Tuesday, April 16, 2024

A Definitive Ranking of Stephen Sondheim Musicals

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It was only a matter of time before I wrote this. After all, I’ve made no attempts to hide the fact that I am a superfan of Stephen Sondheim. A stan, if you will.

It’s to a fault; where I could be versing myself with new and exciting musicals, I choose to perform every harmony in “Now/Later/Soon.” I blasted “Getting Married Today” on my way to officiating my best friends’ wedding. Learning new piano music has taken a backseat to playing through the full vocal score of Sweeney Todd  for the umpteenth time.

But even I can admit that some of Sondheim’s works “do it” for me quite a bit more than others. For the purposes of this list, I will only include shows in which he wrote both the lyrics and music. It’s painful to leave West Side Story off, but if Sondheim himself wrote off only being a lyricist after Do I Hear a Waltz?, then I feel comfortable enough doing the same.

15. Passion

I’m not sure you quite understand how “stanning” someone works: it truly pains me to speak ill of any of his work. And bizarrely, Passion probably contains some of the most emotional and strictly speaking, “pretty” music that he’s ever written.

Unfortunately, it serves to score one of the most depressing, overwrought “romances” I’ve ever encountered. It’s the kind of stuff that makes Twilight’s love triangle somehow seem like a pinnacle of fine writing.

Passion actually is a love triangle, now that I think about it. The Dude (Giorgio) is totes happy with his married girlfriend Clara, but he gets some military transfer to a town where an ugly, “sick” woman named Fosca lives. She has some sort of nervous disorder that involves a lot of collapsing and seizures, but then on top of this, she’s also manipulative, petty, and a stalker.

I think this was supposed to be a gender-bent “beauty and the beast” trope? Which already is never my aesthetic, but its execution is cringe-worthy. Giorgio turns down Fosca at one point, and as a result she begins dying. And then the whole “turning point” for Giorgio in his conception of her is learning over that she had been hurt in the past by an ex-lover.

“Is this what you call love?

This endless and insatiable

Smothering pursuit of me

You think that this is love?

I’m sorry that you’re lonely

I’m sorry that you want me as you do

I’m sorry that I fail to feel

The way you want me to feel

I’m sorry that you’re ill

I’m sorry you’re in pain

I’m sorry that you aren’t beautiful

But yes, I wish you’d go away

And leave me alone”

LISTEN TO THE DUDE. But no, after enough stalking fun times, Giorgio “sees her worth.” Though it could also be because that bitch Clara got pregnant with her husband and he only then realized that the situation was complicated for him. Then he goes crazy and Fosca dies. Wheeeee.

Give the soundtrack a listen, perhaps, but there’s no reason to sit through this.

14. Bounce

I’d be lying to say that I’ve had any genuine enthusiasm for anything Sondheim wrote after Assassins. So perhaps my own bias is coming out here. The thing with Bounce (or Road Show, or Wise Guys), however, is that you can tell it’s *supposed* to be deep on some level. Sondheim was going for *something* with it, but damn if I could tell you what. The tragedy of opportunism? The corruption of money and greed? If so, Sondheim wrote other musicals that accomplish it far better.

Perhaps the worst part of this is that Bounce is a travelogue, which only makes you painfully aware of how destination-less it all is. And the usual, meticulously crafted wordplay of Sondheim’s finest scores is just totally absent. Give me the verses Sondheim chides himself for as being “literary masturbation and too clever by half,” damnit!

13. Saturday Night

Like, let’s stop pretending here. This is the musical you seek out to prove that you’re a Sondheim-o-phile. He wrote it when he was basically still a fetus. It’s finereally, it’s fine. But there’s a reason it wasn’t produced in the 50s.

12. The Frogs

You know, I’ve always had a negative impression of The Frogs, but it’s really not as bad as I make it out to be. For one it gave us that sweet, sweet fanfare that Comedy Bang Bang has happily embraced. For another, the music and lyrics are often quite clever.

