BWW Review: ON SONDHEIM an Opinionated Guide by Ethan Mordden
There is no living artist as synonymous with the American musical theatre as Stephen Sondheim. His craft has been dissected by academics, artists, and, perhaps most eloquently of all, by the man himself. His oeuvre is expansive, and is by many accounts the foremost barometer of quality off of which all emerging composers are judged. Surprisingly, this prolificness somehow renders him more difficult to identify. Unlike many artists whose personality flavors their works, Sondheim consistently manages a disappearing act behind character, plot, and theme. In his new book "On Sondheim an Opinionated Guide," Ethan Mordden refutes the master's illusion by enforcing an at once candid and academically sound assessment of Sondheim as a unique personality creating art.
Mordden begins his introduction to Sondheim by introducing us to the Sondheim we rarely know, the child. While most literature will tell of Sondheim's legendary mentorship under Hammerstein, and others might take this opportunity to scandalize with anecdotes of personal life, Mordden focuses on making sense of the relationship between Sondheim and Hammerstein as two individual personalities. He surfaces intimate moments and personal facts in so far as they contextualize Sondheim's artistic development. Anecdotes on Sondheim's relationship between his divorced parents, the relationship between Oscar Hammerstein and his own children, as well as the precocious energies of the young artist are delivered as foundations for interpersonal chemistry that success in musical theatre demands. Additionally, Mordden also consistently reiterates Sondheim's homosexuality. This is a rare topic, given nearly none of Sondheim's characters exhibit homosexual desires. Mordden convincingly exhumes gay perspective in Sondheim's writing, as well as gay culture's ever present, if previously closeted, influence on New York's theatre culture.
The bulk of the book examines Sondheim's works, piece by piece, in chronological order of development. The examination consistently features a brief synopsis of the work, though beyond that Mordden appears to improvise his focus as to the whims of his opinions. In "Sunday..." he discusses to great lengths Sondheim's Tony loss, though in "A Funny Thing Happened..." developmental edits take center stage. This organic structure presents the nebulous nature of theatre development that Sondheim has waded through his whole career.
The finest moments of discussion come in his expansion of artistic credit. Instead of claiming Bernstein, Robbins, or Laurents "divas" or "difficult," and moving on, Mordden produces evidence, exhibiting these artists' inabilities to point to genius outside themselves, a trait, he is quick to point out, that does not reside in Sondheim. In the book, assistants, actors, and outside collaborators are given their due. Mordden recognizes that art, especially musical theatre, isn't made through computerized philosophy, but by people with processes, egos, and opinions. At many times, the craft process comes secon in his description of Sondheim's collaborators, with their abilities to work with others, and personalities being of more importance to his discussion. Such examination is placed on the composer too with Sondheim's quiet reserve, sense of loyalty, and lack of financial ambition being repeatedly harped upon as the artist shifts from piece to piece.
When discussing the works themselves Mordden nearly never criticizes them outright. While certain portions might "work" better than others, the fault is rarely, if ever, focused on Sondheim's composition. Instead, he dissects the work academically and in terms of goal. He often submits allusions to the work of Bertolt Brecht, despite the artist's protests against "Brechtian" aesthetic. His mention of development with artists Hal Prince and James Lapine, and the tangible shift that occurred from this switch as being founded in organic collaboration, rather than synthetic philosophy, is equally satisfying. Also, his categorization of the Sondheim oeuvre into different eras doesn't so much help us understand the work better, as it does contextualize Sondheim as a person in constant conversation with the world around him. It's no wonder Sondheim, a man obsessed with regrets, uncertainty, and loss of innocence, came to maturity in the 1970's, the age of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and a zeitgeist of disillusion.
With its focus on candid opinion, the book is unselfconsciously conversational in tone. Mordden takes his fervent admission of opinion as an opportunity to insert not just warmth and humor but a personal sense of historical priority. This work's academic worth is mostly anecdotal, an off the hand fleshing out of the development of 20th century musical theatrical. His bibliography is understandably more an expansion of the world he develops, rather than its foundation. For the casual connoisseur of musical theatre, and the academic looking for a break from the rigid scientization of entertainment, "On Sondheim an Opinionated Guide," cultivates intelligent and, best of all, personal discussion.