Stephen Sondheim Sondheim, Stephen (Joshua) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stephen (Joshua) Sondheim 1930–

American composer, lyricist, and scriptwriter.

Sondheim is generally acknowledged to be the best composer-lyricist currently working on Broadway. In collaboration with producer-director Harold Prince, he created a series of innovative and ambitious musicals which have earned enthusiastic acclaim from critics, although most have been only moderately successful at the box office. His work has won numerous Tony Awards, the most recent being for Sweeney Todd (1979).

Sondheim's mentor was the renowned lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who was a neighbor and family friend. It was Hammerstein who urged him to accept the job of lyricist for West Side Story (1957), although his training had been in musical composition and he was reluctant to accept a job which did not allow him to write both music and lyrics. Although Sondheim received little mention in reviews of this musical, the show itself was very popular and led to his being asked to write the lyrics for Gypsy (1959). Following these two early successes, Sondheim began to write both music and lyrics for all of his shows, beginning with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). A spoof of traditional musical comedy and based on the plays of Plautus, a classical Roman dramatist, Forum is Sondheim's most purely comedic work to date and also his most financially successful. His next two works, Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), were not well received either by critics or by the public, although the earlier work has since engaged a cult following.

Sondheim entered into a long and fruitful period of collaboration with Harold Prince beginning with Company in 1970. The musicals that Sondheim and Prince created are considered outstanding for their stylistic and thematic sophistication. They tend to be less optimistic than the typical Broadway musical, and critics use words such as desolation, despair, and disillusion in describing the tone of their productions. Termed "concept musicals" by various critics, some of these shows rely on theme rather than plot for unity. For instance, Company explores, in an episodic plot, the benefits and disappointments of marriage in contemporary urban America. Although the lyrics are entertaining and the ending affirms the institution of marriage, Sondheim's songs for this show display a vision of love which is unromantic and unsentimental. Critics enjoyed both Company and its successor, Follies (1971), but thought that they did not provide the cheerful escapism which Broadway's musical theater audiences were seeking.

This was not the case with A Little Night Music (1973). Critics agreed that in this show Prince and Sondheim had conceived a musical which was in line with public taste while maintaining their usual high standards of sophistication and innovation. Night Music is a romantic operetta based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. Set in a Swedish forest, the musical dramatizes and sometimes satirizes love and flirtation among people of various ages, and all of the music is written in variations of triple time. The score includes romantic love songs, demonstrating that Sondheim can successfully depart from the irreverent songs which are usually regarded as his forte. One of them, "Send in the Clowns," is the only Sondheim song which has achieved fame and popularity outside of the theater.

Pacific Overtures (1976) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) are also Prince-Sondheim collaborations. The former deals with the Westernization and exploitation of Japan by the United States. Such Japanese art-forms as Kabuki theater and haiku poetry are effectively utilized. Sweeney Todd originated in a nineteenth-century tale about a barber who murders his clients; Sondheim based his version on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond which added elements of class struggle and oppression to the legend and invited comparison with the works of German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. The political nature of these two musicals is further evidence of the daring of their creators, who risked blending politics and entertainment on Broadway. Pacific Overtures impressed critics but was largely ignored by the theater-going public; however, Sweeney Todd had a long Broadway run despite its political content and gruesomeness. Sondheim has continued to take advantage of unconventional sources in his recent collaborative effort with James Lapine, Sunday in the Park with George (1984). Inspired by a Georges Seurat painting, this musical is a fanciful exploration of the famous painter and his grandson.

Critic Peter Reilly has described Sondheim's career as "parallel to without being a part of the mainstream of the American musical theater." Although some of his work is complex and not readily accessible, Sondheim has set a high standard for Broadway musicals. His songs express ideas which directly relate to the themes and action of the plays; therefore, they often work only when sung by the character for whom they were written. For this reason, his songs usually do not translate well off the stage, but critics feel that this is a significant improvement over musicals which are little more than showcases for various disparate songs. Although many critics have pointed to a lack of warmth and an emotional detachment in his songs, they agree that Sondheim has greatly raised the artistic level of American musical theater.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 103.)

Robert Coleman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"West Side Story" is a timely re-telling of the Romeo and Juliet legend against the raw violence of youthful gang wars. It has earthy humor and simple beauty. And, best of all, it has tremendous drive. It moves with the speed of a switchblade knife thrust.

The Arthur Laurents book is lean and wiry. It never uses two words where one will do. It is an excellent framework for an extraordinary score by Leonard Bernstein, biting and tender lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and magnificent staging by Jerome Robbins. It is a felicitous blending of all facets of theatre….

Laurents, Bernstein and Sondheim made no compromises with popular taste. They have shunned the happy ending of the average Broadway song-and-dancer. Laurents, as a sort of off-stage Mercutio, says in effect, "A plague on both your houses." He has no sympathy for juvenile delinquents. He lashes out at their jungle code, their defiance of society….

"West Side Story" is a superlative musical. A chiller, a thriller, as up-to-the-minute as tomorrow's headlines.

