A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Stephen Sondheim

With three major productions running simultaneously in London and New York, and a fourth scheduled, Stephen Sondheim’s contribution to musical theater is foremost in both capitals. In London, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first work for which he wrote both lyrics and music, is a hit at the National Theatre, while Sweeney Todd, an acclaimed masterpiece, holds forth at the New Ambassadors. The Frogs delighted audiences at Lincoln Center in New York, where Pacific Overtures is scheduled to open at Studio 54.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a zany Plautine comedy, replete with clever servant Desmond Barrit creating merry mix-ups, old man Senex chasing beautiful young women (Sam Kelly), Hamish McColl impersonating a woman wooed by egotistical warrior Miles Gloriosus (Philip Quast), and long-lost children, stolen by pirates, discovered in the nick of time. This is as genuinely funny a work as you will find on any stage.  Credit the goings-on to book co-authors Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, who borrowed from Roman comedy writer Plautus to “fill the vulgarity vacuum” left by the sentimental musicals of the sixties.  A perfect match to the fast-moving action involving chases and swinging doors galore are Sondheim’s sprightly, witty music and lyrics of songs like the opening number, hailing “Something that’s gaudy, something that’s bawdy…something frenetic, something balletic, Comedy Tonight!”  Performance schedule and tickets: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

Sweeney Todd is a musical masterpiece, relating the dark legend of barber Sweeney, framed and sent to jail by a malicious judge who ravages his young wife, kidnaps his daughter Johanna, and makes her his ward. Returning to London, Sweeney vows revenge, luring his wrongdoers to the barber’s chair -- and cutting their throats.   His neighbor Mrs. Lovett (Karen Mann) sells meat pies that are transformed in flavor once she forms a partnership with Sweeney. The melodramatic story is relieved by the dazzling music and clever lyrics that accompany the outrageous action.  A melodious love song is sung by Sweeney to his silver razors, and giddy Mrs. Lovett boasts of “the best pies in London” that are uneatable, that is, until she acquires a fresh source of meat, after which customers hanker for her products. The imaginative production at the intimate Trafalgar Studios proves that this work succeeds on a small stage as well as in an opera setting.  Here the actors double as musicians, and without elaborate stage machinery, when Sweeney slashes the throats of his victims, the lighting bathes the scene in red while the blood is poured between buckets.  (Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, SW1A 2DY.  Phone: 0870 060 6632)

The Frogs is based on Aristophanes’ political comedy of the same name, reworked by Nathan Lane, who plays Dionysos, the god of wine and drama.   Accompanied by his servant Xanthias (Roger Bart), the god travels to Hades, seeking a famous playwright who will return with him to Athens to save the city from its moral and political chaos.  After surviving various hazards, including a chorus of dancing frogs representing the danger of complacency, they find Shaw and Shakespeare, who then debate which of them might better save Athens.  The complex score includes dissonance in counterpoint and solos as well as choral numbers for the frogs, whose large fingers and toes are instrumental as they tumble and bungee-jump. Among the songs are: “It’s Only a Play,” “Dress Big,” (Herakles’ advice on the proper attire for Hades), and  Dionysos’ ballad to his dead wife, “Ariadne.”  “Fear No More” provides a musical setting for the dirge in Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline.”  Performance schedule and tickets:  www.lct.org.  (Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65 Street, New York, NY, 212-787-6868)

Pacific Overtures, with a score combining Japanese and American motifs, details the change wrought upon Japan by the arrival of Admiral Perry’s warships in the mid-nineteenth century. A letter is delivered offering “pacific overtures,” asking for trade between the two countries and consideration for American whaling crews when they are washed ashore.  Changing from a peaceful existence, described in the song ”The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea,” to a divided country, where some become westernized and others cling to tradition and where conspiracies are brewed at court and friends become enemies, Japan now hosts new arrivals from Europe, from Holland, France, and Germany, as well as the U.S.  All tout their wares as imports to “improve” Japan, in the comic, jazzy number “Please, Hello.”  The second half is predictably darker, with the students vowing to improve on their teachers.  Amon Miyamoto directs the revival and B.D. Wong, seen in “M. Butterfly,” is the Reciter. (Studio 54, 254 W. 54 Street, New York, NY, phone: 212-2329-6200)

