Unsentimental Journey: Thank you, Sondheim, for giving us musicals we can love without losing face

Unsentimental Journey: Thank you, Sondheim, for giving us musicals we can love without losing face

We like Glee’s harmonizing high-schoolers, but we hate to admit it. Thank you, Sondheim, for giving us musicals we can love without losing face

Photo illustration by Gluekit. Photographs: Sondheim by Donna Ward/abacausa.com; Glee courtesy of Fox Broadcasting Co. 

On April 26, 1970, Stephen Sondheim trampled the sentimental musical comedy. That night, Company, a non-linear, nearly plotless show about a commitment-phobic New York bachelor and his married friends, opened with what seemed like a specific mandate to overturn Broadway conventions (easy-to-follow stories, catchy tunes, happy endings). Sondheim had already made a name for himself as the lyricist behind the infinitely hummable songs of West Side Story and Gypsy, and with the straight-ahead comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (which Mirvish is bringing here this month, along with Sondheim himself, for a separate night of conversation). So Company’s angularly beautiful and challenging score came as a surprise. Most shockingly, instead of providing a happy ending with two young lovers united in song, Company offered cynical numbers, such as “Sorry-Grateful,” in which the phrase “You hold her, thinking, I’m not alone” is followed by the rejoinder “You’re still alone.” The show was a hit. After the performance, Alan Jay Lerner, the lyricist of the upbeat favourites My Fair Lady and Gigi, is said to have burst into tears. “It’s over!” he cried, meaning both the traditional feel-good musical and his career. Unironic rhapsodizing had instantly become camp.

Four decades later, Sondheim is almost unanimously regarded as the stage’s best composer-lyricist and the person who proved that musical theatre and sophistication aren’t mutually exclusive. During a year filled with celebrations for his 80th birthday, there have been concerts and revues, and a wildly successful remount of A Little Night Music on Broadway. And yet despite our unabashed Sondheim worship, the sentimental musical comedy has done more than just survive; it’s flourished. Simple numbers tell the story. This September, a week after Nathan Lane and Patti LuPone helped unveil their friend’s name on a West 43rd Street marquee, the second season of the TV show Glee debuted to 12.3 million viewers in the U.S.—enough people to fill the newly christened Stephen Sondheim Theatre every night for the next 30 years. In retrospect, Lerner needn’t have worried. Plucky teens singing their hearts out will never go out of style.

Glee is the antithesis of Sondheim. At its core, the show is a traditional backstage musical with a gloss of post-modern self-awareness—a Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show!” production transported to a 21st-century campus. Each week, a perfectly ethnically diverse group of nerds, jocks and freaks make show-choir magic, triumphing over self-doubt, surging hormones and evil cheerleading coaches. The series sometimes explores complex issues (growing up gay, religious differences, teen pregnancy), but the characters’ emotional responses are rarely ambiguous. If someone feels elated, they sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” If someone’s lonely, they sing “On My Own” from Les Misérables. If it’s sweeps week, they sing Lady Gaga.

I can’t roundly criticize a show as sweet-spirited as Glee. For one thing, I’ve created a couple of goofy musicals myself. And as the co-author of this year’s Ross Petty pantomime, Beauty and the Beast, I’ve just finished writing a bit for a talking beaver. For another, Glee has its charms. At its best, it does what the great musicals have always done so well. In a love ballad, that quintessential musical number that’s notably absent from much of Sondheim’s work, two people with their own individual troubles and imperfections suddenly begin singing from the same lyric sheet, united in harmony and desire. It’s an appealing fantasy, next to which Sondheim’s efforts seem almost churlish. Why write a Broadway show if you’re going to shun moments of romantic euphoria? But what makes Sondheim so compelling, even 40 years after Company, is his ability to elevate the thorniest of emotions. Sometimes we want art to take the contradictory, the complicated and the ugly and turn them into something worth singing about.

In musicals, “everybody’s got the right to their dreams,” even when those dreams involve whacking the president

In Sondheim’s 1990 creation, Assassins, there are no happy endings. Set in a carnival shooting gallery stuck in historical limbo, it brings together disgruntled Americans who have tried, with varying degrees of success, to off the president of the United States. In BirdLand/Talk Is Free’s powerful, low-budget production, the musical becomes a darkly funny antidote to high-school choir shenanigans, one in which disillusioned characters harmonize in praise of the handgun. More than that, Assassins is an indictment of the bubbly optimism found in more traditional musicals, in all those “Don’t Stop Believings.” What happens if, after years of being told you can “climb every mountain,” it turns out that you can’t? In the show’s opening number, a chorus line of killers sings a series of bland slogans that could come from any American self-help book. As in all musicals, “everybody’s got the right to their dreams,” even when those dreams involve whacking the president. It’s a wonderful number—tuneful, deeply ironic and mordantly funny. In the mouths of assassins, generic self-validation is suddenly thrilling and dangerous. It feels, for a glorious moment, as if Sondheim has trampled the sentimental musical all over again.

THEATRE

An Evening with Stephen Sondheim
Dec. 6
Princess of Wales Theatre

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Dec. 15 to Jan. 16
Canon Theatre

Assassins
Jan. 6 to 23
The Theatre Centre