Happy Ever After

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Did Sondheim Destroy the American Musical?

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It’s the other national anthem, saying,
If you want to hear –
It says, “Bullshit!”…
It says: Listen
To the tune that keeps sounding
In the distance, on the outside,
Coming through the ground…
We’re the other national anthem, folks,
The ones that can’t get in
To the ball park.
(Assassins)

Sandy Wilson, composer and lyricist, famously declared that Stephen Sondheim “destroyed the American musical almost singlehandedly. He’s turned it into a semi-operatic disquisition rather than an entertainment.” A brief survey of Sondheim’s catalogue, from the first concept musical Company (1970) with its lean view of marriage and flattened chronology, to Assassins (1990), a prickly but sympathetic account of eight American hit men (and women), suggests the composer and lyricist has indeed enacted a radical break with the unabashed good cheer of Oklahoma!’s “O what a beautiful mornin’’. More serious still, to challenge the form of that most American of theatrical celebrations—the Broadway musical—is apparently to challenge America itself. Yet a closer look at the so-called 1940s Golden Age of the musical comedy reveals Broadway’s tangled relationship with the American dream and a complex project of Jewish assimilation through the on-stage depiction of ‘outsiders’. Sondheim has been reticent about his heritage in interviews and commentaries on his work, but has noted an affinity with the outsider, stating “it’s obviously something I feel, belonging to two minorities”(being Jewish and gay). While Sondheim’s works often depict fragmented worlds that seem a far cry from the American creed, peopled as they are by the incompatible, dispossessed or unruly, his musicals do not perhaps disconnect with the musical’s Golden Age as much as Wilson feared: the Broadway “disquisition”on the outsider has been around for longer than might be expected. Just as the American musical of the 1940s began to redraw the boundaries of social inclusion, so Sondheim scores an alternative national anthem, for “the ones that can’t get in to the ball park.”

Sondheim had a formidable training. Oscar Hammerstein II became part-mentor, part-father to the ten-year old Sondheim, steering his young charge through a lively apprenticeship in musical theatre and remaining a close associate throughout Sondheim’s career. On graduating, Sondheim pursued a more classical musical education , studying with the infamous Milton Babbitt, composer of rigorous and complex serial and electronic music but also, as Sondheim later declared, an unlikely but “frustrated show composer”. Together they unpicked the Broadway canon, often spending the first part of composition classes absorbed in structural analysis of a Jerome Kern song. When Sondheim asked for guidance in moving towards atonal music, Babbitt reportedly told his student “you haven’t exhausted tonal resources for yourself yet, so I’m not going to teach you atonal.” From here, Sondheim identifies that “I am his maverick, his one student who went into the popular arts with all his serious artillery.”

Sondheim’s “popular art” has nonetheless challenged audiences and critics alike, and his works have tended to be chameleon and acidic in their theme and realisation. Cutting his teeth as a lyricist on Bernstein’s genre-bending West Side Story (1957), Sondheim went on to create the so-called “concept musical” in 1970 with Company, a new approach to musical theatre driven not by plot development, but by the exploration of theme. Company was followed by a string of acclaimed but provocative works exploring topics from America’s cultural incursion into East Asia (Pacific Overtures, 1976), to revenge tragedy (Sweeney Todd, 1979); pointillism and the artistic process (Sunday in the Park with George, 1984) to the deconstructed fairy tale (Into the Woods, 1987). His work repeatedly confronts the power of the institution— be it marriage, justice, government or the happy ending— examining its grip on those individuals who are excluded, by choice or circumstance. It is a stance that has seen the composer branded a Broadway revisionist, allied, by certain commentators, with an earlier European school of politicised musical satire. Sondheim however firmly disassociates himself from the link (and what might be considered a certain cachet in the alliance):

“I’m not a Brecht/Weill fan and that’s really all there is to it. I’m an apostate: I like Weill’s music when he came to America better than I do his stuff before…. when he was not writing with Brecht, when he was writing for Broadway.”