Bounce, Mr. Sondheim’s latest musical work, with a book by John Weidman, was seen in 2003 at Chicago’s Goodman Theater and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  Still awaiting a New York production, it concerns American brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner, born in the 1870s.  Architect Addison and con man Wilson, says the composer, represent two aspects of American energy: “the one who uses things, and the one who uses them up.”  Seeking wealth in Alaska’s gold rush and in Florida’s land boom, the brothers instead find disappointment.  They are lured to Florida by a real estate promoter, proclaiming:

                                    Down around Miami, boy

                                    The weather’s kind of clammy,

                                    But it’s get rich quick!

After traveling the world collecting things, Addison finds creative satisfaction in Florida, designing homes for his collection and setting a new style in architecture, especially in Boca Raton, where his original homes today are much sought after.

Recent major productions in New York and London of Mr. Sondheim’s works include Assassins and Gypsy (for which he wrote the lyrics) on Broadway, and in London Pacific Overtures at the Donmar Warehouse, and Follies at the Royal Festival Hall.  Assassins (1991) tackles the serious subject of assassination attempts on American presidents and its recent revival by the Roundabout Theatre at Studio 54 in New York won many 2004 Tony Awards.  Against the set of a garish fairground, the proprietor of a shooting stall encourages eight customers to become winners instead of losers.  Shooting a President will gain them instant celebrity he tells actor John Wilkes Booth, John W. Hinckley, Jr., Lee Harvey Oswald, “Squeaky” Fromme and four other lesser known killers and would-be killers who shoot at Presidents like McKinley, Garfield, and Ford.  As the action develops, incidents depict the characters of the killers and their motives, some of them obviously demented like Charles Guiteau (Denis O’Hare), an evangelist who jauntily cakewalks up to the scaffold singing a hymn with lyrics he penned for the occasion, “I Am going to the Lordy.”  A Balladeer (Neil Patrick Harris) deflates the claims of  assassins like Booth (Michael Cerveris) that their motive was a noble one.  A chorus of everyday citizens comments on the tragedies, asking “Why?” or singing “Something Just Broke” as dazed onlookers reacting to the shooting of President Kennedy.

Gypsy centers upon Rose, the mother of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, and her struggle to put her daughters Louise (later Gypsy) and Baby June in vaudeville, all the time hankering for the spotlight herself.  In 1959 Ethel Merman created the role, belting out the songs, but her acting lacked depth.  In the film version Rosalind Russell could neither act nor sing.  But in 2003 director Sam Mendes cast accomplished actor and singer Bernadette Peters as Rose to reveal for the first time what a complex character she is.  The book is by playwright Arthur Laurents, with Stephen Sondheim providing character-revealing lyrics for the music by Jule Styne.

Disappointment in middle age is also a theme in Follies. Chorines of the Weissman (read Ziegfeld) troupe gather after thirty years to confront the ghosts of their past as young lovers and as performers. The big production number “Loveland” recreates their heyday as statuesque beauties parading in glittering costumes and headdresses. Contrasting with the optimism of the two young couples beginning their careers is the disillusionment of their present selves, while the score is a pastiche of songs from the bygone 20s and 30s -- haunting melodies, jazzy patter, and character-revealing songs like “I’m Still Here.” Henry Goodman was a standout as Buddy. The book is by James Goldman.


Life and Works

Stephen Sondheim transformed the American musical, as he struck a new note as composer and lyricist, combining sophisticated lyrics with modern music that employs triadic, diatonic harmonies as well as dissonance. The effect is an integrated symphonic and dramatic work in which the lyrics and the score reveal depth of character as well as emotion. You may not leave the theater humming his tunes, but if you saw “A Little Night Music” at London’s National Theatre, you might well have felt that “Send in the Clowns,” sung by Judi Dench as Desiree (who has missed the opportunity to rekindle an affair) was the most theatrically perfect expression of lost love that you are ever likely to experience.

Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born March 22, 1930, in New York City.  His talent for music was revealed at an early age, as he studied piano and organ, and wrote a musical at the age of fifteen.  Family friend Oscar Hammerstein II, lyricist for composers Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, served as young Stephen’s mentor in musical theater.  Sondheim attended Williams College, where he wrote school shows and upon graduation in 1950, received a fellowship for further study in New York.

His first professional dramatic work was as a scriptwriter for the “Topper” television series.  He made his Broadway debut as the lyricist for Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” in 1957 and two years later supplied the lyrics for Jule Styne’s music for “Gypsy.”  Both works had books by playwright Arthur Laurents.

  Sondheim’s Broadway debut as both composer and lyricist was “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” a 1962 musical farce based on the Latin comedies of  Plautus, starring Zero Mostel as the clever servant.  A surprise hit, it ran for 964 performances.  Originally the veteran director George Abbot attempted to stage it.  When the work received unfavorable reviews in its out of town tryout, Abbot told an interviewer, “I think we could save the sucker if we threw out all the songs.”  Jerome Robbins, who originally had been asked to direct, was by then free to do so, and repeated the magic he had brought to his staging of “West Side Story.”

  It was Robbins who encouraged Sondheim to replace the light, romantic original opening number Abbot had insisted on --  “something the audience can hum” -- with the rousing “Comedy Tonight,” which set the tone for the smash hit that “Forum” became.  Mostel repeats his role in the 1966 film, which also includes Jack Gilford, Phil Silvers, and Buster Keaton.

            From “Forum” to the present, Sondheim has achieved acclaim as both lyricist and composer of many shows.  His 1970 “Company” treats love and marriage, as demonstrated by five couples, married, once married, or to-be-married.  Their mutual friend Robert, a bachelor, views the relationships as less than ideal but necessary to “Being Alive.” “Follies”(1971), demonstrates the past of the Follies performers by one type of music, while the score for their present life of disillusionment is an ironic comment on their earlier “follies.”  The  romantic dream they bought in their youth is exemplified by  the production number “Loveland.”   Songs include “Losing My Mind” and “I’m Still Here.”

            What are generally regarded as Sondheim’s two best musicals followed: “A Little Night Music,” in 1973, based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film ”Smiles of a Summer Night,” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in 1979.  “A Little Night Music,” with a book by Hugh Wheeler, concerns three mismatched couples, one of the recurring triads in the story, which Sondheim reflects with a score in triple time.   As Leonard Bernstein did in “Candide,” Sondheim’s score incorporates musical forms of the era in which the action takes place, here the nineteenth century.  There are waltzes, mazurkas, a polonaise – “In Praise of Women” – and etudes like “Now.”  Often the characters express their emotions in songs that are interior monologues rather than expressions of emotion directed to another, as in the older musicals. 

As mentioned, Sondheim’s lyrics and music combine to create character, and this is especially true in “Night Music.”  Especially fitting for aging actress Desiree, who sings it, “Send in the Clowns” is based on a circus expression later extended to the theater: whenever a mishap occurs, like an acrobat’s fall – or a dead spot in a play – bring on the clowns or comedians.  The tragedy in Desiree’s life is that when Frederik wanted her, she was too busy with her career; now that she is ready, he has married a young girl.  At the song’s end, “they’re here,” refers to herself and Frederik as the clowns because of their foolishness.

For those who love language, Sondheim’s stylish lyrics are a joy.  He will use inner rhyme as well as end rhyme as when Frederik is trying to choose a book for his young wife to read:

DeMaupassant’s candor would cause her dismay;
The Brontes are grander but not very gay.

