Sondheim 1930-
(Full name Stephen Joshua Sondheim) American composer, lyricist, and scriptwriter.
The following entry presents criticism on Sondheim's dramatic works from 1978 through 2002.
Widely considered to be one of the foremost composers and lyricists of modern musicals, Sondheim has revolutionized American musical theater, although his work has been only moderately successful at the box office. His productions typically include themes of disillusionment, despair, and disappointment—elements that were rarely incorporated into musicals before his era. In his work, Sondheim has spurned such long-standing traditions of musical theater as catchy melodies and linear plots, and instead worked introspective and thematic material into his compositions. Some critics have characterized his lyrics as stylistically sophisticated, while others have deemed them cold and unromantic. However, most drama scholars agree that Sondheim's innovative stagings, alternative dramatic resolutions, and explicit commentary on prominent social issues have expanded the possibilities for musical theater.
Born on March 22, 1930, Sondheim was the only child of an affluent New York City couple. His father was a successful clothing manufacturer and skilled pianist, and his mother was a talented dress designer. Sondheim's parents divorced when he was ten years old. Many critics consider Sondheim's dysfunctional relationship with his mother to be a major source of dark themes regarding love and marriage apparent in much of his work. Sondheim and his mother moved from New York to a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, three miles from the family of Oscar Hammerstein II, a renowned Broadway composer and lyricist, with whom he eventually became acquainted. As their relationship deepened, Hammerstein became a surrogate father figure for Sondheim, encouraging the boy's developing musical ability and influencing his later work. After two years at the New York Military Academy, Sondheim completed his secondary education at a Quaker boarding school and entered Williams College. Upon graduation in 1950, he accepted a two-year fellowship that allowed him to study with composer Milton Babbitt, another major influence on his work, and later moved to live with his father in New York City. There he met many influential artists who helped him to launch his career, including composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, who hired him to write lyrics for West Side Story in 1957. After completing the lyrics for Gypsy (1960), Sondheim composed his first original musical score and wrote the lyrics for the 1962 production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. In 1970 he collaborated with George Furth and Harold Prince to produce Company, which garnered national attention. In 1990 Sondheim accepted a visiting professorship at Oxford University, where he lectured on musical theater. In 1999 he premiered Saturday Night, a musical he wrote in 1955. Sondheim has won more Tony Awards than any other composer. Other awards for his work include the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Sunday in the Park with George (1984), several Grammy Awards, and a National Medal of Arts award.
Sondheim's musicals typically explore disillusionment and frustration within the performing arts community, society, and personal relationships. These themes are influenced by the time period in which he wrote many of his works—the 1960s and 1970s—when many Americans reevaluated their cultural ideals. A common theme of Sondheim's repertoire addresses cynicism with the arts. For example, Follies (1971) directly confronts the disrespect encountered by theater actors in American society. Set at a reunion of former showgirls, the work portrays the death of the musical genre, represented by the imminent demolition of a once-famous theater. Sunday in the Park with George explores the nature of art, particularly the creative essence of George Seurat's painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte. A satire of the fantasy genre, Into the Woods (1986) not only recounts such fairy tales as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “Rapunzel” but the musical also depicts the negative repercussions of events ignored in the happy conclusions of the original stories. A number of Sondheim's works dramatize the disillusionment experienced by the individual in modern society. Anyone Can Whistle (1964) illustrates the persecution of nonconformists in a conformist world, suggesting that the insane are in fact sane, and the sane are insane. Pacific Overtures (1976) explores the United States' cultural invasion and modernization of Japan, from the Japanese perspective. Using the conventions of Kabuki theater, the musical expresses disappointment in America's cultural subjugation of Japan, despite United States' claims that the nation is a promoter of freedom. Sweeney Todd (1979) examines corruption and the improprieties of the judicial system. When Sweeney Todd is unjustly sent to prison by a corrupt judge, who also is plotting to rape Todd's wife and abduct his daughter, Todd turns to mass murder in order to exact revenge upon the judge and society as a whole.
Some of Sondheim's most famous works illuminate levels of discontent that exist within love and marriage relationships. In West Side Story, two lovers are kept apart by gang rivalry and the work concludes without the traditional “happy ending.” Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965) focuses on an American tourist who goes to Venice looking for love, but ultimately fails in his quest and remains alone. Company vividly portrays disharmony within marriage, an institution that generally provides happy resolutions in the musical genre. In this play, a bachelor contemplates the quality of several relationships at a birthday party thrown by his married friends, who appear in his thoughts, offering their own ambivalent feelings toward commitment and marriage. A Little Night Music (1973), inspired by Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, is one of Sondheim's more traditional musicals and examines a multitude of relationships experienced by people of various ages. The winner of Tony awards for best musical and for best music and lyrics, the play features “Send in the Clowns,” Sondheim's best-known song. Although somewhat sardonic about love, the lyrics depart from the disenchantment about romance that appears in his other works. Adapted from Passione d'Amore by Ettore Scola, Passion (1994) examines the idea of romance and the suffering inflicted by raw emotions such as love and passion. In the musical, an ugly woman, Fosca, falls in love with a handsome soldier, who loves a beautiful, married woman. By sheer will and unquenchable passion, Fosca eventually seduces the soldier. Sondheim's latest musical, Bounce (2003), chronicles the adventures of the Mizner brothers, Addison and Wilson, as they gain and lose fortunes, fall in love, and reinvent themselves in early twentieth-century America.
Critics have generally praised Sondheim for innovative ideas and artistic sophistication, and he has been acknowledged for ushering modernism into the musical theater. Nevertheless, consistent critical responses to his work eluded him until Company, which was acclaimed for its honesty, realism, artistic maturity, and stylistic innovation. There is considerable disagreement among critics over the strengths and flaws in his work. Sondheim's musicals are often considered dark and depressing—a departure from the typical musical with a happy ending. Reviewers typically observe that Sondheim's musical compositions lack melody, with some speculating that this is due to his creation of the accompaniment before the melody. Many commentators view the lack of melody as the means by which Sondheim gives his works a sense of depth, originality, and intensity. Other critics have called this technique uninteresting and lacking cohesion. There are also vastly different opinions surrounding Sondheim's use of natural syntax and conversational lyrics in his plays. A majority of critics have hailed the technique as dramatically unifying, while others perceive it as inherently inferior to the synthetic style of the traditional Broadway musical. Most critics, however, agree that Sondheim is a major force in contemporary musical theater, asserting his technical, aesthetic, and stylistic talents.