Musical theater has changed radically over the past 30 years - something that not everyone's happy about - and no composer has done more innovating than Stephen Sondheim, though a number of people dislike the direction he has taken in recent years.
The current Broadway revival of Mr. Sondheim's 1962 "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and his 1994 Tony winner, "Passion" (now playing at Arlington's Signature Theatre) provide an illuminating contrast.
"Forum," a bald, bawdy comedy that parodies and plunders the conventions of Roman farce, is greeted by applause, and lots of it. Its star, Nathan Lane, works the audience into a warm, sustained and ultimately comic ovation before he says a word or sings a note. He just stands there, arms outstretched, and gets a flood of affection by winking at his own vanity and low aspirations. The audience is happy to wink back, as musical-comedy audiences have always been happy to do.
The dramatic, reflective "Passion," on the other hand, opens without an overture. It plunges right into "Happiness," a rapturous, suspiciously superficial love duet that articulates principles of serene pleasure that ultimately will be found wanting as a nearly fanatical passion wins the day. There is no intermission, and, more significantly, there are no breaks for applause until the show is over.
"Passion," unlike "Forum," doesn't court affection, doesn't want a cheer or a "Wow!" It wants the audience's sober attention.
That's the thing that puts some people off about Mr. Sondheim's later musicals, notably 1991's "Assassins" and all of his collaborations with librettist-director James Lapine (1984's "Sunday in the Park With George," the 1987 "Into the Woods," "Passion"). These are musicals by and for thinkers. "Sunday" takes pointillist painter Georges Seurat as a protagonist in order to explore the creative process. "Woods" deconstructs well-known fairy tales. "Assassins" drips with irony as it looks at the warped American dreams of people who have taken murderous aim at American presidents. "Passion" can be seen as an exercise in semantics. ("Happiness," the initial love song, is inferior to "love without reason/love without mercy/love without pride or shame" - as Giorgio sings in "No One Has Ever Loved Me.")
The challenge to the composer in these shows is not just to write songs about artists or fairy-tale characters, but to compose a score that sounds like art, or fairy tales - whatever the subject at hand might be. The score for "Sunday" uses notes as dots and daubs, with occasional long brush strokes of colorful melody. "Woods" is full of bright tunes that are often dominated by Mr. Sondheim's cleverly comic lyrics, and it climaxes with two gorgeous but subdued object lessons ("No One Is Alone," "Children Will Listen"). The passion in "Passion" is largely muted, at least by Broadway standards. Rather than exploding, it percolates.
* * *
Mr. Sondheim was known as a musical innovator well before his collaborations with Mr. Lapine. His "Company" in 1970 is regarded as the first "concept" musical, in which the songs and dances not only advance the action, but also illustrate the theme. The next year, his "Follies" dealt rather surreally with aging, using old Zeigfeld Follies stars and a crumbling theater as a metaphor. "A Little Night Music" (1973) was an all-waltz adaptation of an Ingmar Bergman film; "Pacific Overtures" (1976) appropriated Kabuki methods in examining Adm. Matthew Perry's 19th-century expedition to Japan.
These were uncommonly serious and complicated subjects for musicals - which, for most of their history, had been about boys getting girls and dancing gangs tapping and whirling without even needing a cogent dramatic reason. (Small wonder that when musicals became dramatically sensible, dancing fell by the wayside. …