Robert Coleman, "'West Side Story' a Sensational Hit!" in Daily Mirror, September 27, 1957, Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XVIII, No. 15, September 30-October 6, 1957, p. 254.

John Chapman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["West Side Story"] is a bold new kind of musical theatre—a juke-box Manhattan opera. It is, to me, extraordinarily exciting. In it, the various fine skills of show business are put to new tests, and as a result a different kind of musical has emerged.

The story is, roughly, Shakespeare's recounting of the love and deaths of Romeo and Juliet. But the setting is today's Manhattan, and the manner of telling the story is a provocative and artful blend of music, dance and plot—and the music and the dancing are superb.

In this present-day version of the theatre's greatest romance, the Montagues and Capulets become young New York gangs, one native, the other Puerto Rican….

The music of "West Side Story" is by Leonard Bernstein, and it is superb….

The story, about the fundamentally innocent hoodlums of our town, is by Arthur Laurents, and it is a lovely and moving one. But Laurents is not alone in telling this story, for his collaborator is Jerome Robbins, the choreographer. Robbins and his superb young dancers carry the plot as much as the spoken words and lyrics do.

The lyrics, by Stephen Sondheim, have simple grace, and there is a lovely tribute by the sidewalk Romeo to his dusky girl, Maria. There is a really beautiful scene in which the boy and the girl go through a make-believe wedding in a shop for bridal clothing. And there is an uproariously funny one in which a so-called juvenile delinquent gets a going-over by all the authorities whose problem he is—the cop, the judge, the social worker and the psychiatrist. This young hoodlum manages to make his elders look pretty silly.

John Chapman, "'West Side Story' a Splendid and Super-Modern Musical Drama," in Daily News, New York, September 27, 1957, Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XVIII, No. 15, September 30-October 6, 1957, p. 252.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["West Side Story"] is a story with music, but I do not call it a musical because it strikes me as an entirely new form. There are arias, duets, choral numbers; there is ballet and jive, and there is an appealing libretto. It is the most exciting thing that has come to town since "My Fair Lady."

Here is one of the rare blends of talent that obviously struck no snags. The idea, a rather loose modernization of the Romeo and Juliet theme, was conceived by Jerome Robbins. It was transmitted by him to Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and a young man named Stephen Sondheim, and together they devised book, music, lyrics and choreography which should remain for many seasons as the most fortunate union in the history of money.

Taking it from the top I would say that Mr. Bernstein is responsible for the true importance of the piece, for the music is always magnificent….

The story by Mr. Laurents is only wonderful. He has captured the talk of the juveniles, or a reasonable facsimile, and woven it into a magic fabric.

Young Mr. Sondheim has gone all the way with the mood in his lyrics. His ballads are the lament of the sincere, and he can come up with the most hilarious travesty of our times in, "Gee, Officer Krupke"—a plaint which should settle the problem of juvenile delinquency forever.

Then there is Jerome Robbins, the old master, who directed and did the dances. This should be his monument, for there has never been a happier integration, a more sensitive blending of story, song and movement.

John McClain, "Music Magnificent in Overwhelming Hit," in Journal American, September 27, 1957, Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XVIII, No. 15, September 30-October 6, 1957, p. 254.

Brooks Atkinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Since Ethel Merman is the head woman in "Gypsy," which opened at the Broadway last evening, nothing can go wrong. She would not permit "Gypsy" to be anything less than the most satisfying musical of the season….

In the book Arthur Laurents has written for her (based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee) she is the female juggernaut who drives her two daughters into show business and keeps their noses to the grindstone until one of them is a star.

"Gypsy" is a musical tour of the hotel rooms and backstages of the seamy side of show business thirty years ago when vaudeville was surrendering to the strip-tease. Jo Mielziner has designed a savory production. Jule Styne has supplied a genuine show-business score, and Stephen Sondheim has set amusing lyrics to it.

Brooks Atkinson, "Theatre: Good Show!" in The New York Times, May 22, 1959, p. 31.

Kenneth Tynan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The following essay was first published in The New Yorker, May 30, 1959.]

Quite apart from considerations of subject matter, perfection of style can be profoundly moving in its own right. If anyone doubts that, he had better rush and buy a ticket for Gypsy, the first half of which brings together in effortless coalition all the arts of the American musical stage at their highest point of development. So smooth is the blending of skills, so precise the interlocking of song, speech, and dance, that the sheer contemplation of technique becomes a thrilling emotional experience…. I have heard of mathematicians who broke down and wept at the sight of certain immaculately poised...

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Brooks Atkinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It] is the impeccable taste of the music, the lyrics and the story that seems so astonishing in "West Side Story." Given two lots of hoodlums somewhere on the gritty pavements of New York, how could the authors of the show endow them with so much common humanity, and raise their hopes and troubles to the level of literature?

But that is what "West Side Story" manages to do. The world of the Jets and the Sharks is full of violence and danger. The amenities of civilization seem unmanly and bogus to these tense youths, who are seething with fear and hatred. Nothing could be uglier than the rumble that leaves two victims dead in the shadows of a summer night.

