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Is the American Musical Dead?

Stephen Sondheim is arguably the greatest living composer of musical theatre. Certainly he is the most respected by the arts community. He burst on to Broadway in 1957 as the lyricist for the new musical West Side Story. His credits include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, Company, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park With George, and many others.

He has announced that the American Musical is dead.

Proclaiming that he has “outlived the genre itself,” Sondheim stated in an interview that ”you have two kinds of shows on Broadway — revivals and the same kind of musicals over and over again.”

The same article details how Sondheim made his career as “a rebel advancing a cause: a new, jarring, adult kind of Broadway musical.”

Reading this article becomes quite depressing until you challenge the central assumption. Is the American Musical dead – or have most theatergoers just lost a taste for the “new, jarring, adult kind of Broadway musical?”

These new musicals inflicted on Broadway are, by and large, edgy mood pieces that have marginal appeal to the public at large. The more ambitious pieces can be huge hits in New York and flops everywhere else. Other shows have not even managed to appeal to the jaded New York crowd. Paul Simon’s The Capeman reverently chronicles the true story of Salvador Agron, a gang member who murdered two boys in a school playground. The show was perhaps the most expensive failure in Broadway history.

Is it any wonder producers rely on “revivals and the same kind of musicals over and over again?” Regional theatres do the same thing, for the same reason: These are the shows people want to see.

The success of Disney movie adaptations  demonstrates that the hunger for the satisfying family entertainment of the great Broadway musicals has not died at all. If anything, it has increased! In the absence of anything new, families are willing to drag their children to the same stuff again and again – in high schools, in local community theatres, and, yes, on Broadway. Why?

Because there’s nothing else to see. Or, at least, there’s nothing else they want to see.

So why don’t talented people like Stephen Sondheim step in and fill the need? The answer is quite simple: it isn’t what they want to do.

”What’s happened to the theater,” says Sondheim, ”is one thing that does depress me a lot. Now it makes you not want to write because you think the audience isn’t there anymore. The audience that is there is not an audience who would either like or respond to the kind of stuff I write.”

Simply put, those who write musicals have contempt for the audience that enjoys them.

Sondheim contrasts his work with that of famed lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, one of his mentors. “‘Oscar’s lyrics are often flat-out sentimental, lacking in irony, which is the favorite mode of expression of the latter part of the 20th century. And I happen to love irony.”

But do audiences?

With the exception of his earliest work, every single one of Sondheim’s shows has lost a substantial amount of money. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sonmdheim’s 1979 musical, tells the story of an angry barber who murders his customers and then bakes them into pies. Considered by critics to be the Last Great American Musical, it is the work of which Sondheim is most proud. I dig it immensely, but it lost millions of dollars in its initial Broadway run, and it is a box office failure whenever it is revived by ambitious regional theatres, who enjoy the show far more than the audience does.

Theatre has become the playground of the elite, and those who write for the theatre are far more interested in entertaining each other than they are in entertaining us. Their worldview is dark and cynical, and their tastes are far more vulgar and profane than those of Middle America.

Why should they write musicals that appeal to the rest of us? Why should we expect them to?

Taking the Name of the Lord in Vain
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  1. I thought of this as I watched the 1982 stage production of “Sweeney Todd”. If this is considered “great”, then I am a Philistine. I want my art to be uplifting, not leave me cold. Sondheim is brilliant, but he isn’t writing for me.