Indeed, Sondheim’s readiness to explore social exclusion is something he traces back not to Weimar cabaret but to the Broadway canon. In an oft-cited New York Times interview, Sondheim recalls a first teenage encounter with Roger and Hammerstein’s Carousel (1945): “I remember how everyone goes off to the clam bake at the end of Act One and Jigger just follows, and he was the only one walking on stage as the curtain came down. I was sobbing.” Sondheim goes on to explain why Carousel remains his one of his favourite musicals, “because it’s about a loner [Billy Bigelow] who’s misunderstood”. With a customary lack of sentimentality, later in the interview Sondheim dismisses his own remarks as “psychobabble”, but they make a striking statement and address the central subtext of much of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s output. It is perhaps only by looking more closely at the social history of the earlier Broadway musical, notably its part in Jewish assimilation in mid-twentieth-century America, that Sondheim’s contested role as Broadway torch bearer or incendiary grows clearer.

The Broadway musical comedy of the 1920s-50s has long been recognised as a Jewish-American creation (the popular scholarly roll call citing Jewish composers and lyricists Gershwin, Berlin, Kern, Hart and so on), yet the distinct part played by the Broadway musical in shaping American sensibilities amid the marginalisation of Jews has been less widely acknowledged. As musicologist Andrea Most summarises in her work on Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical (2004), the story of Jewish acculturation in America and the development of the American musical are inextricable. As such, Broadway musicals not only secured a new entry point for Jews into American cultural life, but effectively set about reconstituting America’s understanding of itself. Rather than an entirely passive and circumscribing form of assimilation which flattened difference, Most proposes instead that “the Hollywood studio and the Broadway theater became sets on which Jews described their own vision of an idealized America and subtly wrote themselves into that scenario as accepted members of the white American community.”

The first Rodgers and Hammerstein hit Oklahoma! (1943) is a primary example of this re-imagining of American communality (albeit within limited parameters). Amid the musical’s new emotional and dramatic punch, Most suggests Oklahoma! sought to redefine the myth of the American West as an inclusive and shared homeland, notably through the musical’s depiction of Persian merchant, Ali Hakim. Popular and playful Hakim is welcomed into the rural community while standing as a thinly-disguised analogue of a Jewish immigrant, allied to the writers themselves: indeed, on the invitation to a first-anniversary party for the show, Hammerstein billed himself as “Mister Ali Hakimstein”. Musicologist Raymond Knapp’s account of Oklahoma! focuses less on Jewish assimilation in favour of outsider acceptance more generally, suggesting that Rodgers and Hammerstein depict the villain of piece, Judd Fry, with unlikely compassion. Judd is shown to share the same needs and desires as the community: “he is frugal and a hard-worker; he feels entitled, like all aspiring Americans, to what he feels he has earned” (including a parodic but affecting heroic operatic solo number). For Most, however, the nominal “Jewish” acceptance of Hakim into the community is predicated on his very contrast to Judd. The show effects this through a dual definition of otherness, with one determined by a transient, manageable ethnicity and the other by a threatening and necessarily-excluded racial difference. Where Hakim’s ethnic otherness is painted as acceptable through the merchant’s peaceful commercial interests Judd is allied with the stereotype of a purportedly threatening African American, lurking predatorily at the smokehouse (whereby smoked skin translates to black skin). The anxiety of difference is absorbed by the ominous Judd, leaving Hakim as safely but distinctively other.

Broadway’s interest in outsiders and the subtext of Jewish assimilation, where Jews may still display distinct ethnic markers while gaining admittance to mainstream America, is still striking. Indeed, the deployment of the “colour line” as an enabler in the acceptance of Jewish otherness chimes with historian Eric Goldstein’s account of changing incarnations of American Jewish identity across the twentieth century. Amid a forced racial paradigm that allowed only for categories of white and black in the first part of the century, the American Jewish community faced a conundrum. Goldstein describes how white Americans “often tried to suppress the troubling image of the Jew as they suppressed the distinctiveness of other groups—either by comparing them to blacks or predicting their speedy assimilation into white society.” Yet Goldstein notes how outsider status came to stand as an intrinsic, triumphant element of being Jewish, noting that “Jews from [Central and Eastern Europe] had come to see ‘apartness’ as one of the most salient aspects of Jewish identity.” Under Roosevelt’s New Deal, it was a position that became more tenable. As economic recovery took shape during the 1940s, Jews began to dissolve as a symbol of social anxiety and were welcomed as distinct, productive members of an apparently inclusive nation, as mirrored (and prefigured) in the Broadway musical. In turn, the Jewish American community steadily grew empowered to voice protest at the treatment of African Americans.