“We’re the frogs! The adorable frogs!

Not your hoity-toity intellectuals,

Not your hippy-dippy homosexuals,

Just your easy-going, simple,

Warm-hearted, cold-blooded Frogs

Of the pond

And the fronds we never go beyond.

When you rearrange a single frond, We respond”

Not…overly clever, okay? It’s no “she may hope to make her charm felt,” that’s for sure.

I can’t say I have any opinion on the alternations that Sondheim made for its 2004 revival since I only knew of it after that point (that’s what you get for premiering in a swimming pool), but what I will say is this: while it’s an enjoyable way to pass time, every single song starting from the “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience” just made me acutely aware that I’d rather be watching A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum. Not that I’m conflating the Greeks and the Romans, of course. It’s just that if you’re going to give me a musical that is fodder, make it consistent fodder, not Dionysus being so bored with the state of plays that he wants to bring Shaw back from the dead (only for Shakespeare to try and get in on the action).

AU fanfics were never really my thing…

11. Anyone Can Whistle

Three acts? What is this crazy musical???

Anyone Can Whistle is nothing if not bizarre. The plot is actually incredibly intellectually engaging if you take the time to try and understand it, though perhaps engaging in the same way the Equalist plotline of Legend of Korra was; you feel that there was more potential than what was ultimately presented.

 I mean it’s knotty, and the turns are interesting, but its dip into the absurd can really take you out of the moment. Though I do think that was the point. Still, even Angela Lansbury was a bit “wtf” about the plot.

Oh, and they use the word “mayoress” throughout it. Just file that one under “Wardeness of the North.”

However, for me the biggest issue is that there’s no stand-out numbers. “There Won’t Be Trumpets” is ironically the exception, which was cut from the original production. I find the score perfectly listenable, and I fully expect disagreement, but this CD is almost always at the bottom of my stack. Though that’s more than can be said for the Bounce, which I don’t even own.

10. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

I will say that from here on out, every musical on this list is good, and solid. Not that what came before is *bad* of course, but just not on quite the same level. That said, while Forum is an objectively enjoyable musical from start to finish, it’s pure fluff. But the best kind of fluff, really. As we’re told in “Comedy Tonight”:

“Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns;

Bring on the lovers, liars and clowns!

Old situations, new complications,

Nothing portentous or polite.”

And there’s definitely nothing polite in this music. From the line “Feel the roll of the playful waves, see the sails as they swell, hear the whips on the galley slaves; pretty little picture!” to the entirety of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” Forum establishes itself as sufficiently crass, without feeling like it punches down.

“Everybody ought to have a maid. Someone who you hire when you’re short of help. To offer you the sort of help, you never get from a spouse!”

Yet the reason that it is middling on this list really just has to do with the fact that it’s ultimately meaningless. It doesn’t stay with me the same way the other ones do, and while the score is engaging, there’s almost a simplistic feel to it compared to Sondheim’s other works. Don’t get me wrong: it’s good and I like every number. It’s just…there’s nothing that emotionally stirs me. Plus once again, my favorite song “Something About a War” was cut from the production. 

9. Follies

Now there’s only one act???

One thing that’s very bizarre to me about Follies is that while a ton of musical numbers have come out of it (“Broadway Baby”, “I’m Still Here”, “Too Many Mornings”, “Could I Leave You?”, “Losing My Mind”), the ones I actually enjoy the most are the ones no one seems to give a shit about.

Follies is solid, all the way through, even if the one act is a little bit of a marathon. The worst that can be said is it’s pretentious, I suppose. This show is quite self-conscious, I think, but rather than Sondheim using music to hash out his inner demons as he’s wont to do, it’s a critique aimed at the industry. That’s fine, though it sort of leaves me feeling as though I’m on the outs of an inside joke. But I’m sure any actor in it has to be loving it on a meta-level?

