Stephen Sondheim has been the mover and shaker of the modern musical for the past half-century. His widely honoured work is emblematic of how the musical has evolved, and has become celebrated as both an intellectual and artistic endeavour. Indeed, there is now a minor academic industry of research and study on his works, as instanced by the 2014 publication of The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies. More broadly, the study of the musical has come of age: scholars now research its genealogies, structures and forms, and courses and studies treat it seriously.
Newcomers and aficionados alike will welcome this slim – and, as its subtitle advertises, opinionated – guide. Widely known for his gay novels, Ethan Mordden is a seasoned and intimate interpreter of the Broadway musical, and the author of seven idiosyncratic works chronicling its history that culminated with Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre (2013).
He starts this 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! This leaves him free to undertake a personal “positioning” of Sondheim in Western art, music and theatre. Situating the composer’s life in the context of his mentors and the idea of the “concept musical”, Mordden’s main task is to provide a key tour of each of the 18 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 10. But every 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. A trained classical composer, he turned away from the traditional 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. Moreover, from his earliest works (starting with the biggest early “hits” West Side Story and Gypsy), he has become a witty and lucid lyricist (his two volumes of lyrics, covering 1954 to 2011, are now the classic work for lyric writing). Indeed, with the notable exception of Noël Coward and Cole Porter, there are very few other figures in the musical world who have been able to undertake both lyrics and music.
But, just as importantly, Sondheim is a pioneer of the “playwriting” of musicals, advancing their dramatic elements further than ever before while also tackling stories with unusually serious content. He uses diverse sources for his books and radically plays with time, plot, character, ideas and staging. 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 fairy tales (Into the Woods) to Japanese history (Pacific Overtures), presidential tragedy (Assassins) and much more.
Mordden shows how the craft of doing musicals has changed enormously in past decades. The experimental “putting together” of music, lyrics, drama and stage has become a major new art form, and this book is a succinct and lively introduction.
Ken Plummer is emeritus professor of sociology, University of Essex.
On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide
By Ethan Mordden
Oxford University Press, 216pp, £18.99
Published 21 January 2016