- Stephen Sondheim and the Reinvention of the American Musical by Robert L. McLaughlin
Like London buses, two critical monographs on Stephen Sondheim for the general reader have come along at once after a considerable gap. In fact, one might argue, none had come along at all before, Craig Zadan’s Sondheim & Co. (1974, last updated in 1990) being a reliable but journalistic account of his career and collaborations and Meryle Secrest’s Stephen Sondheim (1998) a biography, though this is to ignore Joanne Gordon’s Art Isn’t Easy (1990), an early academic offering, and Martin Gottfried’s Sondheim (1993, several times updated), too obviously tailored for the coffee table to be read thoughtfully in bed or on the train. Beyond these, books on Sondheim have been edited collections, more specialized studies, or his own contributions in the form of interviews and collected lyrics with commentaries. The other new monograph, Ethan Mordden’s On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide (2016), I have reviewed elsewhere. Suffice it to say here that both it and McLaughlin’s book offer accessible, well-written, comprehensive, and stimulating coverage of Sondheim’s output at relatively modest length and from critical viewpoints that are sustained, reliable, and timely. Both, though utterly different from one another, abound in fresh, fecund perceptions, and both will find a ready market. Both also have a persistent concern. Mordden’s need not detain us here, but McLaughlin’s, which is postmodernism, will.
McLaughlin’s book, then, is to be roundly welcomed. His credentials are those of an experienced and respected literary scholar of contemporary fiction, especially that of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, and to a lesser extent of a film historian. He writes clearly and judiciously, argues persuasively, and understands perfectly how further to deconstruct plot, motivation, social context, and indeed genre against the general background of a corpus of musical theater works famed—loved or loathed—for already pursuing these things by intention. For that is what Sondheim and his collaborators have always done: problematize a popular genre, and therefore a people, thitherto thought to epitomize optimism, abundance, the fulfilment of individual identity, and the whole caboodle of the American dream. McLaughlin presents invigorating, authoritative mainstream criticism well placed to resonate with a broad swath of the enquiring public that pays attention to, for example, book and film reviews [End Page 545] and understands enough about ideology to want to engage with a modicum of cultural theory.
He accomplishes his task, like the authors of all the other Sondheim monographs, by going through the shows one by one, chronologically. (Will we always do this?) At the start, the critical journey feels a bit tired, not one but two straw men being set up in turn, those of musical comedy and then the Rodgers and Hammerstein aspirational musical. But he soon gets into his stride with more developed, appreciative critiques of Do I Hear a Waltz? (Broadway, 1965) and Evening Primrose (television, 1966) than can be found elsewhere, pinpointing the transition from “a modern sensibility” to a postmodern in the space between the two (26). Chapter 2 encompasses extended discussions of West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), and Anyone Can Whistle (1964), teasing out how in turn they begin to explore deconstructive notions about “power, identity, narrative, and knowledge” (78) that then demand a complete break from the traditional format in Company (1970). Some units within this theoretical trajectory work better than others, and frankly McLaughlin struggles with Forum, while Anyone Can Whistle suddenly feels very big and strong, which is perhaps not a bad thing. Once again a transition is then pinpointed within a very tight chronological space, for the next chapter begins with Follies, staged only one year after Company, much of it actually conceived first. This chapter takes us through to the end of Sondheim’s serial collaboration with Hal Prince, taking in A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976...