Somehow Mr. Bernstein,...

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William K. Zinsser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is an engaging song in West Side Story in which the young heroine, Maria, blurts out the joy of being in love:

I feel pretty, oh, so pretty,
That the city should give me its key.
A committee
Should be organized to honor me….

Besides being pleasant, the lyric is a model of craftsmanship. It states a simple emotion, clearly and with precision, and yet it is not dry. It has a girlish lilt, a touch of humor, and, as all good lyrics should, an element of surprise—in this case a triple, mainly internal rhyme.

Nevertheless the man who wrote it,...

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Hobe Morrison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The title of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is misleading. The musical … isn't funny—it's uproarious. Moreover, the show isn't about any single thing that happens, but includes just about every preposterous incident imaginable. Also, while there are several mentions of the forum, nobody goes there, so the reference serves merely to establish a sort of franchise.

Although the new show is billed as a musical comedy, it's really a wildly antic knockabout farce with songs and practically continuous laughs…. [Instead] of even a nominal story line, it's an incredible collection of uninhibited buffoonery, frequently in the old fashioned vaudeville and burlesque style….


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John Chapman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Anyone Can Whistle"] is an unusual, far-out musical with a briskly syncopated score, educated lyrics, original and frisky dances, waltzing scenery and an imaginative story which the cast and I had to cope with rather strenuously.

This book and the lack of a melody I could whistle impeded my enjoyment of the last two acts, which didn't quite fulfill the high promise of the joyously daffy first act.

Arthur Laurents, the librettist (and director), has imagined a depressed town ruled by a lady mayor. But this is no ordinary depression; the town has manufactured something that won't wear out—so when everybody has one the big factory closes and only a miracle can help.


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Richard Watts, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

High aim is always commendable in the theater, and there can be no doubt of the lofty and praiseworthy ambition of "Anyone Can Whistle." But some actual fulfillment must accompany the dream, and it seemed to me that the new musical comedy by Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim … was so ponderously heavy-handed and clumsily vague in its presentation of a somewhat obscure thesis that it could bring the entire idea of good intentions under suspicion….

Mr. Laurents, who wrote the book and staged the production, seems to have had in mind a serious moral parable in terms of comic fantasy….

As a story, it is meandering, devious and not very enlivening in its humor. But this is...

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Howard Taubman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is no law against saying something in a musical, but it's unconstitutional to omit imagination and wit. In an attempt to be meaningful, "Anyone Can Whistle" forgets to offer much entertainment.

Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, the authors,… have aimed for originality, and for that one respects them. Their trouble is that they have taken an idea with possibilities and have pounded it into a pulp.

Mr. Laurents's book lacks the fantasy that would make the idea work, and his staging has not improved matters. Mr. Sondheim has written several pleasing songs but not enough of them to give the musical wings.

Howard Taubman, "The Theater:...

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Hobe Morrison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whatever it's supposed to be getting at, "Anyone Can Whistle" should have the distinction of not leaving audiences apathetic. If it isn't entertaining, it's at least apt to be irritating….

["Anyone Can Whistle"] has a book by Arthur Laurents, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, in what's evidently meant to be a sort of song and dance theatre of the absurd….

The book is a kind of surrealist fable about a corrupt Never-Neverland town in which the supposedly crazy people are sane. The point seems to be something or other about the stultifying effect of that pathetically riddled target, conformity….

Maybe it's supposed to be Brechtian, or something, and...

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Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Do I Hear a Waltz?" is an entirely serious and very dry musical about an American tourist who goes to Venice and doesn't have any fun. What more can I tell you?…

From his earlier play, "The Time of the Cuckoo," and without doing much more than thinning it out, Arthur Laurents has devised a small diary in which the loneliness, and then the stubbornness, and then the rueful awakening of starchy Leona Samish can be recorded for sound. Leona is single, and likely to be. She has come abroad looking for a "wonderful, mystical, magical miracle," but is not finding it.

By the sixth song of the evening, she is still sitting alone over evening coffee singing "Here we are together, me and...

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Richard Watts, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Venice of the American tourist provides a colorful background of which Richard Rodgers takes expert advantage in "Do I Hear a Waltz?" His new musical play … is so winning in its score, lyrics, setting, cast, production, spirit and general atmosphere that it offers an evening of charming and tasteful entertainment despite certain strong reservations I have concerning the libretto by Arthur Laurents.

In a Richard Rodgers show, the music deserves first attention, and his latest score, while perhaps not one of his most spectacular, is tuneful and thoroughly appealing. The lyrics contributed by Stephen Sondheim are deft and intelligent, and the attractive numbers are delightfully sung….


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Douglas Watt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Let's hear it for "Company," the newest and slickest thing in town. As smooth as the steel-and-glass buildings of midtown Manhattan and as jumpy as an alley cat, it is Broadway's first musical treatment of nerve ends.

