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Sondheim Speaks!

Sondheim

Illustration by S. Christian Taylor-Low.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was to be the first Broadway show that featured my own music attached to my own lyrics. Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart and I had written it over the course of four years and it had gone through two major producers, two major directors and one major star by the time we were ready to go into rehearsal. I should have been feeling exhilarated at the prospect. Instead, I felt a rapidly burgeoning panic, which I attributed to hysteria from the excitement of finally launching myself as a composer.

I had a terrible time writing the score to Forum. Next to Merrily, it was the hardest score I’ve ever had to write. I had been brought up by Oscar Hammerstein to think of songs as being little scenes or one-act plays which were necessary to telling the story. Forum required exactly the reverse of what Oscar had taught me to do. It was a farce: a play with broadly drawn characters who find themselves in uncomfortable situations which, when seemingly solved, lead to further and more uncomfortable situations. As in every play, the situations arise from character, but the characters in a farce, like those in traditional musical comedy, are one-dimensional, one-adjective, one-noun personalities: the conniving slave, the lecherous husband, the braggart warrior. It is the clash among these personalities that keeps the plot boiling.

The problem is that one-dimensional characters do not give rise to songs that move like Oscar’s one-act plays, nor do they allow for the subtext and resonance that Arthur Laurents had taught me to appreciate when we wrote West Side Story; they generate songs which, like the characters who sing them, deal with only one idea at a time and play with it. To use a graceful phrase of Burt’s, such songs “savor the moment.” This had been the function of songs in Roman comedy and remained so for the better part of two thousand years afterward. “Savoring the moment” describes most Broadway theater songs prior to Oklahoma! Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin and their contemporaries wrote lyrics that presented one idea, toyed with rather than developed.

Oscar’s influence on musical theater was not seen by everyone as entirely beneficial. As Larry Gelbart put it in his Introduction to the published libretto of Forum, “Broadway, in its development of musical comedy, had improved the quality of the former at the expense of a good deal of the latter.” The playfulness of musicals had been dampened by Oscar and his imitators and here I was, a convert myself, confronted with a musical that was nothing if not playful.

At the time, I complained incessantly to Burt that although I had loved many of the savor-the-moment songs in the old shows and had written my fair share for Saturday Night, West Side Story and Gypsy, trying to write an entire score of them was cramping my tutored style. I grumbled that Forum would be better off as a play than a musical. Burt replied that if it were just a play, it would be relentlessly and unrelievedly funny and the audience, unable to recover between gasps of laughter, would soon become restless for a breathing space. The few of Plautus’s plays which survive probably didn’t last more than an hour, but even so, they included songs which served as necessary respites from the unremitting farcical push. I had to write one-joke songs, so I picked spots for them where the situations would supply substance: songs like “Impossible” and the drag version of “Lovely,” which were dramatically static but theatrically funny. What I didn’t appreciate properly was the robustness of the book Burt and Larry had written: low farce clothed in elegant language. I was deceived by the details of the dialogue, by aphoristic lines like “I meant yes, it just came out no” or comically poetic phrases like “clump of myrrh,” as in “Hide the girl behind that clump of myrrh.” I appropriated their style without appreciating its substance.

I think that the book of Forum is the tightest, most satisfyingly plotted and gracefully written farce I’ve ever encountered* (pace lovers of Molière and Feydeau), I don’t think that farces can be transformed into musicals without damage—at least, not good musicals. The tighter the plotting the better the farce, but the better the farce the more the songs interrupt the flow and pace. Farces are express trains; musicals are locals. Savoring moments can be effective while a farce is gathering steam, but deadly once the train gets going. That’s why the songs in Forum are bunched together in the first half of the first act, where there is more exposition than action, and then become scarcer and scarcer until eventually in the last twenty minutes before the Finale there are no songs at all. Those twenty minutes comprise one long frenetic chase in which all the characters are on the run; for one of them to stop even an instant and sing a song would  kill the momentum. Farcical musicals such as The Boys from Syracuse and Where’s Charley? have songs sprinkled throughout, but those shows don’t attempt to maintain the tension of a true farce; they pause for diversions. Even though it’s based on Charley’s Aunt, one of the most durable farces in the English language, the intention of Where’s Charley? is to be amiable and jolly, not tense and hysterical and threatening, which is what a serious farce should be. The stakes are lower in shows of that kind, shows that wear the trappings of farce but are actually traditional musical comedies with farcical moments. Farcical operas stand a better chance of maintaining the necessary tightness because the music is continuous, but is Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi one tenth as funny as Forum or any play by Goldoni?

*And for good reason, Burt and Larry approached the piece with the utmost seriousness of intention. As Larry wrote in his aforementioned Introduction: “We would preserve the classic unities of time, place and action. We would have no anachronisms or sly references to today. We would use Plautus’ characters, but we would have to invent a plot (the original plots are negligible) to accommodate the characters we wanted to use.”

Stephen Sondheim has written award-winning music and lyric for theatre, film and television. He is also the coathor of the film The Last of Sheila and the play Getting Away with Murder. Sondheim is on the council of the Dramatists Guild of America, having served as its president from 1973 to 1981. He lives in New York City.

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