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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 516-517
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Reading Stephen Sondheim:
A Collection of Critical Essays
Reading Stephen Sondheim: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Sandor Goodhart. Studies in Modern Drama, no. 10. New York: Garland, 2000; pp. xxii + 280. $65.00 cloth, $26.95 paper.
From May through August of 2002, the Kennedy Center presented "The Sondheim Celebration," an unprecedented staging of six of Stephen Sondheim's musicals. As Sondheim approaches the twilight of his career, this event joins a number of attempts over the past decade to pay serious attention to the work of arguably the most important, innovative contemporary creator of musical theatre. Printed attempts include Sondheim's Broadway Musicals by Stephen Banfield (1993); Martin Gottfried's Sondheim (1993); a quarterly publication devoted to his work, The Sondheim Review; Joanne Gordon's Stephen Sondheim: A Casebook (1997); and prolific biographer Meryl Secrest's Stephen Sondheim: A Life (1998). Reading Stephen Sondheim is a solid contribution to this body of work, if not an altogether thorough one.
In his preface, editor Sandor Goodhart acknowledges the authors mentioned above but claims that "none of these volumes have inspired the kind of full-fledged literary critical assessment afforded our other great writers" (xv). Reading Stephen Sondheim purports to provide this assessment through a variety of methodologies, including deconstruction, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. In an effort to bolster Sondheim's acceptance in the academy (that he is not accepted is one of Goodhart's several questionable claims), the essays in this volume offer a variety of ways in which to "read" his works "seriously" by closely examining the texts as "language" (11). Herein lies one of the main weaknesses of the anthology: although the editor specifically claims that in order to read Sondheim's admittedly complex language one must necessarily view it as having many facets—music, lyrics, his own comments, responses to the work, etc.—the language of music is all but ignored.
The authors do employ an impressive array of methodologies to analyze and interpret Sondheim's oeuvre(up to Passion, 1994). Reading Stephen Sondheim is divided into two parts. The first includes essays that deal with multiple themes or plays or contexts. Perhaps the most thoughtful, cohesive essay, although a bit too brief, is "The Funeral of Follies: Stephen Sondheim and the Razing of American Musical Theater" by Ann Marie McEntee, which examines Follies as ushering in a new age of disillusionment in musical theatre, indicting the happy ending of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Similarly, Kay Young's essay "'Every Day a Little Death': Sondheim's Un-musicaling of Marriage" explores Sondheim's resistance to the happy ending, decentering the traditional ontology of the musical. Unfortunately Young excludes a discussion of Merrily We Roll Along, which includes perhaps Sondheim's most explicit and interesting resistance to the happy ending by revealing the ending at the beginning. Most engaging structurally is the last essay in this section, Paul M. Puccio [End Page 516] and Scott F. Stoddart's "'It Takes Two': A Duet on Duets in Follies and Sweeney Todd." Sondheim is the master of expanding the duet to include many forms and contexts, and the authors, through a dialogue format, clearly explicate this; furthermore, the essay is infused with a dry humor that mirrors Sondheim's own wit. Puccio begins, "You might say" while Stoddart interrupts with "we do," and Puccio continues insightfully "that the binary form of the duet provides Sondheim with an objective correlative to what he does in so much of his writing: namely, to construct a musical space where two narrative or expressive voices meet" (122). Later, as Stoddart is describing the brilliant duet "Pretty Women" in Sweeney, in which Todd repeatedly interrupts the masturbatory ecstasy of the music, delaying the climax, Puccio himself interrupts the narrative within the article to describe this prolonging of pleasure as "a form of duet interruptus" (123).
The second part of the book includes essays that all focus largely upon single plays. Methodologically, the essays in this section are the most sophisticated, approaching Sondheim's musicals from semiotic...