How Sondheim broke down musical theatre

Stephen Sondheim is an icon for Broadway. He has made the process of writing a musical as important as any of the lyrics, and his work has regularly changed how the medium is performed…

How Sondheim broke down musical theatre

Stephen Sondheim is an icon for Broadway. He has made the process of writing a musical as important as any of the lyrics, and his work has regularly changed how the medium is performed and defined. His musicals are a carefully calibrated vehicle for the scale of contemporary musical theatre. Sondheim is forever shaping the shape of Broadway, and to move in his direction, you must earn his trust.

This great musical theatre icon has not always had this “I like your work” demeanor, but the schism between Sondheim and lyricist-lyricist-director George Furth was very real. Sondheim was the greatest and most-acclaimed writer of musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, but his connection to Furth lasted only five years. From Furth to Billy Rose, Sondheim’s collaborators had great musical abilities, but not much musical taste.

When Sondheim signed a contract with Furth to work on his musical-theatre classic Company, Sondheim made it clear he had no interest in doing or writing any more musicals with Furth. It was the first time he ever said “I don’t want to work with this person”, and the argument over Company was just the beginning. Sondheim was very proud of Company, because it was his best work, but once it was done and closed, he publicly professed that he felt like he had lost his dignity as a writer. The album Company A is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to learn how to be a brilliant musical theatre composer. As one of the most pugnacious letters of complaint against Sondheim in a professional capacity, it included these gems: “My first experience of playing an anthem was just a mess”, “I find your ‘Golden Years’ narrative boring, and unnecessarily bureaucratic and conservative”, “Your ideas were phrased more as a plot set against musical themes than as a memorable theatrical tableau”.

Sondheim has always been very particular about his music, however, and Company is a deliberate musical that treats lyrics and music as equals. This is one of Sondheim’s biggest achievements. He knew that a serious songwriting ambition like The Music Man could not be written in terms of the orchestra. Musical theatre goes back to 1830 and John Wesley Powell was one of the first people to play a musical instrument in public. Although he played a drinking flute called a brewer’s flute, he was actually trying to use the instrument to bring about change in social order. It was the beginning of what we now know as the American West, and Lawrence Bolton’s score was a reflection of those times. Bolton was the first American writer to use poetry and prose as the main musical elements of his show.

This influence can be seen in how he merged verse with music, and it can be seen in how he wrote for a Western and treated it like a poem. He was not a single-note composer, however, as William Finn recently said in that one of the show’s biggest detractors. “I can imagine Stephen sitting in his favorite armchair early in the morning, dreaming up his clever wordy whimsy, and he wakes up every morning to find somebody else has come in to steal his golden buzz.”

Company A is not just a superb musical musical that Sondheim wrote, it is an inspiration for musical theatre. Many of his songs from Company and Into the Woods have strong contemporary legacies. Some of the songs are so derivative of other musicals, you’ll think you’re watching a jukebox musical. But you aren’t. As one of Sondheim’s leading critics, George Furth, wrote, “The least interesting aspect of Into the Woods is that it is based on a short story. The most attractive aspect is that the songs are so beautifully done. The smartest thing Sondheim has done is open a door for the revival of Musical comedy.”

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