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Sondheim & Prince: "A
Spark to Pierce the Dark"
souvenir program for Stephen Sondheim's Follies (1971) featured
the striking logo that became a familiar icon to musical fans.
Five years after his bitter experience working as lyricist on
Do I Hear A Waltz (1965 - 220 perfs),
Stephen Sondheim returned to Broadway as a fulltime
composer/lyricist. He formed a creative partnership with producer/director
Harold Prince, and the duo saw their innovative
concept musicals become the most acclaimed hits of the
early 1970s. They worked with a series of librettists on shows built around a
"concept" (ie - single life vs. marriage, historic culture clashes, bittersweet
reunions, etc.). Through this central issue or idea, each show examined numerous characters
and relationships. Sondheim and Prince were assisted in their first two efforts
by choreographer Michael Bennett,
who would independently create the most successful concept musical of all.
In One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s
(New York: Palgrave, 2003), Ethan Mordden defines a concept musical as
"a presentational rather than strictly narrative work that employs
out-of-story elements to comment upon and at times take part in the action,
utilizing avant-garde techniques to defy unities of time, place and
action." Once a subject or situation is raised (marriage, love, finding
a job, etc.) characters can comment on or illustrate aspects of the subject.
There is a solid storyline, but all the major elements of these shows are
linked in some way to the central concept.
Prince is not thrilled that so many of his shows are
referred to as concept musicals
"The whole label that was put
on our shows, the whole notion of the 'concept' musical, was one that I
really resent. I never wished it on myself. It caused a backlash and
animosity towards the shows and us . . . It's called a 'unified' show, an
- quoted in Craig Zadan's Sondheim & Co.,
Harper and Row, New York, 2nd edition, 1986, p. 362)
By any name, the musicals that Prince,
Sondheim and their various collaborators offered in the early 1970s re-energized
the Broadway musical, setting the genre on a soul-searching course that redefined the
genre. Esteemed theatre historian Foster Hirsch explains how Prince and Sondheim,
though different, complemented
Prince galloping ahead while Sondheim
holds tightly onto the reins; Prince the affable public relations man,
glibly articulating concepts and trajectories, Sondheim leery of publicity;
Prince relishing the activity of the rehearsal process, Sondheim disliking
it: out of the fusion of their temperamental dissimilarities they have
become modernism's answer to Rodgers and Hammerstein the makers of the
- Harold Prince and The American Musical Theater (New York:
Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989, p. 71)
George Furth's libretto for Company (1970 - 706 perfs) used
Bobby, a single 30-something man seeking love in contemporary Manhattan, to focus on
the problems and gentle insanities of five couples Bobby's "good and crazy"
married friends as well as the various single women vying for Bobby's hand.
As Bobby confronts the emotional confusion brought on by his thirty-fifth birthday, he
realizes that a myriad of friends are no replacement for sharing intimate love with one
person. Bennett's choreography embodied everything from a surprise party to coitus, and
Prince's direction kept this bountiful mix in sharp focus.
Dean Jones headed Company's original cast but
left early in the run. He was replaced by Larry Kert.
Sondheim's score was pure Broadway with a contemporary edge. Much of that edge
came from inventive, literate, dramatically potent lyrics. For example, the
often-married character Joanne (played with sardonic relish by
Elaine Stritch) observed that perfect marital
relationships are made by the "tactics you employ, neighbors you annoy" and
"children you destroy . . . together." Sondheim's marriage of wit and heart
was a vibrant continuation of what Berlin, Porter, Ira Gershwin and
Sondheim's mentor Oscar Hammerstein II had done in earlier eras. But Sondheim's lyrics spoke for a generation
in the midst of a cultural and sexual revolution. As no one else before or since, he gave
uncertainty and self-exploration an eloquent, intriguing voice.
In Follies (1971 - 522 perfs), the libretto by
playwright James Goldman centered on two former showgirls and their
spouses assessing embittered marriages while attending a reunion of performers from a
Ziegfeld era Broadway revue. Sondheim's wide-ranging score evoked various musical styles
of the past. While the melodies had a traditional sound, the lyrics often went for the
jugular, ("Could I leave you? Yes! Will I leave you? Guess!"). No
musical had ever taken such a frank look at the painful realities of growing
older and abandoning one's dreams. Bennett's innovative
choreography was a crucial element, showing characters in a parallel past and
present. Follies was not a commercial success, but its magnificent score made
it a favorite with theatre buffs.
The original cast program for
A Little Night Music (1974). Note the rainbow logo that Playbill soon replaced
with a variation of their old black on yellow format.