[Robert] is a bachelor whose closest friends include three girls and five married couples. At the beginning and end, he is being given a surprise party by the pairs on his 35th birthday. In between, he remembers troublesome scenes with all of them and at the finish decides that marriage is—well, go see for yourself.

Brilliance is all in this show. George Furth's book is diamond-sharp, funny and chilling both. But Stephen Sondheim's songs, while equally scintillating,...

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Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Creatively Mr. Sondheim's lyrics are way above the rest of ["Company"]; they have a lyric suppleness, sparse, elegant wit, and range from the virtuosity of a patter song to a kind of sweetly laconic cynicism in a modern love song. The music is academically very interesting. Mr. Sondheim must be one of the most sophisticated composers ever to write Broadway musicals, yet the result is slick, clever and eclectic rather than exciting. It is the kind of music that makes me say: "Oh, yeah?" rather than "Gee whiz!" but I readily concede that many people will consider its sheer musical literacy as off setting all other considerations. (p. 262)

Clive Barnes, "'Company' Offers a Guide to...

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Martin Gottfried

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Company" is quite simply in a league by itself. Artistry, excitement, intelligence and professionalism have been so long gone from Broadway that it's almost easy to forget when the musical theatre held the promise of greatness, and yet that was only as long ago as the last work of Leonard Bernstein ("West Side Story"), Jerome Robbins ("Fiddler On The Roof") and Stephen Sondheim ("Anyone Can Whistle"). Sondheim's new musical … is a tremendous piece of work, thrilling and chilling, glittering bright, really funny (and not so funny), exceedingly adult, gorgeous to look at and filled with brilliant music….

The theme of "Company" is bachelorhood in the New York of clever, successful, alcoholic,...

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Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The hero in "Company," Bobby,] wants no part of marriage or, as a song says, of "The Little Things You Do Together," ("Neighbors you annoy together, children you destroy together"), but he's willing to listen to—he cannot escape—the finger-wagging advice, in buzzing overlapping rhythms, of his matchmaking friends. Only trouble is, when he asks how any of them feels about being married, he gets an at best ambiguous and at worst despairing answer. "You're always sorry, you're always grateful," a trio of furrowed-brow husbands carols to him (in quite a nice little lazy-beat song), ending with a dying "you're always alone."

The mood is misanthropic, the view from the peephole jaundiced, the attitude...

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Martin Gottfried

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Follies" is in a class of its own. It is safe to say that no Broadway musical has ever attempted its grandeur of vision, the size of its presence. This being so, it cannot be compared in any "good, better, best" sense with any musical in the past. So, if it does not always work, and it doesn't always, one is nonetheless aware that this is happening in a new-found dimension. Like a girl you love but do not always like, "Follies" is very great though it is not always good.

It is about age and an age, the glory of the past and the follies in letting nostalgia make that past seem more glorious (memory's compromise with reality), the truth of growing old and the acceptance of that truth. This is the...

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T. E. Kalem

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The frontier of the American musical theater is wherever Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim are. Last season, the producer-director and composer-lyricist collaborated on Company, which focused a diamond-cutting laser beam on marriage, Manhattan-style. With Follies, Prince and Sondheim, together with Choreographer and Co-Director Michael Bennett, have audaciously staked out some unknown territory. They have put together the first Proustian musical….

Compacted of memory, dreams and desire, the illusions and disillusions of love, the shifting structure of the self, Follies fuses all into one of the great haunting themes of the Western mind: Time. Follies is a triple-edged...

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Henry Hewes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The most important musical of the Broadway season is Follies, concocted by some of the collaborators who made Company the best musical of the last two seasons. The new work uses song and dance to suggest our evolution from the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties, when we counteracted our comparatively simple problems with childishly glamorized entertainments. But it resolutely resists the audience's wish to find these eras nostalgic and charming. Instead, it presents the ghosts of the past as painful exhumations.

Indeed, the theater itself has been turned into the gutted shell of a former Broadway pleasure palace….

Into this special environment march the living remains...

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Arlene Croce

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stephen Sondheim's lyrics for the show Follies reach their acme of wit in the very first song, in which he rhymes "celestial" with "the best ya'll (agree)." The song, Beautiful Girls, is sung by an aging, flabby tenor … as a line of women, former Follies girls attending a reunion in the crumbling shell of their old and soon-to-be-demolished theater, goes tottering down a staircase in a creaky reprise of the famous Follies showgirl parade.

The women are all either approaching menopause or are well beyond it, some are overweight, the party clothes they have worn for the occasion are for the most part in striking bad taste, and Sondheim's rhyme, with its play on "bestial," makes the...

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Martin Gottfried

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"] has a book that is not only marvelous but without period in respect to its style. The Burt Shevelove-Larry Gelbart script is tremendously funny—it is literary, consistent and impeccably structured. It may well be the best book in all our musical theatre….

The final contribution that makes for [its successful revival] … is Stephen Sondheim's score, which went unappreciated even when the show was winning its various prizes. Since this music cannot be separated from the book, you almost forget it is there—the composer suffers because of his very success. It is easier to notice Sondheim's lyrics—they are so clever they are a dazzling exercise...

