I was going to respond to Eugene Volokh's
surprising views on punishment and vengeance, but I'll save it for another time. Instead, I'll respond to a point brought up by a reader regarding Stephen Sondheim.
He asks if I read Mark Steyn's recent piece on Sondheim, where he accuses him of being too blue-state. There have been a lot of essays on Sondheim recently, but I missed this one. (It reminds me, though, a bit of the recent conservative pile-on against Arthur Miller.) I get the impression Steyn thinks Sondheim might be more popular if he didn't let his politics get in the way, though this is just a guess.
I do recall at last year's Broadway production of Assassins
, a Sondheim musical about people who've tried to kill the President, he was attacked by a number of conservatives. The show's production had been postponed after 9/11, but many conservatives weren't aware it had been written about a decade ago and this was a revival. I'll come back to this show.
The portrayal of politics in American musical theatre has changed over the years. While "serious" drama could deal with American life, often from a leftist perspective (though not inevitably), musicals up to 1943 were rarely about anything. They were mostly excuses to give the singer a song, the comedian a routine, and the lovers a chance to get together before the final curtain. Then came Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma
, and suddenly the musical could be an integrated work of art. It could be about something.
Sometimes, musicals had lessons to teach the audience, often "liberal" lessons, like "bigotry is bad" (see South Pacific
or Finian's Rainbow
). But it was all pretty mild by today's standards. In the 60's, though, following a general opening up of art, you started getting more politically radical musicals, such as Hair
But I think this reflected more than just a change in theatre. It reflected a change in America's Left. Straightforward opposition to America, and the questioning of any tradition, became more common. Artists picked up on the cue, and the mere questioning of American traditions became a good in and of itself for some. (I'm not absolving the Right, either. There are things about America they reflexively rail against, usually dealing with our ever-coarsening society--it's just they don't write too many musicals about it.)
So many artists, even very talented ones, now thought to add depth to a work, just make sure there's a wider social argument in it. Politics doesn't have to ruin art--it can even make it better--but it can easily turn into sloganeering, especially when it overloads the delicate mechanisms of a musical.
Stephen Sondheim often sought out challenging work, even in his earliest shows, such as West Side Story, Gypsy
and Anyone Can Whistle
. But I don't think it was due to his politics (though he's undoubtedly a man of the left)--I just think he picked up what was in the air. What truly interested him, in fact, was making the musical grow up--making the songs more sophisticated and the theme about something more than leggy chorus girls for the tired businessman.
Furthermore, Sondheim has long been a puzzle-master, and I think he sees a musical as the biggest puzzle of all: what word to put in this line, how to repeat this motif, how to make this song fit in, until the entire contraption runs smoothly. What he has not had, in my opinion, is great luck in book-writers.
The first musical he wrote the words and music for, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum
, has a wonderful book, based on Plautus, and perhaps improving on the original. Since then, his books have ranged from passable to rotten. I think with better books, he'd have had bigger hits. For instance, many of his shows are plotless, or close to plotless. This is Sondheim experimenting, but a theme searching for a plot can make for a frustrating evening. (Others blame his highbrow music, but too much of his stuff has become popular for that to explain it all. A few have blamed his lack of interest in dance, but that can't be it, can it?)
If you look at his work since the 70s, it's not highly political, with a few exceptions. I mean, sure, you can read politics into Sweeney Todd
, and no doubt Sondheim, and especially his director Harold Prince, are pleased to think this updated melodrama of a barber who kills people and his girlfriend who bakes them into pies has something to say about society in general, but that's just the silly overlay that helps them pretend (Prince in particular) they're doing something "important."
The two most overtly political pieces are Pacific Overtures
in 1976 and the more recent Assassins
. Pacific Overtures
is about the West's intrusion in Japan. Overall, the politics are pretty facile. But I think the main reason the show flopped is that the music was more experimental than usual and the book was more plotless than usual. Assassins
was an even dumber idea. A collection of killers, all getting their own song. The irony is, if Sondheim actually cared more about politics, and less about puzzle-solving, he would have recognized either this idea is incredibly dumb, or it needs something better than just the tired idea that, somehow, someway, showing all these people who took their shot at fame will comment on the American Dream. The score is decent, though not top-notch Sondheim. But I don't think anything could have made this concept work.
Don't forget, however, that most of the greatest musical composers wrote plenty of flops. And some of the biggest hits, like Oklahoma
or My Fair Lady
, were considered guaranteed flops when first tackled.
So I guess my point is Sondheim is supremely talented, but that doesn't guarantee he'll write only hits. He has bad judgment in material and, because he actively likes to challenge his audience, is asking for trouble. While he's not particularly political, he does share the simple belief that questioning America or authority is the right thing to do--however, I hardly think this is a central reason he hasn't had the success of Andrew Lloyd Weber. And let's not forget, for all my talking him down, the guy has had a tremendously successful career in the musical theatre, matched by only a few others.
Time will tell, of course, whether his work lives. (Early signs are quite positive.) But I think the politics, such as they are, will fade away, and the talent will be left.
PS Along the way I lost the ability to link, so I apologize for the lack of consistency in this essay.