Eric Salzman: Composer, Author, Music Theater Innovator



Review of Three Books on Sondheim and the Hollywood Musical

Sondheim & Lloyd-Webber: The New Musical. By Stephen Citron. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; pp. xii + 429.

Reading Stephen Sondheim: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited and with an introduction by Sandor Goodhart. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2000; pp. xxii + 280.

Hollywood Musicals: The Film Reader. Edited by Steven Cohan. Routledge Film Readers. London and New York: Routledge, 2002; pp. vii + 212.

Why has the musical—the stage musical at any rate—so rarely attracted critical writing of any quality? Unlike the opera or the popular arts, the Broadway musical seems to inspire passion or disdain but not serious thought. There are no Cahiers de la Comedie Musicale. Without serious defenders—or, at least, serious analysis—the Broadway (or Broadway/West End) musical remains largely outside the pale, beyond the reach of critical discourse. At best, it appears as a kind of middle class social phenomenon accompanied by a body of guarded journalistic criticism with a formulaic view of the state of the musical: mainly a ritualistic mourning over its perpetual decadence and imminent demise.

If musical theater is in a state of continual decadence, it must therefore always be in need of renewal and reform. The Princess Theater musicals, Show Boat, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Kurt Weill, the “Broadway operas” of the Forties and Fifties and the book musicals of the following years are conventionally described as rescue operations for a form in danger of degenerating into girlie shows. Alas, this standardized view of the history of musical theater as a perpetual tendency towards higher ground has never succeeded in raising its perceived intellectual stature.

The musical theater of Steven Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd-Webber would seem to offer the chance for some radical reasessment. The so-called Euro musical, dominated (perhaps originated) by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, moved from rock opera to pastiche to pseudo-grand opera in only a few years and this composer has presided over an astonishing transition from “alternative” music-theater to the globalization and operatizing of the musical and its transformation into a transnational industrial product. This amazing success story surely deserves some kind of explication. On the other hand, the Steven Sondheim Story is almost the direct antithesis of Lloyd-Webber Saga. Sondheim emerged directly from the culture of the old New York musical theater to evolve a new form of musical that is quite independent of opera but nevertheless capable of commanding serious critical and intellectual attention.

Joan Peyser recently produced a study of the many parallels between the life and musical theater work of Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim. Her view is that Sondheim actually produced the “new American musical” that had long been expected from Bernstein. The parallels between the life, work and career of Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber are not so obvious. For starters, Sondheim is an extremely private person while Lloyd-Webber’s private life has been largely conducted in public. The result is that Citron is long on Lloyd-Webber biography and short on Sondheim gossip. More importantly, the artistic trajectory of these two composers offers a remarkable study in opposites. Both are composers whose force of personality dominates their work but who, as suggested above, moved in almost exactly opposite directions. There was everything to expect from the creator of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita while A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum hardly seemed to offer a glimpse into the future of anything. But it was Lloyd-Webber who, backpedalling furiously, created the notion that nostagia for the past was the future that awaited us. And it was Sondheim who, without ever having really left the confines of the contemporary “book musical,” actually evolved something new.

How did this happen? What does it mean? Is “serious musical” an oxymoron or a possibly real phenomenon? Is Sondheim’s work purely personal or truly the beginning of a new genre? What has been the influence of these two men on a younger generation of creators? What are implications of the fact that Lloyd-Webber moved from his outsider position as the creator of non-standard and small-scale work to a major entrepenurial position as the greatest musical-theater industrialist the world has ever known, smoothly operating in many parts of the world simultaneously as the director of a huge production company, owner of theaters, and fabricator of mega-spectacles. Or the even more curious Sondheim evolution from the disciple of Hammerstein and Leonard Bernstein who studied with Milton Babbitt and turned into an isolated but revered—almost apocalyptic—figure who has fallen out with Broadway and is hardly able to continue working in the commercial theater at all.

The mirror image of these two careers—the many works produced and the cultural histories within which these events have taken place—would seem (if I may coin a phrase) to set the stage for some kind of critical assessment. Alas, Sondheim & Lloyd-Webber: The New Musical fails to explain what is new or, for that matter, what is musical about “the new musical” and gives very little idea of what the artistic or social significance of the work of these composers might be. The book is badly written, badly edited and so full of grammatical errors, mistakes and gaucheries as to border on the unreadable (examples on request). Since the book was reviewed from an advance copy, it is possible that at least some of the most egregious errors will be corrected. What cannot be fixed is the quality of the writing and the thought.

Sondheim’s musicals are the one body of work in this genre that has, in fact, attracted some serious attention, notably in Joanne Gordon’s Stephen Sondheim: A Casebook (Garland 1977) and its followup, Stephen Sondheim: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Sandor Goodhart for the same publisher in 2000. While most of the questions noted above are not really addressed here, there is an attempt to deal with some of these musicals as works of art using some of the tools of contemporary academic analysis. The stated purpose of the collection is “to treat Stephen Sondheim’s work seriously within the academy” and all but one of the authors is a professor of some sort—mostly of English.

Goodhart’s introductory essay gives an alternate subtitle of the collection: “The End of Ever After.” If there is a unifying theme running through these essays, it is that Sondheim’s work is involved with the deconstruction of the traditional musical and its values, most potently symbolized by the “happy ending” syndrome. Secondary themes—dramatic not musical—are dysfunctional heterosexual relationships and that old favorite, the domineering, repressive mother. Several of the essays examine the sources of Sondheim’s work and some (primarily) Shakespearean parallels. A good deal of attention is paid to Passion, Sweeney Todd and, to a lesser degree, Into the Woods while other works (Pacific Overtures, Assassins) are neglected, possibly because they fit less easily into the themes of these essays.

