On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide
By Ethan Mordden
Oxford University Press, New York; xiii, 186 (pp216)
Published January 21st 2016
Stephen Sondheim has been the mover and shaker of the modern musical for the past half-century. Widely honoured and celebrated, his work flags how the musical has evolved and become celebrated as both an intellectual and artistic endeavor. Indeed, there is now a minor academic industry of research and study on his works, instanced by the publication of The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies in 2014. The study of the musical has come of age; scholars now research its genealogies, structures, and forms; courses and studies have started to take it seriously.
Newcomers and aficionados alike will welcome Ethan Mordden’s slim “Opinionated Guide’. Widely known for his gay novels, Mordden is a seasoned and intimate interpreter of the Broadway Musical (with seven idiosyncratic works chronicling its history, and culminating with Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre.). This book displays his own quirky engagement with Sondheim, primarily providing core tours of each of the 18 main works, and linking up with guides to recordings, films and publications.
He starts his short book with a mighty disclaimer: “This is not a reference work. A superb database is available online at www. sondheimguide. com.” So now we know what not to expect: he has passed this main task to others! And this leaves him free for a personal “positioning “ of Sondheim in Western art, music and theatre. Situating his life in the context of his mentors and the idea of the “Concept Musical”, his main task is to provide a key tour of each of the eighteen major works. Each essay is eruditely readable and brief: the shortest coming in at only four pages (Assassins and The Frogs), the longest (A Little Night Music) at a mere ten pages. But each chapter is a provocation, a forensic analysis, and an intimate immersion. He aims for a fresh look and he surely succeeds.
Mordden sees Sondheim as the creator of “experimental musicals”, persistently straining to break conventions and transforming musical theatre in striking ways. Thus, being a trained classical composer, Sondheim turned away from the usual disdain for the musical to mischievously embrace it. His music often soars to new heights, his scores becoming unusually complex and moving dramatically with plot and character. Equally, from his earliest works (starting with the biggest early “hits” West Side Story and Gypsy), he becomes a witty and lucid lyricist as well as its analyst (his two volumes of lyrics (1954-2011) have already become the classic for lyric writing). Indeed there are very few in the musical world that can combine lyrics and music together in their work (Noel Coward and Cole Porter being major exceptions). But more than this: Sondheim is also a pioneer of the ‘playwriting’ of musicals, advancing their dramatic elements further than ever before while also tackling stories with unusually serious content. His works range from ‘art’ (Sunday in the Park with George) to cannibalistic murder (Sweeney Todd); from the ghosts of Follies to the desires of Passion; from fairly tales (Into the Woods) to Japanese history (Pacific Overtures), presidential Assassinations, and much more. Sondheim uses diverse sources for his books and radically plays with time, plot, character, ideas and staging.
Ultimately Mordden shows how the craft of doing musicals has changed enormously in the past decades. The experimental “putting it together” of music, lyrics, drama and stage has become a major new art form. And this serves as a lively introduction to it.
Published in The Times Higher Education Supplement