For A Little Night Music (1973 - 600 perfs),
Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler had a central love story, but like its
inspirational source (Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of A Summer Night) that
romance became an excuse to focus on numerous characters and relationships. As an aging
actress (Glynis Johns) tried to re-ignite a past amour with a married attorney
(Len Cariou), love was examined from the
perspectives of youth, middle age and seniority, creating a haunting, bittersweet
collage. Sondheim composed the entire score in variations of waltz time, so even the
music was built around a concept. The show's most popular number, "Send In The
Clowns," would be the only time a song with words and music by Sondheim became
a best-selling pop chart hit.
The following year brought Sondheim's most daring and inventive musical
yet, Pacific Overtures (1976 - 193 perfs). The book by John Weidman
examined how Japan's ancient culture was wrenched when the American Navy forced the isolated
island nation to open to international trade in 1853. The story is told from a Japanese point
of view as broad array of characters take the story through the decades, with a finale set in
contemporary times (skipping any mention of World War II). The score was one of Sondheim's most
intriguing, including musical haiku and pastiches of Sullivan and Offenbach. Highlights
included the extended musical scenes "Chrysanthemum Tea," "Please
Hello" and "Someone In A Tree" each a well crafted
mini-musical that brought a separate set of characters to life.
Prince adapted ancient kabuki techniques for the staging, using a mostly male
Asian cast. Pacific Overtures was so innovative that American audiences did
not know what to make of it. An exquisite Off-Broadway revival won critical acclaim in 1984,
but did not see a much longer run than the original -- and subsequent revivals have reached
a small but dedicated audience. Perhaps this unique musical is too challenging to win mass
Fosse and "All That Jazz"
The souvenir program for Chicago (1975).
Eclipsed by the overwhelming success of A Chorus Line, this cynical masterpiece did
not get its due until a 1996 Broadway revival and 2002 film version enjoyed overwhelming
Bob Fosse reached his creative peak
in the 1970s. While turning out acclaimed films and TV specials, he offered Broadway
three dance-centered concept musicals, where a central
concept drove the show, rather than a traditional plot. Fosse's directorial vision took
total precedence over the book or score, an approach some referred to as "Fosse Uber
Alles." The results were impressive and popular
- Pippin (1972 - 1,944 perfs)
used the story of Charlemagne's forgotten son as a
flimsy excuse to examine jealousy, sex, war, sex, love, sex, life, sex . . . and sex.
When composer Stephen Schwartz disagreed with changes made to
his score, Fosse barred him from rehearsals and made more changes. Thanks to Fosse's
erotically charged choreography and teasing TV ad, Pippin ran long and toured far.
Critics complained about the uneven book, but Ben Vereen scored a personal triumph
as the show's sensuous narrator, and John Rubenstein who
introduced Schwartz's ballad "Corner of the Sky" charmed audiences
in the title role.
- Fosse's sexy choreography was also evident in
Chicago (1975 - 898 perfs), the saga of two 1920s
flappers seeking fame through marital homicide. This concept musical cast a cynical,
merciless spotlight on social hypocrisy and media-based celebrity. Fosse helped shape
the libretto, staged the scenes as a series of vaudeville-style acts.
(in her final musical role) and Chita Rivera
were the stellar killers, and Jerry Orbach
played their "razzle dazzle" attorney.
The John Kander and
Fred Ebb score offered a parade of showstoppers,
including "All That Jazz." One of the most brilliant and biting musicals
Broadway would ever produce, Chicago was overshadowed by the success
of A Chorus Line (discussed on the next page of this site) and did not win a
single Tony. It took a 1996 Broadway revival and a 2002 film version to bring this
masterwork the popularity it deserved.
- With Dancin' (1978 - 1,744 perfs), Fosse took concept shows a
step further and dispensed with a script and original score, building an entire evening
of unrelated dance sequences around nothing more than a gifted cast, a title and pre-existing,
non-theatrical musical sources like Benny Goodman's jazz classic "Sing, Sing, Sing."
Alan Jay Lerner wired Fosse, "Congratulations. You finally did it. You got rid of the
author, " but the public and critics adored the results, making this one of Fosse's
most profitable productions. With demanding choreography that small theatre companies
and amateurs could never hope to recreate, Dancin' had almost no life
beyond its Broadway run and national tour.
Along with his stage hits, Fosse helmed several successful feature films,
winning the Academy Award for directing the brilliant screen version of Kander and Ebb's
Cabaret (1972). Although Fosse never had another original stage hit after
Dancin', his legacy as a choreographer and director would outlive him. In 1999,
more than a decade after his death, the Broadway dance revue Fosse (supervised by
Gwen Verdon) introduced a new generation to this showman's genius.
Others were creating concept musicals, including one that eclipsed the rest
of the genre. For more on this "singular sensation," as well as the 1970s passion for
nostalgia, continue on to . . .
Next: 1970s Part III -
A Chorus Line & Revivals