However, the whole thing falls a little flat for me with the love-trapezoid of doom. It’s a great framing device for the central theme of…self-indulgence? But you kind of feel bogged down in the mess of it all. If that was the point (again), I can’t help feel like this could have been accomplished with fewer catty women.

There’s also a bit of an oddity for me where though I appreciate the show’s merits and can name you a bunch of pieces from its score, I almost never tend to listen to it. In fact I’d happily pop in Forum first, so…

Nope, this is **definitive**

8. Company

Look, I know I’m probably going to get skewered for putting Company so low. Wait, is this even low?

There’s a lot to love about Company. The score has fantastic numbers, from the comedic “The Little Things You Do Together” to the gripping “Being Alive,” to my personal favorite, “Another Hundred People.”  I do beg you to only listen to the original cast recording for any of the numbers, however. In fact, here’s an hour-long video of them making it! Watch Sondheim be the most adorable introvert.

The issue for me really comes down to the nature of the show. Sondheim is a huge, huge fan of deconstructing the musical form, and he really ran with this idea with Company. It is a “concept musical,” and despite all I talk about thematic significance being the most important part to a narrative, its format sort of twists the viewing experience into an intellectual exercise. I appreciate it, but I’m not lost in it. I’m not meant to be lost in it, I know. However, I would also argue that the themes toyed with, namely isolation and relationships, are fully accessible in later works. In my opinion, those are a good deal more impactful when situated in something that feels like a complete narrative.

I should point out though, because I’m me, it’s Sondheim’s original closing number “Happily Ever After” that I enjoy most of all. Apparently Bobby still reached the same conclusion in a following scene as he does in “Being Alive,” but this was too much of a downer, or something. Then there’s also the fabulous “Marry Me A Little” (I had to link Raúl Esparza’s performance), also originally cut, though now has been worked back into most productions. This song is so pointed and sums up the ambiguous and messy view on marriage that Company offers so completely that in some ways, it’s all you need.

Everything is enjoyable, and the score is unbelievably strong. Yet it’s a situation where you see more of the sum of the parts than the whole.

7. Pacific Overtures

Here’s where I become worried about my Sondheim-stan tendencies getting the best of me. Pacific Overtures is a very pleasing musical to any history nerd. It is all about the Westernization of Japan (centered on the event of Commodore Perry’s arrival), told from the point of view of the Japanese. In fact, just go listen to “Bowler Hat” (sung by a samurai), which serves as an amazingly compact microcosm for the entire show.

This musical also contains two numbers that as far as I’m concerned is Sondheim at his absolute best. One is “Someone in a Tree,” and the other is “Please Hello.” The former is about the signing of the treaty between the Japanese and Americans, told from the viewpoint of an old man recalling hiding in a tree at the time (and his younger-self appearing on stage as a duet) and a soldier who had been stationed below the floor during the negotiations. It sounds bizarre, but it is perhaps the most ingenious song I have ever heard. Sondheim also consciously plays with words in such a way to highlight the contrast between Western and Eastern approaches to the world:

Boy: And there’s someone in a tree —

Old Man: Or the day is incomplete.

Both: Without someone in a tree / Nothing happened here.

Old Man: I am hiding in a tree.

Boy: I’m a fragment of the day.

Both: If I weren’t, who’s to say / Things would happen here the way / That they happened here?

Which is not exclusive to this number, of course. My favorite line that exemplifies the capturing of the ‘Eastern mindset’ is “If the tea the Shogun drank will serve to keep the Shogun tranquil”.

“Please Hello” is about five countries arriving and trying to make their use of Japan, all of which is brilliantly and jarringly intrusive to the audience. Not to mention Sondheim does that thing towards the end of it where he weaves together five totally separate melodies.

