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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Broadway

Putting It Together 20, 2000

a revue by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Eric D. Schaeffer, by 1999-February at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York, November 21

A few years ago I took a trip to the Galápagos Islands and heard the sad tale of Lonesome George. No one knows how old George is, though he’s clearly getting on in years. George is a giant tortoise of a subspecies found only on Pinta Island—apparently the last remaining Pinta tortoise on the planet. When he was discovered, back in 1971, scientists hoped that a mate for him might soon be located—and that a pair of these creaky, winsome, deliberative creatures, an armored Adam and Eve, would repopulate the world in their own image. No mate was found.

I suppose there are different ways to view George’s fate. He might be regarded as a victor of sorts. These days, as another hell-bent American presidential campaign heats up, we’re repeatedly informed that the goal is to be the “last man standing.” Well, George is the last Pinta tortoise standing. Even so, one imagines it couldn’t be much fun for George to contemplate a day when the last Pinta shell will be as cold and lifeless as the surface of the moon.

A similar ambivalence attends the career of Stephen Sondheim, the Lonesome George of American musical theater. A quarter of a century ago, Leonard Bernstein said of him, “On Broadway, he’s now the most important theater man writing.” Succeeding decades have only confirmed and solidified Sondheim’s position, as an older generation of composers and lyricists have retired or died. He is the unquestioned monarch of an increasingly depopulated terrain.

It’s startling to contemplate how altered is the scene since Sondheim entered it half a century ago. When he graduated from Williams at the age of twenty, in 1950, he already knew what he wanted to do. He’d grown up under the wing of the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, a family friend who served as both mentor and “surrogate father,” and young Stephen quickly gravitated toward Broadway. By 1955 he’d completed his first full-scale musical, Saturday Night, the romantic tale of an ambitious, appealingly slick young man seeking to make his millions as the 1929 stock market collapse approaches. (For complicated reasons, Saturday Night went unproduced, and Sondheim himself eventually dismissed it as apprentice work.* But last summer I caught a resuscitated production by the fine Pegasus Players in Chicago, and was struck by how winning and precociously adroit was this piece of old-fashioned juvenilia.)

Back in 1955, as Sondheim went about plotting and polishing Saturday Night, he must have envisioned himself as laboring in a crowded and illustrious field. Rodgers and Hammerstein were bustling along, with Okla-homa! and South Pacific behind them and The Sound of Music ahead. Irving Berlin, that good businessman whose business was the manufacturing of hits, was still marching off to the office every day. Cole Porter’s greatest—in every sense—triumph, Kiss Me, Kate, was only seven years old and Can-Can less than two. Lerner and Loewe, whose Brigadoon had been one of the most popular musicals of the Forties, were readying the lovely My Fair Lady, much the most popular musical of the Fifties. Jule Styne, Johnny Mercer, and Frank Loesser were all flourishing.

It was also in 1955 that Sondheim joined a project that, even today, remains his most widely known accomplishment: West Side Story, for which he provided the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s score. That collaboration, which also included choreographer Jerome Robbins and librettist Arthur Laurents, seems to have infused all participants with sanguine expectations. Although it has its moments of gaiety and sharp humor (“I Feel Pretty,” “Gee, Officer Krupke!”), West Side Story, with its knifings and gunshots, its dead hero sprawled in the street, successfully brought a new gravity to the American musical. Bernstein later wrote: “I was perfectly confident that there would be dozens of kids who would take the next step and pick up on the hints of West Side,” developing the Broadway musical into “some form of American opera” or “whatever it’s going to be.” And Sondheim must have felt fully justified in his optimism when, only a few years after West Side Story closed, he created both lyrics and music for the greatest commercial triumph of his career, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a comedy inspired by Plautus and set among ancient Romans. Nonetheless, and all the while, on that particular Galápagos island which is Broadway, an irreplaceable line of talent—Berlin, Kern, Hart, Arlen, Porter, Rodgers, Hammerstein—had already died or was dying out. The musical’s glory days were fading.

Why the near-extinction? The most common, and often tiresome, explanation usually plays some variation on the old adage “They don’t write them like that anymore.” The assumption is that Broadway lost the ability to carry a tune. Or the talent dried up. It’s an explanation which, so instinct tells me, explains very little. I know a number of gifted people, composers and lyricists, who at the outset of their careers, a couple of decades ago, hoped to make a living in musical theater. None eventually did. Confronting an altered, forbidding Broadway in which few new musicals get produced, and those that do can cost many millions of dollars, they moved in time to other ventures—to films, television, advertising, teaching.

The dominant music of our era, rock, is frequently cited as another culprit, probably with more justification. For all the ballyhooed success of an occasional rock-inspired “event,” like the Who’s Tommy or Leiber and Stoller’s Smokey Joe’s Café, the fact is that Broadway has never found a way to assimilate rock’s rumbling guitar lines and mumbled lyrics—all its anarchic raw energy—into a tradition of clean enunciations and carefully scripted turns. Speaking about “pop-rock,” Sondheim himself regretfully noted that its “lyrics rarely have a desire to be clear, much less to gleam. They seldom take joy in the pleasures of technique, such as rhyme and wordplay.”

