Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber: The New Musical
Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber: The New Musical comes third in Stephen Citron’s “Great Songwriters” series. The first two opuses were indeed studies of songsmiths who had much in common in terms of the songs they produced, which made a parallel narrative of their lives and works all the more fascinating. Noel Coward and Cole Porter (The Sophisticates, 1993) both wrote lyrics to their own music and—though they came from widely different backgrounds—they can be hard to tell apart on a recording pairing them. Oscar Hammerstein II and Alan Jay Lerner (The Wordsmiths, 1995) were two lyricists and librettists who mostly worked in a similar operetta-derived idiom and were instrumental in the development of the American Broadway musical, while adding a substantial contribution to the Great American Songbook.
Sondheim and Lloyd Webber make for an odder pair of songwriters: not only are their aesthetics drastically opposed, but the two major architects of The New Musical are arguably not “great songwriters.” They have not produced a significant number of those “hummable tunes” that were once the staple of Broadway shows, even though Lloyd Webber initiated with lyricist Tim Rice the marketing technique that consists in releasing the cast album before the show, to familiarize the audiences with the tunes. As for Sondheim—Barbra Streisand notwithstanding—only theater and cabaret buffs whistle “Anyone Can Whistle.” Significantly, Stephen Citron hardly discusses any of their songs as such in this book on the great MUSICAL makers, and the musicologist is at his best faulting Lloyd Webber for his compositional flaws in extensive pieces such as his Requiem [p. 326], and giving Sondheim credit for his skill in building up a sense of unity in long musicals.
Back in 1985, Stephen Citron wrote a “how-to” book, simply entitled Songwriting, in which Andrew Lloyd Webber was merely mentioned once—in a list of composers who write their own scores, and without the hyphen he uses idiosyncratically throughout The New Musical, explaining in a note that “In several of the youthful monographs and letters, Andrew chose to hyphenate his last name” [p. 58]. Conversely, Stephen Sondheim’s name was all over the book: six of his lyrics were analyzed, and two out of the twelve pages on musical theater since WWII were brief accounts of his musicals, but the author felt compelled to justify “extolling a songwriter whose shows have almost invariably lost money, whose work has produced only one song that is a ‘semistandard,’” (“Send in the Clowns”) by claiming he was “the greatest lyricist in American musical now, and perhaps of all time” [Limelight 1998 edition, pp. 71-72].
Stephen Sondheim has indeed gained iconic status and official recognition as the most significant Broadway lyricist of the last quarter of the twentieth century, and one who has taken the musical in new directions. Andrew Lloyd Webber is now widely acknowledged as the foremost theatrical composer of our time: he is the biggest moneymaker anyway, and his imprint on the musical is at least equal to that of Sondheim as a composer. Both are essential theatrical composers, but Sondheim is a purist, an intellectual, an artist, whereas Lloyd Webber is a crossover craftsman—all the way from rock to Puccini-derived arias—and a romantic opportunist. What with their differences in origins (new world/old world) and generations (Sondheim is eighteen years older), the parallel accounts of their personal lives only emphasize their divergent paths, rather than inform our understanding of their respective artistic achievements.
Himself a composer and lyricist for musicals, Citron used his insider’s knowledge of the field for another how-to book entitled The Musical: from the Inside Out (1992). The New Musical is actually more about the different directions Sondheim, Lloyd Webber and their collaborators have taken Broadway and the West End than about the two protagonists as songwriters. The input of their collaborators is given all due consideration; producers Hal Prince and Cameron Mackintosh, who took the modern musical one step further toward Gesamtkunstwerk, director Trevor Nunn who wrote the lyrics to Lloyd Webber’s “Memory” and made Cats the visual success it is, all worked with the two composers and could have been better links from one composer to the other in this dual study. Prince particularly “has been responsible, almost single-handedly, for shaping the post-Hammerstein musical into the daring new form he visualized” [p. 156], and provides a major connecting clue to the separate worlds of Sondheim and Lloyd Webber.