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Douglas Watt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Exquisiteness is so much the concern of "A Little Night Music," a beautifully designed and staged operetta of intimate proportions … that there is little room for the breath of life.

Derived from an Ingmar Bergman movie, "Smiles of a Summer Night," it takes place at the turn of the century in Sweden, where a handful of people—including a married lawyer and an actress—are caught up in the vagaries of love. Light mockery and occasional laughter float on the sweetly-scented night air, but the atmosphere is sterile. Though much of the talk and activity are given over to sex, there seems to be little of it around.

Stephen Sondheim's carefully wrought score, which never opens itself...

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Martin Gottfried

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"A Little Night Music" is exquisite to look at; it has a wonderful score; its lyrics are a model of the craft; I saw it twice, liked it better the second time, and find that what it is trying to do is more interesting than what it did, for the show has little life, little musical theatricality and little reason for its own existence. Coming as it does after their adventurous and inspired "Company" and "Follies," the new Stephen Sondheim-Harold Prince musical … is a deep disappointment for me. This enormously talented team, composer-lyricist and producer-director, has been solitarily evolving the Broadway musical theater. Though a show of theirs that does not work is still beyond the talent and imagination of most...

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T. E. Kalem

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Little Night Music] is a jeweled music box of a show: lovely to look at, delightful to listen to, and perhaps too exquisite, fragile and muted ever to be quite humanly affecting. It is a victory of technique over texture, and one leaves it in the odd mental state of unbridled admiration and untouched feelings….

Nothing lends the show quite so much strength as Stephen Sondheim's score. It is a beauty, his best yet in an exceedingly distinguished career. The prevailing waltz meter is more suggestive of fin de siècle Vienna than the Scandinavian north, but why carp? In a show almost without choreography, Sondheim's lyrics are nimble-witted dances. Literate, ironic, playful, enviably...

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Charles Michener

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Broadway is notoriously unappreciative of chance takers, but in recent years, at least, it has come to honor Sondheim's work with a regularity bordering on inevitability…. This year was no different: "A Little Night Music," his third show in three years, was named best musical, and Sondheim walked off with the Tony for best words and music.

Which is as it should be—and shouldn't. For the embarrassment of Tonys on Sondheim's mantelpiece also points up the embarrassing state into which the Broadway musical—America's great original contribution to the theater—has fallen. Once upon a time, the musical show was Broadway's brightest beacon to the world, sweeping from Catfish Row to Siam with...

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Rex Reed

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Authentic genius is never recognized until the genius is dead, so the saying goes, but Stephen Sondheim is proving it a lie. At forty-three he has composed the music and/or lyrics for only (!) eight Broadway shows and one television special, yet practically everybody who knows or cares anything about the subject regards him as already the most important force in American theater music since Cole Porter. His songs are witty, sardonic, intelligent, brilliantly structured, and, above all, courageous. If there's a tired old rule to be broken, he breaks it. If there's a bright new idea kicking around, he has it. And since the whole rollicking history of Broadway musicals is seemingly at his talented fingertips, when a new...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's hard to talk about lyrics independently of music, but I will try. Obviously, all the principles of writing apply to lyrics: grace, affinity for words, a feeling for the weight of words, resonances, tone, all of that. But there are two basic differences between lyric writing and all other forms, and they dictate what you have to do as a lyric writer. They are not even rules, they are just principles. First, lyrics exist in time—as opposed to poetry, for example. You can read a poem at your own speed. I find most poetry very difficult, and there are a few poets I like very much. Wallace Stevens is one, but it takes me a good 20 minutes to get through a medium-length Wallace Stevens poem, and even then I don't...

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Douglas Watt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although Sondheim's dazzling accomplishments as a rhymester appear to be uncontested, it is sometimes said that his composing doesn't measure up to his lyric writing…. For my part, I find Sondheim as resourceful a composer as he is a lyricist. As a writer of sophisticated show tunes, he was schooled in a theatrical tradition that reached a peak with [Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein], and he has sought to advance that tradition in the face of its seeming decline. In "Company," he experimented with the genre in many provocative ways; in "Follies," he openly imitated earlier song-writers; in "A Little Night Music" (which contains his most successful song, "Send in the Clowns"), he attempted to impose stylistic...

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Louis Snyder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whether or not it becomes a Broadway smash with its offbeat oriental setting and treatment, "Pacific Overtures" may move to be a step forward in American musical theatre creativity….

The show has the ingenuity, intelligence and taste of … previous Prince-Sondheim collaborations … without adhering to a traditional style or format….

In one of his most intriguing and inventive scores to date, Sondheim has made use of Japanese instruments, tonal colors and rhythms to produce viable, native authenticity, without alienating the hungry show-tune ear. Although none of the nine musical numbers promise to be a hit out of context, all of the set pieces mesh into the quasi-episodic...