Any satisfyingly comprehensive explanation of the Broadway musical’s decline would doubtless require some sort of futuristic monster-computer that could absorb, quantify, and apportion a dizzying range of influences, including: the evolution of increasingly breathtaking cinematic special effects, rendering quaint the hocus-pocus of the stage; the rise of various forms of popular music, everything from folk to rap, that favor spontaneity and sincerity over the studied and the artificial; the omnipresence of television, with its own cadences and patterns of aesthetic payoff; escalating production costs and a consequent conservatism about new ventures, as in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, a hugely successful musical evolved from a hugely successful animated film; an increasingly pervasive informality of dress and speech and manners, all conspiring to make theatrical spectacle look stilted; and, finally, something as elusive as a wholesale alteration in the national psyche.

In describing Sondheim as a solitary monarch, I’ve conveniently ignored the presence of a figure whose box-office appeal utterly dwarfs him, indeed dwarfs everyone: Andrew Lloyd Webber, the creator, along with his frequent lyricist Tim Rice, of Phantom of the Opera and Evita and Cats. More than anyone who has ever flourished on Broadway, Webber divides the world between admirers and detractors. I’m afraid I’m in the latter camp, his music leaving me feeling as though—like a lactose-intolerant person stranded in a Dairy Bar—I’m surrounded by gooey and indigestible things.

Any talk of the decline of the Broadway musical must confront a second, related complication: today’s hits are bigger than ever. Decline—what decline? Back in 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein rewrote the book on Broadway longevity, when Oklahoma! began its run of 2,212 performances (more than five times longer than any musical of the Thirties). A few musicals surpassed that record over the next few decades, but it wasn’t until the Seventies and Eighties, when A Chorus Line kicked through 6,137 shows, that an old notion—an inexhaustible gold mine, the show that “never closes”—suddenly looked feasible. In an era of an ever-replenishing supply of Manhattan tourists (many of them first-timers, drawn by cheap domestic and transatlantic fares), why couldn’t something run forever? Cats is now the longest-running musical in Broadway history, and shows no signs of stopping. Miss Saigon, Les Misérables, Beauty and the Beast, the newly rampant Lion King—all have run, or look set to run, endlessly. To an audience with little regular exposure to Broadway, shows like these become “name brands”—whose desirable logos are stamped all over the dizzying variety of merchandise on sale in theater lobbies.

Yet audiences leave many of these shows, my guess is, not knowing who wrote the music or the lyrics. In the old days, the names of Irving Berlin or Cole Porter had luster. People went to a Rodgers and Hammerstein production; the team was the primary draw, and their often unorthodox subject matter may well have been secondary. We’ve entered a peculiar era in which blockbusterdom doesn’t necessarily translate into name recognition.

In this regard, too, Sondheim is unusual. If his productions are not spectacular hits, there’s a sizable audience out there who will go to see a new Sondheim show because it’s a new Sondheim show, however unlikely its subject. While Sondheim was still in mid-career, Bernstein predicted he would eventually shift genres—“He is suddenly going to write an opera that will knock your eyes out.” Sondheim has resisted calling any of his creations operas (although a number of them, particularly Sweeney Todd, have been taken up by opera companies), but questions of nomenclature aside, Bernstein was certainly correct in foreseeing that Sondheim would find the conventions of the musical increasingly confining. In the Nineties, he fashioned musicals about ugly souls (Assassins, in which John Wilkes Booth, John Hinckley, Lee Harvey Oswald, et al. are given voices) and ugly people (Passion, whose sickly, homely heroine pursues with pathological intensity a handsome soldier). The oddity of Sondheim’s position isn’t fully evident until one understands that this man who has repeatedly hauled the musical into new territory where it was seemingly never intended to go—the opening of Japan (Pacific Overtures), the creation of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (Sunday in the Park with George), a serial killer who turns his victims into foodstuffs (Sweeney Todd)—has managed to maintain a traditional base of followers rooted in personal loyalty.

The twists and turns of Sondheim’s curious life are ably set out in Meryle Secrest’s recent biography, which draws on extensive interviews with its subject. An only child, born in 1930, Sondheim grew up in an apartment in the San Remo, on Central Park West. He was the son of a father who amassed a fortune in the fashion business, chiefly in women’s dresses, and a mother who was a dress designer. The turning point in Stephen’s childhood arrived in 1940, when his father abruptly abandoned his mother for another woman in the fashion business. Ten-year-old Stephen was left in the hands of his mother—a woman who was, by his own report, a “truly compulsive liar” bent on “poisoning his mind” against his father.

  1. *

    A new production of Saturday Night opens on January 20 at the Second Stage Theatre off-Broadway for a nine-week run.

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