The opening chapter on “The New Musical” and how it has evolved from “the shows of the era between the ’20s and the ’60s” is useful as it helps gain an initial sense of perspective. The hasty generalization at the start of this history lesson is probably unintentional: “It was a time when plot was secondary” [p. 4] has musical aficionados reach for their Show Boat and Porgy and Bess books! After three good chapters on the composers’ formative years, the study of each show typically starts with the birth and development of the project—sometimes over the course of decades, as in the case of Sunset Boulevard. Then comes the basic storyline, along with an analysis of the show in its various incarnations, the inescapable account of the show’s critical reception, run and awards, and a final assessment. The parallel treatment of such long-term enterprises thwarts chronological structure and breeds confusion: we’re told that “Evita in the year that followed would win almost as many Tony awards as Sweeney [Todd] had” [p. 256] when the previous chapter was on… Evita!
On the whole, Citron confirms the widely accepted view that Sondheim is a great lyricist who has demonstrated the possibility of a more conceptual (less story-driven), Brechtian and operatic avenue for the American musical, but is generally too cerebral a composer to reach a wider audience. A typically self-contradictory artist who refuses to resolve ambivalence, “Opera is anathema to Sondheim [...], because he feels that opera is concerned with the singer while musical theater is interested in the song” [p. 67], and “Although [...] he could not stand Brecht, he opted for the Brechtian approach in his work. That meant comment and counterpoint” [p. 162]. Conversely, Lloyd Webber has produced pop-influenced crossover spectaculars and guaranteed popular success by releasing popular song hits from his musicals long before they were staged. Both have benefited enormously from the input of producers, but evolved in opposite directions: Lloyd Webber becoming more of a romantic à la Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim gradually cutting the umbilical cord from his mentor—the same Hammerstein—to explore the “honesty of ambivalence” [p. 403].
Speaking of which, it is strange and regrettable that Citron should have eluded the issue of Sondheim’s homosexuality, when the blurb claims that “significance is given to the impact that their youthful training and private lives have had upon their amazing creative input.” The biographer, who had frankly discussed Noel’s and Cole’s homosexuality, has shown with Sondheim more restraint than Meryle Secrest in her “official” biography. Sondheim’s “ex-lover, Peter” is only mentioned as a given [p. 368], and his troubled sexuality is never mentioned, when it would have provided useful background for the in-depth analysis of his musicals. One wonders whether the author is deliberately dodging the issue or totally missing the point when he writes: “What can one say of Sondheim for having chosen to identify with a subject who seems to have mistaken self-immolating masochism for love? Perhaps the Passion he intended was unbearable suffering for that is the meaning of the Latin passio, translated from the Greek pathos. Giorgio’s passion may be equated with Christ’s Passion” [For a queer reading of Sondheim’s musicals, the reader is referred to Raymond-Jean Frontain, “Sondheim, Stephen (b. 1930),” in Claude J. Summers’s encyclopedia, www.glbtq.com]. As for Lloyd Webber’s marital life, it is mostly linked in this essay to the composer’s love of music and money: his relationship with singer Sarah Brightman was of a professional nature before, during and after they were married. Citron does however indicate how Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production was aesthetically influenced by this relationship, as he was now looking for ways to showcase Sarah’s talents.
The 16-page chart chronology [pp. 404-419] proves useful, spanning 70 years of Sondheim’s life and 52 of Lloyd-Webber’s with the parallel histories of US musicals, UK musicals and the “World” (i.e. striking political and cultural events). Though there may not be much to be learnt from the mere juxtaposition of facts, some coincidences give food for thought as well as a better overall view of the period. One example is 1948, when
The absence of elaborate musicological discussion and jargon makes it appropriate for readers without a background in music theory, but a good knowledge of both writers’ major works is a prerequisite. Citron tries so hard not to alienate the general reader that he sometimes makes his most cogent points in footnotes [cf. recitatives that “cry for rhyme,” p. 383]. Many ideas are well developed and carefully argued, as when he claims that, “Beyond the works of Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber,” today’s musical is “considered merely the diversionary splurge” whereas it held a “vital place” in “our cultural lives of half a century earlier” [pp. 393-394]. Of special interest is Citron’s frequent disagreement with Sondheim’s own point of view on his work, as when the master meant the songs in Anyone Can Whistle to “comment on the action instead of advancing it,” but the scholar rebuts that his score “does not comment on the action but augments it” [pp. 126-127]. On several occasions, there are stimulating comparisons between the two writers: “For Sondheim, pastiche and parody would become the curtain behind which he could write songs that were too obvious or clearly ‘over the top’; for Lloyd-Webber, these styles would be his passport to commercialism” [p. 130]. But these are too scarce.