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Martin Gottfried

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stephen Sondheim's music [for "Pacific Overtures"],… is simply formidable—a huge amount of it built into sung sequences so extensive and cubic they rise from and engulf the show. Sondheim didn't pretend to write Oriental music, but instead grasped its texture and, much more importantly, the show's purposes. This is true theater music, much more melodic than one hearing suggests, and tremendously varied. The score places him at the very pinnacle of American stage composers and entirely apart from conventional theater songwriters.

His lyrics assume a great responsibility, telling as much of the story as the John Weidman-Hugh Wheeler book. They are not merely impeccable in terms of lyric writing...

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Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The translation of a culture—and a translation of a translation at that—this is only the beginning of the beguiling and sometimes bewildering complexities of the new musical "Pacific Overtures." … It is a very serious, almost inordinately ambitious musical, and as such is deserving of equally serious attention.

It is the story of what happened when "four black ships" came to "a land of changeless order." It is all about the Westernization of Japan, and, obliquely and finally, why Seiko watches are today the third largest-selling watch in Switzerland. It is about a change of scene, a change of heart—but stylistically it is also about a type of theater….

[The] musical is to...

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Jack Kroll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Pacific Overtures" is an audacious attempt to create a musical play by mixing American sensibility and technique with those of Japan—specifically the ancient Kabuki theater. When 28-year-old John Weidman showed Prince a play he'd written about the opening of Japan to the West in 1853 by Commodore Matthew Perry, the producer got the idea of turning it into the fourth musical of his fruitful collaboration with composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The result is the most original—though not the best—product of Prince's brilliant atelier….

No other team in the American theater could have achieved this show's integration of elements, its harmony of form, color, sound and movement. Sondheim's...

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Peter Reilly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The album] "Side by Side by Sondheim" is a tribute, bouquet, what-have-you to the work of Stephen Sondheim, probably the most gifted and productive creative force now at work in the American lyric theater. It is a collection of songs from an astonishing career that began—at the top—with West Side Story (he was then only twenty-five years old) and has continued on to the recent Pacific Overtures.

The release ["Side by Side"] is a recorded version of the "musical entertainment" first presented at London's Mermaid Theatre last year by three young English performers. In the recent past we've also had original-cast recordings, from that same stage, of evenings devoted to the works of...

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Martin Gottfried

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's difficult to see the sense in an all-Stephen Sondheim revue being done in a Broadway theater by an all-British cast, and it was even more difficult after seeing "Side by Side by Sondheim."…

Sondheim is, of course, the most important composer and lyricist working in the American musical theater today. By "important" I mean that his contributions have gone beyond the creation of fine songs. He has added to the very structure of our musical theater, developing approaches and techniques that have expanded its possibilities.

In the process he has helped to make several landmark musicals and all of this is in addition to truly brilliant musical scores.

But true as...

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Thomas P. Adler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In 1974 Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove collaborated on a musical adaptation of [Aristophanes's] The Frogs…. In lyrics to a song entitled "The Sound of Poets" that might well express their writer's own artistic credo, the Chorus [in The Frogs] charges the poet to

Bring a sense of purpose,
Bring the taste of words,
Bring the sound of wit,
Bring the feel of passion,
Bring the glow of thought
To the darkening earth….

These are all things that Sondheim, the single most important...

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Howard Kissel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What distinguishes "Sweeney Todd" from simple Victorian dramaturgy is its deliberate theatricality, its desire not just to scare us, but to invest the horror with irony. Nineteenth-century realism assumed its audience was naive and innocent; post-Brechtian theater presumes its audience is theatrically knowing and socially guilty….

Sondheim's score reinforces this complex emotional (or antiemotional) structure. In some ways it is his most melodic, richest work—yet, even at its lushest moments, the context never lets the music seem merely "beautiful." The tenderest moment, musically, for example, is a love song the vengeful barber sings to his razor. Another lovely song, "Pretty Ladies," is one...

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Richard Eder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The musical and dramatic achievements of Stephen Sondheim's black and bloody "Sweeney Todd" are so numerous and so clamorous that they trample and jam each other in that invisible but finite doorway that connects a stage and its audience; doing themselves some harm in the process.

That is a serious reservation, and I will get back to it. But it is necessary to give the dimensions of the event. There is more of artistic energy, creative personality and plain excitement in "Sweeney Todd" … than in a dozen average musicals.

It is in many ways closer to opera than to most musicals; and in particular, and sometimes too much for its own good, to the Brecht-Weill "Threepenny Opera." Mr....

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Edwin Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

No matter how divided audiences are on the new musical "Sweeney Todd"—and they are likely to be sharply divided—few will be able to deny its enormous impact. It comes across as forcefully as any musical in recent memory.

The division will be largely over the musical's subject matter….

"Sweeney Todd" incorporates all the contrasting cliches of 19th Century melodrama: the corrupt rich (the judge) versus the downtrodden; the evil versus the innocent (Sweeney's daughter Johanna, in a straw bonnet and long blond curls, is the essence of Victorian purity); a sordid daily existence versus dreams of escape. Two of the most effective, as well as most melodic, songs in "Sweeney Todd"...