The attention and sympathy Sondheim offers society’s outsiders in his works both draws on and disrupts the Broadway legacy. In contrast to the racial agenda of 1940s Broadway, Sondheim’s ‘outsider’ definition is resolutely inclusive, while the notion that musical theatre performance idea that musical theatre can project an utopian community is subverted, if not fully revoked. Sondheim’s works create new kinds of communities, comprised only of ‘outsiders’. In turn, these musicals conjure new possibilities of belonging, both among those characters portrayed and on occasion, for the audience itself. It is the thoroughly modern message of multicultural society: we are all outsiders now.

This idea underpins much of Sondheim’s work. Just as Marta’s ‘city of strangers’ in ‘Another hundred people’ (Company) explores the difficulty of connecting in urban life, where ‘they meet at parties through the friend of friends/Who they never know’—the number also presents the possibility that the lost may ‘find each other in the crowded streets/And the guarded parks… [and] walk together past the postered walls/With the crude remarks.’ It is a vulnerable form of coming together, taking place amid a hostile urban landscape and outside the easy but false communality of the cocktail party. In Sweeney Todd, the musical chorus is re-imagined not as a single voice of commentary on the action but as a group of isolated and fractious individuals, scored with separate characters, lines, and action, nonetheless fused in Fleet Street’s bloody drama. Sondheim’s deployment of musical form is particularly effective in conveying this shared isolation. The angular ‘Bobby’ motif—part doorbell, part alarm-call—that darts through the cast at the opening of Company suggests something jarring and off-centre, but its repetition marks the intersection of the show’s dysfunctional community and comes almost to bind them. The waltzes that thread through A little Night Music (1973) not only evoke a mixture of nostalgia and suffocating etiquette, but connect the show’s otherwise isolated inhabitants: each are excluded from the union they wish for and so trapped in a variation of the same dance. It is a process mirrored in the very idea of the concept musical.

Central to the development of the concept musical, and Sondheim’s rendering of distance and collectivity, is the manipulation of time. While Sondheim is rightly famed as a master of character development, a number of his musicals nonetheless disrupt the work’s internal flow of time as a means of exploring of its theme. For Merrily We Roll Along (1981), the tale of a pushy and once successful Hollywood songwriter and his corroding friendships, the narrative is relayed entirely in reverse, while Follies (1971) dramatises a reunion between two decaying married couples, each party consumed by the memory of their younger self, and the musical closes with an “out of time” vaudeville finale, each of the cast lost to a glittering but ghoulish vision of the past. Both works seek to expose the falsity of nostalgia and the dangers of being driven by past hopes (and the consequences of refusing to confront the choices of the present). The cruel disruption of time within these musicals has a powerful effect on audiences too: the promise of closure and the pleasure of the musical finale is subverted. Sondheim, these musicals affirm, rejects the happy ending, in life and theatre. Yet, amid this fractured flow of time in many of his works (or its notional absence in Company), the works often reinforce a sense of wholeness through other theatrical means. As Joanne Gordon notes, Sondheim “develops a new lyric, musical and theatrical language for each work” and in doing so, he draws together worlds of crumbling chronology into unified and immersive musical experiences.

The new musical languages that Gordon describes are often an exploration of existing musical styles. As far as conjuring an array of other voices can be termed a signature, the slick pastiche has become Sondheim’s hallmark, prompting questions about his own sense of musical identity. While confident to outline his stylistic approach to text (see Sondheim’s collection of lyrics in Finishing the Hat (2010) which includes bold commentary on his own work and an often acerbic account of others’), speaking in 1997 Sondheim hesitates to describe his musical voice:

“I don’t know how I would describe myself because I’m so eclectic. People say they hear my style… I’m not sure—musically. I know there are certain chords I use over and over and over again… I write in a lot of styles, because I’m often imitating a milieu or something like that. And yet, people I respect say they can tell something of mine; and people I don’t respect say it. But I’m not sure I would recognise it… I recognise when they’re doing a takeoff of my music by using lots of wrong notes, and thick chords, and that sort of thing—I recognise what they’re parodying. But I’m not sure that I would recognise a piece of mine that I hadn’t heard before.”

