The Musicals of Steven Sondheim:
Plays That Communicate on Many Levels
The incorporation of music, with its repertoire of tools ranging from pitch to volume to rhythm, into a play adds to the richness of the story being told through dialogue and action. In cooperating with the text, the music both reinforces and enhances ideas presented by the play. Rather than distract from the existing dramatic elements, the extra component of musical theater provides another layer of meaning; in a musical theater piece the music is often most essential to the setting of the tone and to the connecting of themes throughout the work. At the core, a musical is no different from any other play. The fundamental elements of storytelling are there: an interesting, logically progressing plot, a cast of characters with their individual motives and relationships, a definite setting and time, action and dialogue. What makes a musical different is the addition of music. Background instrumental music and songs, sometimes coupled with dancing, contribute one more layer for the writers to communicate in.
The musicals of Stephen Sondheim embody some of the best uses of music in the telling of a story, integrating witty and informative lyrics with communicative and distinct music. Unlike some musicals, his plays do not lose intelligence or depth, and the lyrics of his songs are poems in their own right, rhymed and metered with a musician's discipline and carefully worked into the spoken dialogue of his collaborations. Three plays: Into the Woods, book by James Lapine; and A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, books by Hugh Wheeler, demonstrate the versatility of the music and text partnership while expressing such common themes as that love exists in varied mutations and that we need to consider the effects of our actions.
A progression in tone that echoes the same progression in theme can be traced from play to play beginning with A Little Night Music and ending with Sweeney Todd. As characterized by its heavy use of the string section and its predominance of songs in triple time-the "Oom pa pa" meter used in the waltz, mazurka, sarabande, polonaise, etude, and gigue, pieces of music made up entirely of dactyls-A Little Night Music is a light, benign play, a play about relationships and the entanglements that people are prone to create as they pursue their relationships. It has a sense of whimsy; the consequences of its events are not so very world-shattering, and though the characters are deeply engrossed in their respective plans and problems, it is as though they live in a perpetual vacation, tucked away in "turn of the century Sweden" where "they are all insane…It's the latitude. A winter when the sun never rises, a summer when the sun never sets…" (A Little Night Music, Act One, Scene 7) As old Madame Armfeldt tells her granddaughter Fredrika, "the summer night smiles. Three times…at the follies of human beings…at the young, who know nothing…at the fools who know too little…and the third at the old who know too much…" (A Little Night Music, Prologue)
This human folly is the theme of the play, a foolishness in which the actress Desiree Armfeldt tires of being the mistress of Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and finally settles on Fredrik Egerman, who may be the father of her only child, only to discover that he is married to Anne, a young woman thinks she is in love with Fredrik but whose seminarian son Henrik is the one she really loves and who really loves her; and neglected wife Charlotte Malcolm, who feels she must feign an affair in order to regain the attention of her wandering husband. During the overture, these mistaken couples come waltzing onstage in a forest, confused and unceasingly changing partners. All of the play seems to be a dream like this wood, a stumbling hide-and-seek through society and love. Countess Charlotte Malcolm describes what it is that impels these people to complicate their lives so, when she is forced to tell Anne Egerman about her husband Fredrik Egerman's liaison with her own husband's mistress: "Oh, why do I put up with it? Why do I let him treat me like-like an intimidated corporal in his regiment? Why? Why? Why? I'll tell you why. I despise him! I hate him! I love him!" (A Little Night Music, Act One, Scene 6) Imparting her experience to the more naïve Anne, she sings "Every Day a Little Death." Sung in her low alto's voice, this piece takes on a tone of plodding melancholy, resigned as Charlotte is that she has no power against her unhappy situation. Although the refrain strays briefly from the contained range of the rest of the song, Charlotte is used to having to restrain her emotions and so does not make outbursts even when she is communicating her deepest emotions. What restrains Charlotte most is not the behavior of her domineering husband but her love for him. It is love that motivates them all, though many of them are the fools who know too little, making mistake after mistake. By the end of the play, they have finally learned to waltz with their proper partners. As Frid, Madame Armfeldt's butler says, they're just silly, "dressed up like waxworks, jabbering away to prove how clever they are. And never knowing what they miss," (A Little Night Music, Act Two, Scene 5A) never letting go of their pretense and their sly plans.
The quintet-a small chorus of lieder singers whose function in the play is not to further the plot but to make commentary-sings that "perpetual anticipation is good for the soul but it's bad for the heart. It's very good for practicing self-control. It's very good for morals, but bad for morale. It can lead to going quite mad." (A Little Night Music, Act Two, Scene 4) Tension swells as the plans bubble, characterized by the curt notes of the singers and the accompanying bells and harp, giving a sense of buildup. All this tension, all the conflicting plans and unhappinesses must at last erupt, and they do at dinner at Madame Armfeldt's chateau; each of the characters' plans to snag their partners come to play in a somewhat dirty and drunk conversation, and Henrik, outraged, smashes a glass and decides that "if all you can do is laugh at the cynicism, the frivolity, the lack of heart-then I'd rather be dead." (A Little Night Music, Act Two, Scene 5) Even Henrik, however, seems silly and misdirected, represented by a string instrument and a song in triple-meter, although his instrument is the cello, and his song is slow and melancholy. The young Henrik, at 19, is allowed to show his emotion where Charlotte is not. Accompanying himself on the cello, he plays music that "isn't gloomy. It's profound." (A Little Night Music, Act One, Scene 1) He laments that no one ever wants to hear his opinions on the deep issues that have humanity in their grip, "a thought he's fairly bursting with," yet it is the lighthearted Anne who frees this brooding thinker from his repression. Indeed, it is love that frees them all, once they sort out who it is they are supposed to love.
Still, while the characters of A Little Night Music know about acting for love, they know little about taking responsibility for their actions. Their lives, although tumultuous, have the ease of wealth. Never do they have to work for their own survival. In Into the Woods, however, we meet some more practical folk (although some, like the royal family, still do have the benefits of wealth or power). There is the baker and his wife, a practically penniless single mother and her son Jack, and Cinderella, whose own family has reduced her to servitude. These characters and their fellows soon meet with danger and mortality-something not encountered even peripherally until the very end of A Little Night Music, when the ancient Madame Armfeldt dies peacefully, having imparted her wisdom to her granddaughter and seen her daughter finally happy.
Into the Woods can be looked at as a bridge between A Little Night Music and the darkness of Sweeney Todd. While in the first act, the traditional fairy tale structure holds-the good people live happily ever after, the bad are punished, and everyone "reached the right conclusions, and they got what they deserved," (Into the Woods, Act One, Scene 6) in the second act, all their happily ever afters fall apart. Some hapless characters-the baker's wife, Rapunzel, and the narrator-die, and here death is not a simple filter of the good and the bad. The second act of Into the Woods is far more the mirror of reality in that good people die, cowards live, "witches can be right, giants can be good…" (Into the Woods, Act Two, Scene Two) Most of the characters here are looking for family and the kind of happiness they can get from having a family. The baker and his wife want a baby, Cinderella wants to participate in the family outing, the witch wants to raise a child, Little Red Ridinghood wants to visit her grandmother, and Jack just wants a friend. To get what they want, these characters are willing to go to great lengths, venturing into the woods where dangers, mostly from other villagers, but also from wolves and princes, threaten what happiness they already have. However, they don't consider the consequences of their actions at all, and soon after getting their wishes, they have to face the less pleasant side effects.
What becomes evident as the first act transitions to the second is that all the parents or would-be parents (one must consider that parenthood can be considered a metaphor for causation and children the effects, "what you leave behind") have made mistakes, and although they were "just trying to be a good mother" (Into the Woods, Act Two, Scene 2) their children may still blame them and turn away. The witch tells Rapunzel to "stay with me, the world is dark and wild. Stay a child while you can be a child" (Into the Woods, Act One, Scene 5) but Rapunzel refuses because she "just locked me in a tower without company for fourteen years, then blinded my Prince and banished me to a desert where I had little to eat, and again no company, and then bore twins! Because of the way you treated me," Rapunzel tells her mother, "I'll never, never be happy!" (Into the Woods, Act Two, Scene 2) Rapunzel believes that her mother mistreated her, but neither really questions that the witch did so because she loved Rapunzel. "Stay With Me" is reprised in the second act, after Rapunzel is crushed under the giant's wife's feet, as a lament that she could not remain an innocent child; the witch knows she could not have protected her from or prepared her for the world.
Without its second act, Into the Woods is nothing more than a retelling of several fairy tales. The second act moves beyond the black-and-white world of these simple stories, and the characters, who "were not familiar with making choices-their past experiences in the woods had in no way prepared them…" (Into the Woods, Act Two, Scene Two) for the consequences, chiefly the arrival of the wife of Jack's giant to avenge her husband, must learn to live in the grown-ups' world of taking responsibility for one's behavior. With this shift in tone, the woods darken, the characters begin to meet their unfortunate ends, and the music becomes more frantic, repeating strains from the first act with modified meanings. The true natures of the characters are revealed. The princes, though now married, respectively, to Cinderella and to Rapunzel, continue to chase after maidens, reprising their song "Agony" which, now that we are aware of their tendency to infidelity, seems far less acceptable behavior. As they see the fates of their compatriots, the survivors grow disillusioned, questioning the directions their lives have taken. Little Red Ridinghood wails, "Mother warned me never to stray from the path!" The baker responds, "The path has strayed from you…" (Into the Woods, Act Two, Scene 2). Yet ultimately those who survive realize that they must cooperate if they are to live. No more will they run away, for each of their actions sets off a chain of reactions whose consequences must be accepted.
In the end, we come full circle. The baker becomes the narrator, the original narrator having been the baker's father in disguise, telling his son the story of his birth and his mother's death as he and Cinderella start a new family with the orphans Jack and Little Red Ridinghood, vowing to teach the three children that everyone has a side of the story, and that because of all these overlapping stories we may be telling we must be careful of what we do. The song "Children Will Listen" sums up this warning: "Careful the things you say, children will listen. Careful the things you do, children will see. And learn. Children may not obey, but children will listen. Children will look to you for which way to turn, to learn what to be. Careful before you say, "Listen to me." Children will listen. Careful the wish you make, wishes are children. Careful the path they take-wishes come true, not free. Careful the spell you cast, not just on children. Sometimes the spell may last past what you can see and turn against you…Careful the tale you tell. That is the spell." (Into the Woods, Act Two, Scene 2) The children that we must be careful with are not only our biological offspring but also the events that occur as results of all our actions. These actions can get out of hand, leading to worse things than the killing of a mostly innocent giantess. The final message of Into the Woods, then, is a cautionary though hopeful one, leaving the possibility of more complications in Cinderella's last line, added after everything else is done, "I wish…" (Into the Woods, Act Two, Scene 2) We are rarely satisfied, but we must keep our desires in check, for, indulged, they become motive for atrocities, immoral acts such as are performed by the characters of Sweeney Todd.
In Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the darkness that is lurking and partially uncovered in Into the Woods erupts, and violent insanity takes over the stage. For a musical comedy, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a very dark show. Characterized by its dramatic chords played on the organ, shrill exclamations, and sudden, piercing factory whistles that sound like human screams, Sweeney Todd is about a barber who allows his life to be taken over by an all-consuming need for vengeance whose focus migrates from the one wrongdoer to all of humanity. Like Into the Woods and A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd is divided into two acts, the second beginning when Sweeney decides that he will kill all his customers. From this point, we hear much more use of the factory whistle. The lighter songs of the first act, such as "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir" and Johanna's "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" virtually disappear, fading to faint strains echoed in the tumult of Sweeney's anger. What is a chorus of Londoners in the first act becomes a chorus of escaped lunatics in the second, led by Lucy, adding to the havoc but seeing the truth of the situation as no one else can. This situation is brought on by love, just as are those of the other two plays. Who is to say that Sweeney's love was not once as pure as Anne and Henrik's and that Judge Turpin's lust is not as natural and healthy as that of the servants Frid and Petra? Transposed to "a hole in the world like a great black pit and the vermin of the world inhabit it and its morals aren't worth what a pig could…London," (Sweeney Todd, Act I) however, not only must blame be taken for actions, but punishment must be given for them. Judge Turpin's malicious abuse of power shatters the illusion of innocence, leaving characters to fend for themselves in a vicious, deceptive world. No one acts for anyone else's benefit here. Although each may think that another is helping his cause, they are really all working for their own. Even the young, representations of supposed innocence, lie and deceive and, in the case of traumatized Toby, kill.
Toby and Sweeney both kill for the women they love; love can take this morbid turn when it is corrupted or confounded. Originally hardworking, a loving husband and father, Sweeney becomes an obsessive murderer bent on revenge because Judge Turpin ruins his life for his own ends, unjustly sending him to prison and raping his wife. Encouraged by the (rather odd, amoral) Mrs. Lovett, who runs the meat-pie shop downstairs, he reopens his barber shop in the hopes that the Judge will patronize his shop, and he can kill him. Missing his first opportunity, however, Sweeney turns in his frustration to killing most of the other people who go to his shop because "we all deserve to die!…tell you why: because the lives of the wicked should be made brief. For the rest of us, death will be a relief…" (Sweeney Todd, Act I) Here is love gone bad, good motivation for atrocious deeds. It is in Sweeney Todd that almost nobody (only the innocent and removed Johanna and Anthony) survives.
In killing so many people, Sweeney accomplishes nothing. No longer is killing a last recourse for survival as is the massacre of the giant's wife (who was only out to avenge her husband, killed by Jack when he cut down the beanstalk). From the first death-Sweeney's rival Pirelli, killed to be silenced, for he discovers Sweeney's real identity-to the string of indiscriminate murders of Sweeney's clientele (who are them baked into Mrs. Lovett's meat pies) to the final carnage, in which Judge Turpin, Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney, and ironically, Sweeney's wife Lucy (who he doesn't recognize and kills, taking her for a lunatic, when she gets in the way of his finally punishing Judge Turpin) all die, the killing is wasteful, unnecessary. When everyone is dead, no one wins, no lessons are learned. The retaliator is in turn punished, for "freely flows the blood of those who moralize." (Sweeney Todd, Epilogue) It is not until Sweeney realizes that he has killed Lucy and that Mrs. Lovett has tricked him that he snaps out of his rage. Mrs. Lovett confesses that she did trick him, but that Lucy had long ago gone insane, and it was "better you should think she was dead. Yes, I lied 'cos I love you!" (Sweeney Todd, Act II) Still murderous, however, Sweeney pushes Mrs. Lovett into the oven in which she baked the flesh of their victims, punishing her for acting immorally for love, just as he did.
The people of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Into the Woods, and A Little Night Music all act for love, though the kinds of love vary from the erotic to the familial and the things they are driven to do can be "not good…not bad…just nice…or not good…not nice…just right." (Into the Woods, Act Two, Scene 2) Although they do not realize it, love is one of the strongest forces that catalyze events. Love fuels desire, suffering, and oppression as well as kindness, sacrifice, and happiness. The themes of the three plays are simple but universal: every person needs to love and be loved, but this love is often misplaced, and it drives us to act in ways whose consequences are more complicated than we think. No situation is as simple as it appears, for "no one is alone" and every move affects a hundred others.
It is in their songs that the characters best express their love because in a musical it is song that takes the place of a soliloquy, conveying information that otherwise might be hidden in a character's mind or require too much exposition. Because these are musical comedies, there is no room for long spoken soliloquies. Songs like "Giants in the Sky" and "On the Steps of the Palace" tell stories that happen offstage, and ones like "Now/Later/Soon" and "Moments in the Woods" reveal a character's thoughts (in the trio, three characters' thoughts are comprehensibly presented at once). Besides containing textual information, the songs in these musicals, most notably the overtures- "Prologue: Into the Woods" sets up the storytelling mode with a narrator; the overture of A Little Night Music brings to mind a sleepy, summery recollection as the quintet warms up and sings snatches of the songs to come; and "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd", preceded by funeral music on the organ acts as a traditional prologue, previewing the screaming fear of the second act-set the tone, taking advantage of universal human emotion and the more subtle manipulation of cultural norms: sounds the audience is likely to associate with certain moods because they have been so conditioned. When the music becomes more frantic, fast and dense, listeners feel a sense of building energy, of expectation and strong emotion. When it subsides to a lull, they relax. To bring to mind an earlier idea, the orchestrator need merely work the tune used earlier. Moderating a tune so that it changes over into a minor key darkens it, giving it an ironic edge. Using these and other tools, the musician adds his dimension to the message conveyed by the playwright.
More than most other mediums, musical theater is a collaborative discipline. This is especially true of book musicals like Sondheim's plays. The book writer and composer work together to develop the story and marry the music and text. One may ask whether Sondheim writes his lyrics first or his music, but in reality the two are written at the same time, adjusted to fit one another, and this is true when applied to the plays as wholes. When the book and music are written, more people must be brought into the collaboration: orchestrator, choreographer, actors, director, all contribute in rehearsal or workshop to the completion of the show, and, often, the polishing process isn't complete even after the play opens. In this atmosphere of cooperation, musical plays are produced as syntheses of several art forms, most notably poetry and music, and as such they work on many levels to reach the audience, and convey their messages, from sound to sight, from subconscious to conscious, from emotional to mental.
Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, A Little Night Music.
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, Into the Woods.
Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
published by Applause Music under the title Five by Sondheim.