Monday, December 19, 2005

Stephen Sondheim has something, but not much of it

I spent $51 on a ticket to see "Into the Woods" with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. This is my fourth Sondheim musical. I hope it is the last.

Here is what I conclude:

Stephen Sondheim:
- does not know how to tell a story
- has a somewhat despairing outlook on life
- has way too many words compressed in a short space of time
- oddly couples these supremely compressed intellectual lyrics with trite, cutesy, but forgettable tunes

Will the theatre of the future, 100 years from now, be performing Stephen Sondheim? I don't think so. I don't understand why theatres today perform his work.

"Into the Woods" is a very confused story. It does have a beginning and a conclusion, which is an improvement over the other Sondheim musicals that I have seen. However, all the events occuring in the middle are extremely confused.

The Sondheim fans tell me, breathlessly, "that's because life is confusing". I can agree with that statement. I cannot agree that the confusion of life justifies creating a work of art. Instead of art imitating life, we've got life imitating life here. In other words, "Into The Woods" is confused and aspires to imitate life which is confusing. In this case, why spend $51 per ticket? Why not watch someone's life for two hours? Or watch one's own life for two hours?

But let's move on to the play itself.

Sondheim's lyrics are very often clever, eclectic, and unusual. Perhaps he should have been a poet. The actors and actresses sing these lyrics in a compressed amount of time. Their ability to do is impeded by their lack of diction. As a result, the audience cannot hear the actual lyrics in real time. About the only way to follow the story is to read the musical in advance.

The audience hears an actress sing "Chow Doon". We attempt to mentally translate what we heard into something meaningful. Even though it sounds like Chinese we want to understand how that fits into the story. However, the actress intended to say "What are you doing?" But if you say "What are you doing?" over and over again as fast as possible, it comes out sounding like "Chow Doon".

This is a key problem with Sondheim. Either his work is simply unsingable, or there are not enough singers with sufficient diction to perform Sondheim. Either way, this is a big problem.

So why is Sondheim popular? Why is his work performed?

I believe that two phenomena work in his favor: (1) His relationship with Oscar Hammerstein, and (2) The lack of evolutionary direction in the American musical.

(1) Due to a set of circumstances, the well-known lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein became a surrogate father to Sondheim. This connection opened doors and opportunities for Sondheim in the American musical theatre that other lyricists and composers could only dream about.

(2) There seems to be a paucity of break-through ideas for the American musical theatre. The art form had its golden age in the 1960's and since then has been thrashing about for a new direction and a new inspiration. The musical needs to evolve as an art form. It has become derivative. The only new ideas apart from Sondheim are with the mega-musicals, like Les Mis.

Yes ... Stephen Sondheim has new ideas. His supremely compressed intellectual lyrics are thought provoking, even unusual. What a pity they are not performable.

What group of young artists, composers, lyricists can now come forward and fill the void to help musical theatre evolve?