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John Beaufort

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

British Grand Guignol meets Broadway spectacular in "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street." But the "musical thriller" based on British playwright Christopher Bond's 1973 adaptation attempts to do more than shock and horrify the spectator. The sophisticated team of director Harold Prince, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and librettist Hugh Wheeler has attempted to translate the lurid theatricalism of Grand Guignol into a form approaching grand opera. The result is a horrorcomic epic employing song for much of its unfoldment….

Besides retelling the gruesome tale of the demon barber, "Sweeney Todd" seeks to set forth a parable about the squalid horrors of an England where grinding...

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Jack Kroll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In sheer ambition and size, there's never been a bigger musical on Broadway than "Sweeney Todd," the latest in the astonishing series of collaborations between composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince. As for achievement, well, it has to be said again—these men and their collaborators must be judged by the standards they themselves have set, the highest standards in the American professional theater. Judged thereby, "Sweeney Todd" is brilliant, even sensationally so, but its effect is very much a barrage of brilliancies, like flares fired aloft that dazzle and fade into something cold and dark. This "musical thriller" about a homicidal barber, a tonsorial Jack the Ripper in Dickensian London,...

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John Lahr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Much of the hope for the musical's survival resides in the acerbic intelligence of Stephen Sondheim, whose tenth musical, Sweeney Todd, opened in New York [in the winter of 1979]. In collaboration with his director / producer, Hal Prince, Sondheim has given a sense of occasion back to the musical and moved it away from the Shubert Alley formula of "no girls, no gags, no chance."… Sondheim has become the American musical: a king on a field of corpses.

Traditional musicals dramatize the triumph of hope over experience. Characteristic of their flirtation with modernism, Sondheim's shows make a cult of blasted joys and jubilant despairs. He admits that joy escapes him. "If I consciously sat down...

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Alan Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, has suffered the wrongs of a corrupt society and, with his trusty razor, dispatches an impressive number of Londoners in his one-man war of vengeance. Yet, in the musical masterpiece [Sweeney Todd] …, there is yet another victim: Stephen Sondheim, who has had the audacity to be brilliant in an artistic medium where mediocrity is highly prized, and unclassifiable in a world divided by journalists into neat categories.

This is Sondheim's second brilliant, unclassifiable show in a row, and Sweeney Todd repeats almost every error that consigned Pacific Overtures to the dustbin after its pathetically short run three seasons ago…....

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William Anderson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sondheim based his musical version [of Sweeney Todd] on a recent London stage play, and it is a positive feast (!) for English majors. There are traces of Jonathan Swift (his icily ironic Modest Proposal), of the Beggar's Opera (the Brecht version, not the life-celebrating John Gay original), of Charles Dickens' pestilential nineteenth-century London, of [William] Hogarth's prints, France's Grand Guignol theater of horror, and even I Remember Mama (the culinary secret of her meatballs)…. The relentless misanthropy ("The history of the world … is who gets eaten and who gets to eat"), the lewdness, the venality, and the scatological language of the play are relieved only by the blackest...

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Paul Wittke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sondheim's lyric ancestors are Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Noël Coward, and W. S. Gilbert. He may lack Porter's and Coward's nonchalant gaiety, irreverent fun, and rueful melancholy, and Hammerstein's compassion and rugged simplicity, but he is more than their equal (and Gilbert's) in verbal felicity. Sondheim's wit is mordant, intellectual, edgy rather than funny, the hard-hitting repartee of contemporary New York. (p. 309)

Sondheim incorporates disparate styles [of other composers] … into a style purely his own. Furthermore, he shapes each score to an individual sound that belongs to that show alone.

In Company, Sondheim forged a style of pop influenced by rock that...

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Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "Marry Me a Little"], a single young woman and a single young man, each living alone in an apartment in New York …, sing seventeen songs by Stephen Sondheim that were pulled from his shows during rehearsal…. [Their] unawareness of each other as they move about the apartment, even when they share the same bed at the end, is the running joke of this mini-musical. None of the songs struck me as exactly vintage Sondheim, although "Saturday Night," "The Girls of Summer," "Pour le Sport," and the title song come close, but an evening of non-vintage Sondheim is richer than most evenings, certainly Off Broadway.

Edith Oliver, "Off Broadway," in The New Yorker, Vol. LVII,...

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Edwin Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Two things set ["Merrily We Roll Along"] apart right away. It is a Hal Prince-Stephen Sondheim collaboration and it tells its story backward…. The notion of moving backward comes from the 1930s play by Kaufman and Hart from which the musical is derived.

Unfortunately, this pedigree does not help. Neither the impressive talents of its creative team, nor the device of reversing the chronology can camouflage the commonplace nature of the story….

The story of success corrupting a young idealist is all to familiar and the creators have been able to do very little to make it seem new or to make us care about the characters involved.