One of the obvious shortcomings of these essays is the lack of focus on the music. Allen Menton, the one contributor who is not an English professor, is a composer but his essay is concerned with the domineering mother syndrome and mental breakdown not with music. A charming piece on Sondheim’s use of the duet in Follies and Sweeney Todd by Paul M. Puccio and Scott F. Stoddart is cast in the form of a duet between the two authors. This offers an obvious opportunity to comment on Sondheim’s musico-dramatic practices but it misses out largely because the authors seem unaware of the long history of the duet in opera, operetta and musicals and hence are unable to separate the traditional form and use from Sondheim’s individual contributions.

The desire to treat Sondheim as a major American dramatist on a par with writers like O’Neill, Miller, Albee or Williams is laudable. But Sondheim is only the composer and lyricist of these works and never the writer (or, for that matter, director) and he is credited with having originated the idea for no more than two or three of his works. I am not arguing with the idea that Sondheim is (as he is popularly thought to be) the auteur of these works but, without a coherent grounding in musical dramaturgy, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint where his claim to auteur-ship might lie or what exactly his musical or musico-dramatic contributions might be.

Nevertheless, in the absence of a tradition of coherent musical theater criticism, this volume constitutes a major contribution. The assumption that Sondheim’s starting point is the traditional musical is undoubtedly correct and there are usable insights scattered all through this collection. However, in the end (happy or no), it will take a critic with a understanding of Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Weill and Bernstein, plus a knowledge of recent developments in experimental music theater and some background in both classical practice and musical modernism who will be able to set Sondheim, musically and dramatically, where he belongs.

Ironically, film musicals, frivolous as they might be, have attracted a more serious and consistent body of interpretation than stage musicals. This is undoubtredly because they are also films. The volume in Routledge’s Film Reader series on Hollywood Musicals makes this point very clear. This is a collection of post-modern, deconstructionist essays attempting a serious cultural critique of a antique film genre: the studio musical from the advent of the talking picture up through the late ‘50s. This means The Jazz Singer and other early talkies, the Busby Berkeley and the so-called backstage musicals popular in the ‘30s, up through more sophisticated technicolor musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the Vincent Minelli productions, notably Gigi (later musicals are mentioned but not discussed in detail).

The opening essays about form mostly concern themselves with the relationship between the narrative and the songs or production numbers. The remainder of the essays deal with what one of the authors calls “pre-text and text” on such issues as gender and race. The point of view is mainly visual. Hence there is some strong discussion of the role of dance: an essay on the “feminization” of the song-and-dance man in the person of Fred Astaire; another on ethnicity and Carmen Miranda; and a third on the black origins of the dancing in Singin’ in the Rain.

The last-named essay, by Carol J. Clover, is actually about authorship—who really deserves credit for what. This is the most fascinating study in the book. The plot of this movie is about credit and appropriation but, as is well documented, the movie itself was surrounded with issues of uncredited appropriation including vocal and dancing overdubbing. Another level of irony is revealed by Ms Clover who points out that the dancing in this film has deep and uncredited roots in black male dancing which was effectively excluded from the Hollywood musical. A careful reading of the film actually uncovers a number of half-hidden references to this.

But, irony of ironies, there are other credit issues here which have been missed by the editor of this book. For starters, we are not told who any of these contributors (except the editor himself) actually are. This seems to me to be odd in a work of this kind and contributes to the atmosphere of serious and pompous ex cathedra pronouncement which marks many of these essays. More disturbingly, issues of credit loom large throughout these essays which regard the films under discussion as the work of their directors and, to a degree, their dancer/choregraphers and stars but, almost never, as the creation of their writers and composers. This is the flip side of the auteur-ship problem mentioned above in connnection with the works of Sondheim. Substantial essays on the film versions of New Moon, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Gigi make no mention of Sigmund Romberg, Oscar Hammerstein, Julie Styne, Hoagy Carmichael, Frederich Loewe or Alan Jay Lerner. The origins of two of these movies as famous and successful stage works go unmentioned and the obvious Broadway origin of the third is equally ignored.

This has to result in some unfortunate misconceptions. Although there is some discussion about the connections of film musicals to popular entertainments (minstrel shows, vaudevilles, music hall acts, stage revues), one would almost think that the Broadway musical was merely an invention of the backstage musical film, a convention to be transcended by the magic of the camera. And not only are composers and lyricists almost unmentioned but there is no analysis of the vocal numbers or the relationship between music for singing, music for dancing and background scoring or of anything beyond the simple question of whether the numbers slow down or advance the narrative.

The implicit assumption is that the musical (and dance) numbers interrupt the conventions of filmic, realistic narrative and must therefore be explained. But, in the history of theater, “realism” and pure spoken theater are the aberrations; musical numbers have been an integral part of theatrical performance in every culture and era (and still are). Even the conventions of filmic realism were established only long after the introduction of sound and, hence, are antecedent to most of the musicals herein discussed! The very popularity of these works and their easy audience acceptance must be understood in the context of what audiences were used to seeing and hearing in live performance. In short, whatever the insights of these essays (and there are insights), it is difficult to accept the idea that the right conclusions are always being reached when the wrong questions are often being asked.

This review appeared in Theater Magazine in 2003.