These so-called “thick chords”—of layered sevenths, ninths and elevenths (“I like seventh chords. I live on seventh chords. Ravel gave us that gift”)—alongside chopped up, irregular rhythmic patterns and frequent hiccups in the pulse often mark Sondheim’s work as Sondheim. Yet for all the recognisably crowded harmonies of a work such as Passion (1994), there is Bounce (2003), governed by what Sondheim describes as simple, tonal key relationships and conventional 32- bar song structures. In this sense, Sondheim is a master of disguise, outside even his own tentative definitions of style. This rather ambiguous sense of musical belonging emerges later on as a source of tension. In Mark Horowitz’s 1997 interviews with the composer, Sondheim makes a surprisingly impassioned plea against the “anxiety of influence” and towards the recognition of his own musical voice:

“It was always very clear in [Leonard Bernstein’s] music where his influences are… You can hear the Copland. But you can hear Lenny! … I don’t care if you can hear strains of the other people. He has a voice. And that’s what you listen for in music, is a voice. Even if you hear where it is from. I’m eclectic the way Lenny was eclectic. But I’ve a voice. I’ve a voice.”

It is an odd assertion in the context of Sondheim’s diffidence. However, the composer is clear and confident on one element that makes his music tick: the notion of surprise, his principal advice for other music theatre composers being “don’t tell me something I already know. Let me hear a voice, and be surprised.” Indeed, Sondheim’s pastiche work is perhaps most distinctly Sondheim-like when it startles expectations, notably when it jolts the implied musical meaning of the source itself. His chameleon-like use of pastiche is largely ironic and subversive. He toys with the audience’s familiarity with an idiom by placing it alongside something jarring in character or theme: the music invites recognition which is then rapidly unsettled. The jolted audience is forced to grasp the new alignment and its often troubling message.

This shifting of signification happens throughout Sondheim’s work but perhaps nowhere more sharply than Assassins. The musical plays on a shared recognition of various American idioms—the cakewalk, hoedown, 1940s love ballad—and quotes canonic works of American patriotism, including the Presidential march “Hail to the Chief” and various Sousa marches. However, these triumphant musics become the medium to explore the motivations of America’s most notorious assassins. Following a vaudeville-like structure, the killers troop through American idioms in increasingly sinister settings: following his attempt on Roosevelt’s life, Giuseppe Zangara sings a Sousa-inspired number from the electric chair; while Charles G. Guiteau performs a cakewalk from the hangman’s scaffold (shortly after shooting President Garfield). Sondheim draws on the wholesome soundtrack of the American dream to speak up for the excluded, creating “another national anthem”, and implicates the audience in the action as he does so. As musicologist Jim Lovenheimer suggests in his study of Sondheim’s outsiders, the composer “leaves the audience with the act of assassination as a collective cultural memory that uncomfortably lingers.” In a final punch, the show’s finale sees the assassins turning their guns on the audience as a whole, completing the show’s ambiguous and disturbing attempt to create one community and alienate another. The preface to the show’s book includes an intriguing account of a couple leaving the original off-Broadway run: the man asked, “‘I liked it but who are you supposed to feel for?’ She replied, her eyes filled with tears, ‘Us. You’re supposed to feel for us.’”

Sondheim’s definition of “us” is some way from the cheerful collectivity of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s catalogue, where the chorus speaks as one and (almost) everyone is welcome. Sondheim’s work serves a new kind of agenda. It conveys an anti-assimilatory message but one that endorses the idea of community all the same. In a sense, Sondheim’s “us” is grounded in paradox, where the only true collectivity we can achieve in the modern world is predicated on a shared experience of being alone. It is a harsh message but ultimately affirming. Indeed, commenting on his lyrics for the finale of Company, Sondheim notes “what starts as a complaint becomes a prayer”: the show does not compromise its message that the human condition is a lonely one, but enables an alternative collectivity through this very acknowledgment: “I’ll always be there/As frightened as you/To help us survive/Being alive.”

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