But. And there’s a big “but” here: this musical probably should not have been written by a white dude. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I think there is a self-awareness, and it is a story told with a seriousness and sensitivity. The original Broadway production was performed in the traditional Kabuki fashion, which meant a limited, all-Japanese cast, led by Mako Iwamatsu as the Reciter (and Shogun, Jonathan Goble, and Emperor Meiji…it’s Kabuki). However, at times its format almost seems to hold some kind of insulting meta quality…it’s difficult to explain. I just wish I knew a bit more about the writing process and the voices in the room prior to its first performance. There are moments that are both affecting and uncomfortable, and I do think that tension is important.

But yeah, sometimes I’m still a little confused where I land.

However, there’s one aspect of this musical that does not make me confused. The Kabuki performance (all male actors) also brings rather sexist undertones into sharp focus. Given the way Sondheim writes women across the board, I forgive it, but it’s sort of hard to ignore the fact that the female parts belong to a mom who murders her son, a suicide victim, an almost rape-victim, and a gaggle of sex-workers preparing to seduce the foreigners arriving.

But. “Someone in a Tree.”

6. Sunday in the Park with George

Ugh, this is the musical that I want to put as my favorite. To contextualize it, after the flop that was Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim became so discouraged by musical critics (who he viewed as determined to see him fail), that he announced he was quitting the industry to write mystery novels instead. But to quote him, “But then I met James Lapine.”

Lapine wrote and directed Sunday, which I might call one of the most thoroughly self-conscious musicals I’ve ever seen. The plot revolves around a heavily fictionalized portrayal of the post-Impressionist artist Georges Seurat, whose immersion in his work (specifically “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”) leaves him estranged from the woman he loves.

“And how you’re always turning back too late

From the grass or the stick

Or the dog or the light

How the kind of woman willing to wait

Not the kind that you want to find waiting

To return you to the night”

The self-referential nature of this show is…not subtle. At all. Here’s some “art critics” talking about “Seurat”:

Yvonne: So drab, so cold.

Jules: And so controlled.

Both: No life.

Jules: His touch is too deliberate, somehow.

And the way Seurat’s relationship with Dot is resolved in “Move On” (even if okay, it’s technically Great-Grandsonion Seurat) is so emotional and complex that the intensity of Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters performing it a quarter of a century after their debut makes me want to vomit. I’m really not sure any number can make me feel as deeply as this one.

Oh, though I think it’s worth mentioning that Sondheim styled an entire number to match Seurat’s pointillism.

But Jesus Time-Traveling Christ. It’s pretty clear that Lapine really only thought through Sunday’s first act when he was writing. I mean, the second act drives the themes home a bit more? Like how this type of criticism is sort of doomed to repeat and the inherent struggles of being an artist? But…yeah. You feel that second act, and not in a particularly good way.

5. Into the Woods

Fun fact: my sister’s first grade class attempted a performance of this. It was an ambitious endeavor, to say the least, and she did quite well as a stage-frightened tree.

Though I often see Into the Woods dismissed as a “family musical,” it’s really not. At all. I have to applaud the movie for “going there” with the obvious sexual nature of the wolf’s “Hello Little Girl” (and the subsequent “Now I Know Things Now”), even if I personally think Johnny Depp should never be allowed near a Broadway score ever. And hopefully never will be now.

Still, even beyond this “loss of innocence” theme (also present in Jack’s plotline), the other themes explored are not…shallow. Not by any means. We’ve got the perversion of wish fulfillment, complicated familial dynamics (more self-insert from Sondheim there…that was his dad creeping in the shrubbery FYI, and literally everything that goes wrong is due to shitty parents), moral ambiguity/responsibility, and intentions not matching up with results. It’s actually quite A Song of Ice and Fire-like, shock-deaths and all.

It’s also great because we’ve got Sondheim trying his damn hardest to make sense of fairy tales. The question “why would Cinderella run?” is what led him to the wonderfully relatable “On the Steps of the Palace.”

I will say, at times the themes can be delivered with a bit of a sledgehammer (“I’m not good, I’m not bad, I’m just right. I’m the witch; you’re the world.”), and all the emotional energy gets sucked out of the show as soon as the Baker’s Wife dies. Most second acts have a bit of a dragging feeling to them, but when they’re working to bring down the lady-giant, you’re very aware of the time that’s passing. It could have used an edit.