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Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Merrily We Roll Along," which closed after sixteen performances …, was a blunder, all the more mysterious because it was carried out by some of the least blunder-prone people on Broadway—Hal Prince, who produced and directed it; Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics; and George Furth, who wrote the book. What on earth could have drawn them to this old play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart? It is a work remarkable only for the fact that its plot unfolds by starting in the present and going back and back through time…. Mr. Furth breathed little life into a book bristling with clichés of attitude and language, and for once Mr. Sondheim was unable to turn into memorable song those feelings of...

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Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I suppose the question most frequently asked around town these days is why Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim should have risked trying to fashion a musical out of "Merrily We Roll Along"…. In effect, Prince and Sondheim were starting out with a known quantity: a weak book. (p. D3)

I think they picked "Merrily We Roll Along" because it was precisely what they wanted to do, precisely what they had been doing for most of their distinguished, if not always rewarding, collaboration. "Merrily" offered them the one thing they seem determined to sell: disenchantment.

"Company" was a technically fascinating musical devoted to exploring total disenchantment in marriage, climaxed by...

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Peter Reilly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The story of Merrily We Roll Along reaches backward in time to retrace the lives of several people attending a class reunion, and Sondheim's score is typically inventive and complex. Perhaps the clearest explanation is Sondheim's own, as he presents it in the album booklet: "Since Merrily We Roll Along is about friendship, the score concentrates on the friendship of Mary, Frank, and Charlie by having all their songs interconnected through chunks of melody, rhythm, and accompaniment. And since the story moves backwards in time, it presented an opportunity to invent verbal and musical motifs which could be modified over the course of the years, extended and developed, reprised, fragmented, and then...

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Karl Levett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stephen Sondheim is the present genius-in-resident of the American musical. Over the last 20 years, he has singlehandedly staked out new territory for the musical theatre. This past summer he chose for the first time to create for Off-Broadway, a Work-in-Progress entitled Sunday in the Park with George. Only the first act was on view and this not open for critical review. The musical's inspiration is Georges Seurat's painting "Un Dimanche à la Grande Jatte" and the show contrives to reveal Seurat's relationship to the characters in the painting. This is fragile and subtle stuff for a musical. As yet James Lapine's book is convoluted and cloudy, while Sondheim, who lyrically can never be dull, seems hesitant to...

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Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Sondheim has always functioned as a theater man first, a songwriter second. Unlike all but a few of his theatrical contemporaries, he has never aspired to write songs that have a pop life of their own; all of his songs reflect the dramatic situations and characters of the musicals they were written to serve. What is more remarkable is how well Mr. Sondheim fulfills this mission. Yank one of his songs out of its original context, and you're often left with a self-contained play.

One example on the new record ["A Stephen Sondheim Evening"] is an eight-minute masterpiece: "Someone in a Tree" from "Pacific Overtures." Its subject, of all things, is the treaty by which the United States "opened up"...

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John Rockwell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sondheim's verbal felicity has remained with him throughout his career. He has that gift for clever rhymes that has distinguished lyricists since W. S. Gilbert ("beauty celestial the best you'll / agree" from Follies, for instance). Better still, he has the ability to link musical construction with verbal cadence, to let the rhythm of the words shape the structure of a phrase. To take yet another of many possible examples, the song "Broadway Baby," again from Follies, includes a stanza that begins "At / my tiny flat …" This is an unexpected rhyme, to start with. And it helps define the melodic structure of the song itself.

That sense of melody, shape and overall formal design only...

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Samuel G. Freedman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his 13 shows—he wrote only lyrics for three, music and lyrics for the rest—Sondheim has staked out a turf as big as the emotional landscape of post-World War II America. Even when the shows have been set abroad or in the past, their themes have addressed contemporary topics—or universal ones, Sondheim might aver—by way of metaphor. This is particularly true of the Sondheim shows since 1970. He has treated the travails of modern marriage in "Company," the corrosion of American optimism in "Follies," injustice and revenge in "Sweeney Todd," idealism and compromise in "Merrily We Roll Along" and Western imperialism in "Pacific Overtures." As Sondheim once put it, "I love to write in dark colors about gut...

(The entire section is 585 words.)

Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his paintings of a century ago, Georges Seurat demanded that the world look at art in a shocking new way. In "Sunday in the Park With George," their new show about Seurat, the songwriter Stephen Sondheim and the playwright-director James Lapine demand that an audience radically change its whole way of looking at the Broadway musical. Seurat, the authors remind us, never sold a painting; it's anyone's guess whether the public will be shocked or delighted by "Sunday in the Park." What I do know is that Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine have created an audacious, haunting and, in its own intensely personal way, touching work. Even when it fails—as it does on occasion—"Sunday in the Park" is setting the stage for even...

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Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the halcyon days of Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers and Hart, Broadway musicals used to be about music. Beginning with Oklahoma, and culminating with My Fair Lady, Broadway musicals usually featured the book. Sunday in the Park with George, a new work by James Lapine (book and direction) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), is the first Broadway musical that is mainly about the set.

This show has a very good set—indeed, a brilliant one—by Tony Straiges—and since the design is primarily intended as a stage canvas for the reproduction (substituting costumed actors for the original figures) of the large pointillist painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande...

(The entire section is 537 words.)