He is a master at following Hamlet’s advice to “suit the words to the action.”  Sondheim will use counterpoint in his music and in his lyrics for his multidimensional characters.  His countermelodies remind the audience of the work’s themes and motifs, and his repetition of words and rhymes serves the same purpose, both techniques creating depth of character.

            In 1979 “Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” struck another new note for musical theater.  A dark work performed by opera as well as by theater companies, it is based on legends and ballads about a nineteenth-century barber who wreaks revenge on those who have wronged him by slashing their throats when they are in his barber’s chair; then his friend Mrs. Lovett bakes them in her pies, popular for their delicious taste. Mrs. Lovett offers Todd some of her creations:

It’s fop.
Finest in the shop,
Or we have some shepherd’s pie peppered
With actual shepherd
On top.

As Todd darkly comments:

The history of the world, my sweet,
Is who gets eaten and who get to eat.

Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury originated the principal roles; George Hearn and Dennis Quilley also played the demon barber.  The harshness of life for the poor on the streets of London’s is reflected in the dissonance of the music as the work opens with “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” In contrast is the melodious “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” sung by Sweeney’s daughter Johanna.

            “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984) and “Into the Woods” imaginatively contrast past or legend with present reality.  Pulitzer-prize-winning “Sunday” in its first half deals with artist Georges Serat and his famous pointillist painting “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”  The painting is recreated in a stage tableau, and the various characters depicted in it come to life and act out their stories.  Part two brings the events up to modern times, with its stresses and conflicts.  The original stars were Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, as both love interests and both Georges.

Around the world, “Into the Woods” is Sondheim’s most frequently performed work.  It appeals to children as well as to adults, even though the second half presents the darker side of well loved stories. In the first act, characters like Jack in the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood enact their traditional roles; act two questions the assumption that the principals live happily ever after.

            Two revues that were compilations of Sondheim’s works were “Side by Side by Sondheim” and “Putting it Together.”  The first began as a benefit in 1975, and was so successful that it moved to the West End and to Broadway.  With material written up to and including “Pacific Overtures,”  “Side by Side” became a favorite with regional theater companies, and Sondheim’s name became famous beyond Broadway and the West End.  One issue of The Sondheim Review lists Sondheim productions in the regions of the U.S. and Canada: 80 plus productions of “West Side Story” in regional and educational theaters, over 100 of “Into the Woods” and 90 of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” 

“Putting it Together” (1992) is an update of “Side by Side,” and includes works from the later shows.  There is a framework of a dinner party, in which couples pair with each other, dissolve their relationships and then reconnect.  The highlights of course are the musical numbers. 

             “Saturday Night,” which appeared for a short run off Broadway, is based on a play by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, “Front Porch in Flatbush,”about their third brother and his friends in Brooklyn in 1929.  They hope to make a fortune in the stock market, but their plans fail, as does the stock market, and they must return to their earlier life, sadder but wiser.   Some forty years ago, this was the first work for which Sondheim, then a writer for the tv sitcom “Topper,” composed the score and the lyrics.  But the work was shelved when the producer, Lemuel Ayres, died suddenly at the age of forty.               

Late works by Sondheim include “Passion,” and “Assassins,” neither of which earned critical approval on their first appearance.  Yet “Passion” (1994) was awarded a “best-musical” Tony, a revival was successful at the Donmar Warehouse in London, and it is one of the six offerings at the Kennedy Center in Washington.  It deals with  the passions of Giorgio, a young lieutenant in 19th-century Italy, who must choose between his beautiful mistress Clara, and  terminally-ill, obsessive, homely Fosca.

 Mr. Sondheim is also a dramatist, having written, in addition to the “Topper,” series, a motion picture mystery, “The Last of Sheila” (1973), with actor Anthony Perkins.  He also collaborated on the book of “Sunday in the Park With George” with playwright-director James Lapine.  Sondheim was President of the Dramatists’ Guild from 1973-1981, and in 1983 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  He served as the first Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University, was awarded Kennedy Center Honors in 1993, and in 1997 received the National Medal of Arts Award from President Clinton.