4. Assassins

Again, I think it’s my history nerdism that’s blinding me here, but I can think of very, very little to say against Assassins. It’s a bizarre topic to be exploring? The Balladeer as a framing device to hold the narrative together was a little bit of a clunky way to establish its revue format? John Hinckley was made too sympathetic?

“Everybody just hold tight to your dreams”

No really, the music is engaging, and like he does at his best in “Please Hello”, Sondheim adapts the musical style to the time period and attitudes of the historical figures. This is one of those shows you have to go into with a firm understanding of depiction vs. endorsement, that’s for sure, though I’ve yet to see too much criticism for its subject material. Not to mention, the line “hurts a while but soon the country’s back where it belongs” still holds eerily true about the nature of gun violence, even if not specific to the assassination of public figures. All in all, it paints an immaculate breakdown of the fallacy of the American Dream, through the lens of its disturbed, most infamous citizens.

“How could you do it, Jonny? Callin’ it a cause. You left a legacy of butchery and treason we took eagerly, and thought you’d get applause. But traitors just get jeers and boos, not visits to their graves. While Lincoln who got mixed reviews, because of you, John, now gets only raves.” —the Balladeer on John Wilkes Booth

I will say however, the interaction of the characters outside of their songs is quite a bit stilted, and feels like wheel-spinning until the mutual conclusion reached in “Another National Anthem.” And then we have a rather long Lee Harvey Oswald sequence that follows, which sort of piles onto the darkness, even if the thorough deconstruction of the so-called American dream will stay with you long after you leave the theater. 

3. Merrily We Roll Along

The fact that this is the musical that flopped so famously is almost beyond understanding.

I mean, okay, it might well be the most depressing musical in the world. It starts out with three former friends in these broken relationships with one another, bitter and jaded from their “successes” in the music industry and divergent paths. However, it is a tale told backwards, where the characters become happier with one another, more earnest, and ultimately so full of hope by the time they sing “Our Time” that you want to curl up into a ball and never stop crying, knowing where they end up.

But that aside, you’ve got perhaps Sondheim’s most “singable” pieces ever written, sufficiently lampshaded by a character within the show itself:

“It’s not a tune you can hum.

It’s not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum.

You need a tune to go bum-bum-bum-di-dum —

Give me a melody!

Why can’t you throw ’em a crumb?

What’s wrong with letting ’em tap their toes a bit?”

Have I used the word “self-conscious” enough in this list?

The emotions exhibited in these numbers too, especially with my personal favorite “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” are almost unmatched by anything else. As Sondheim puts it:

“In compiling this book, I’ve observed a number of things about the songs I’ve written, not the least of which is that in addition to my attraction to the easy pleasures of historical list songs such as the ‘Transitions,’ I seem to have a penchant for nervous breakdowns… Part of the explanation, of course, is that I’m attracted to volatile characters because they’re the stuff of drama, and when they explode in song, it allows the songwriter to veer off unexpectedly in many directions, echoing the disorder in each character’s mind.”

That said, it’s a bizarre musical in structure where it’s incredibly difficult to empathize with the central character, Frank, as for most of act one he’s in an unsympathetic spot. The backwards timeline also makes it so the emotional punches of the earliest songs only have true impact in retrospect. Though given how much I relisten to it, I overcome this pretty quickly.

2. A Little Night Music

Look, I can’t tell you how to spend your time. But if you do have 10 minutes, I recommend giving “Now/Later/Soon” a listen. This is Sondheim at his best. It seems trite in essence, but the way he is able to manipulate lyrics jumps right out in “Now,” a song about a methodical lawyer trying to figure out the best way to seduce his timid, still-virginal wife:

“Which leaves the suggestive

But how to proceed?

