Wednesday, August 04, 2004


I keep meaning to write a long post on the Stephen Sondheim cult, but I haven't had time yet. As a placeholder, I'll re-post part of a post I wrote on a newsgroup a couple of years ago; it was called "How to Recognize a Sondheim-Firster." The term "Sondheim-Firster" was a term I invented to describe the sort of person who likes Stephen Sondheim but doesn't really like musicals. Some of the qualifications for Sondheim-Firster status were:

The Sondheim-Firster:
- Loves SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and PASSION above all other musicals. Lukewarm about COMPANY and MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. Thinks INTO THE WOODS is kind of a sellout. Hasn't seen A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.
- Not quite sure who Harold Prince is. Can't name offhand any of the book writers Sondheim has worked with, except possibly James Lapine.
- Approvingly calls any Sondheim song "dissonant," whether it is or not.
- Not wild about Andrew Lloyd Webber, but really hates Rodgers and Hammerstein.
- Believes that WEST SIDE STORY was a commercial flop.
- Ends a discussion of any Sondheim musical with the phrase "audiences weren't ready for it."
- Knows nothing about CAROUSEL except that it glorifies wife-beating and ends with a sappy song about walking through storms.
- Evaluates *any* pre-1970 musical, including Sondheim's, by saying that it has "hints of what was to come later."
- Kind of bored by FOLLIES -- too many show tunes in it -- but knows it must be good because it makes middle-aged people uncomfortable.
- If he/she is a critic, reviews any non-Sondheim musical by comparing it unfavorably to the last Sondheim musical. Also reviews every Sondheim musical by comparing it unfavorably to the last Sondheim musical.
- Explains that Rodgers and Hammerstein brought the musical to adolescence, and Sondheim made it grow up.
- Uses "hummable" as a pejorative term.
- Saw MY FAIR LADY. Sort of enjoyed it.

I don't know how many people have met a Sondheim-Firster. There's a whole unreadable publication, "The Sondheim Review," devoted to Sondheim-First writing, and every now and then you'll get a Sondheim-Firster critic (Frank Rich, of the New York Times, pretty much fit the description). Here's a good, which is to say bad, example of Sondheim-First-ism, in a review from England -- where the Sondheim-First movement is at its strongest and most impervious to knowledge of musical-theatre history -- of a recording of a great show, Little Me:

Stephen Sondheim’s musicals/operas are musically and intellectually satisfying and truly moving. There are predecessors of similar standing but no-one so consistently packs Sondheim’s punch. The present musical is not in the Sondheim league. While pleasant and with the occasional hit (e.g. Real Live Girl) this is a slice of Broadway eclair: fluffy but with little nutrition. The brightly inconsequential Broadway-medley overture says it all: brash and superficial.

Where Sondheim ranks, in musical-theatre history, is a topic for another post, but I think it's fair to say that if you meet someone who talks like the reviewer above -- and if you like musicals, you've probably met someone who talks like that -- the best option is to nod and slowly back away.

No comments: