08 May 2004

Bouncing Back

Thank you to everyone who sent notes wondering what became of me. Things are mostly well, though horrendously busy. I haven't had much chance over the past two weeks to read anything, and have only momentarily fired up my computer. Now that I have begun to catch up on e-mail and blogs and e-zines and all the other wonderful candy of cyber-reality, I'm a bit overwhelmed.

But I feel like returning by comparing myself to Neil Gaiman. True, I am not a brilliant writer of comics, novels, and short stories (a form Gaiman is a master of and yet seems to get less credit for than his other work); I have not written the English adaptation of one of Miyazaki's films (Princess Mononoke); and I am not British.

However, Neil Gaiman and I are both fans of Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricist of the single most brilliant body of writing for musical theatre, including Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Assassins, and (my favorite) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (among others).

In a recent post to his journal, Neil Gaiman writes that he has received and listened to the CD of Sondheim's latest play, his first since 1994's Passion, Bounce. "I don't dislike it," Gaiman says, "not even a little bit, which is a relief."

I haven't gotten the soundtrack yet, but I did see the show in Chicago, and it was one of the most depressing experiences in my theatre-going life. I am the sort of person who generally thinks Sondheim can do no wrong, and that if something seems wrong, it's probably my own lack of taste or intelligence. However, Bounce was so desperately dull that even I couldn't figure out much good to say about it. The direction, by Harold Prince (himself a legend), was worse than I've seen at some high schools. The only redeeming qualities were a couple of good actors, particularly Richard Kind, who gave a subtle and beautiful performance in a show completely devoid of subtlety and beauty.

However, this doesn't mean the soundtrack should be awful. Even at his worst, Sondheim is a better composer and lyricist than just about anyone currently working in musical theatre. Removed from Prince's cumbersome production and John Weidman's scattered and undeveloped book, Sondheim's music could, I imagine, stand on its own, though from hearing it once I don't think it will stand with his best work. I'll be curious to hear the CD, though.

Numerous critics have pointed out that Sondheim's career is a strange one, the career of a man who seems to be writing for the wrong genre. (Terry Teachout has a good essay on whether Sondheim is really a writer of opera in his Reader.) Standard musical theatre audiences don't know what to make of Sondheim shows, because the standard criterion for whether a musical is any good is if you can hum the tunes. (A criterion satirized at one point in one of Sondheim's best scores, Merrily We Roll Along.) Sondheim's music is a little bit more complex than that, his lyrics a bit more unpredictable.

And yet, by working in a marginal art form, one which many people would hesitate even to label art (the purpose of most musicals is entertainment and spectacle), Sondheim has been able to both influence that art form and develop new styles of his own. Had he chosen to become a composer for concert halls and piano recitals, Sondheim would have done interesting work, but there are plenty of composers out there more skilled and talented in those realms than he. Had he chosen to give up music and instead develop his verbal skills by becoming a poet, Sondheim would have, again, done some interesting work, but probably nothing to put him at the forefront of modern poetry. He is, though, the greatest living practitioner of musical theatre, one who has influenced everyone who has come after him. The reason for his success has been his luck at finding a genre best suited to his own peculiar interests and proclivities.

Certain writers within different literary genres have found similar kinds of success. Patricia Highsmith, for example, would not have been half as interesting a writer had she not simultaneously used and fought against the structures of crime fiction to the point that even an essentially mainstream novel like The Tremor of Forgery would not be half as interesting had it not been written by someone with a crime writer's concerns. The same could be said of Sondheim's best work -- Sweeney Todd is a masterpiece because it starts from the basic foundations of musical theatre and adds in elements of opera, grand guignol theatre, modern and classical composition, and metafictional storytelling. It could not have been written by a "more serious" artist who decided to dabble in musical theatre -- but it was written by a musical theatre artist who knows more than just musical theatre.