Although she gets restive,

Perhaps I could read.

In view of her penchant for something romantic

De Sade is too trenchant And Dickens too frantic

And Stendhal would ruin the plan of attack

As there isn’t much blue in The Red and the Black.

De Maupassant’s candour would cause her dismay

The Brontes are grander but not very gay

Her taste is much blander, I’m sorry to say

But is Hans Christian Andersen ever risque?”

“Later” is where Sondheim showcases his remarkable ability to provide so much characterization in so little time, with this overwrought musical number about a dour and mopey twenty-year-old who takes himself very seriously. Then “Soon” comes in, where Ann sings of her reluctance to sleep with her older husband, establishing both her frivolous nature and Sondheim’s gift of pushing tempos.

Then these three seemingly disparate melodies get intricately harmonized and woven together. And that’s just the first number in the show.

The entire plot is a bit of a farce, not meant to be taken too seriously. It centers on the romantic lives of the characters, and though there’s certainly themes toyed with, to say this is overly deep would be a stretch. Charlotte presents the most complicated character, her hurt over her philandering husband leaving her loathing and loving him, just as she loathes and loves herself. Petra is another standout, with her unabashed assertions of her sexual agency. Henrik and Anne can push into caricature territory in the wrong hands, and Fredrik and Desiree’s reconnection serves as the closest thing to a “plot.” There’s also a Greek chorus?

But in general, there’s very little that doesn’t work. And yes, this is where “Send in the Clowns” is from. Which was somewhat ironically written for a singer with a very limited range/lung capacity (Glynis Johns), given how it became popularized.

Yeah, I’ll always skip past “Liaisons” (though I got to see Angela Lansbury perform it in the revival not long ago, and she made it quite enjoyable, I must say…even if I missed Bernadette Peters replacing Catherine Zeta Jones by a few weeks), but in general, the only thing A Little Night Music has against it: it is not…

1. Sweeney Todd

You know. Theme-wise, this isn’t that deep. It’s a musical thriller about the futility of revenge and obsessive nature. Hal Prince is under the impression it’s an allegory for capitalism and class mobility, which you can definitely see, but…yeah. Revengey revenge, which I have often stated is not the most interesting theme in the world. We see Todd’s descent into madness as the idea consumes him, and a close exploration of Mrs. Lovett as both an enabler of this behavior, and ultimately a victim.

Yet for a two-hour musical, everything is perfect. For one, there is barely any speaking involved to the point where Sweeney Todd could really be classified as an “opera” (Sondheim himself calls it a “black operetta”). For another, though it is a horror story in its essence, its dark, comedic nature sets it apart and makes it a truly pleasurable viewing experience. And I say this about the musical that actually depicts a violent gang rape, by the way.

At some point I’ll rip into the movie adaptation properly, but it’s quite irrelevant here. I grew up listening to the original soundtrack with Len Cariou as Todd, and grew up watching the filmed stage production with George Hearn. In both cases, it’s Angela Lansbury who makes the musical, though Len Cariou’s slow and understated descent is quite more compelling to me than Hearn’s immediate ferocity.

Still, any issue I have with Hearn’s portrayal is a quibble situated in this musical. Its score is among Sondheim’s most complex work, to the point where after countless listens, I’m still finding new nuances in the harmonies. In its lengthy list of musical numbers, nothing feels particularly superfluous (even if I’m really never going to cry “Joanna (Mea Culpa)” being cut from most productions), though I suppose a few fewer teeth being pulled would have been okay.

But perhaps above all, it has a second act that moves. I mean, really, it flies by, to the point where you feel almost disoriented to get pulled back into reality so abruptly.

It’s engaging to the point where I don’t think I can even bring myself to care about any sexist implications (and frankly I think the emotional weight of Mrs. Lovett’s death speaks for itself…to me it’s another depiction vs. endorsement issue). If there is a better-constructed musical out there, I have yet to find it.

Images courtesy of Broadway World

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