Art Isn't Easy: The Achievement of Stephen Sondheim

Art Isn't Easy: The Achievement of Stephen Sondheim

Art Isn't Easy: The Achievement of Stephen Sondheim

Art Isn't Easy: The Achievement of Stephen Sondheim

Excerpt

America's greatest original contribution to the theater is the musical; yet the genre is too often dismissed as escapist entertainment. The reasons for the musical's disrepute are many. In its infancy, in the early years of this century, musical theater was unsophisticated. The plot line was thin. There was little attempt to integrate song and dance, and a basic formula of delight and diversion, beautiful girls, slapstick comics, and romantic ballads prevailed. The simplistic moralism, the naive optimism, the noble hero and simpering heroine were adopted, unaltered, from nineteenth-century melodrama. The commercial success of these pieces encouraged their fossilization into a predictable pattern of sensational extravaganzas. Artistic merit was deemed less important than financial gain. The musical was viewed solely as a commercial commodity.

Not all musicals stuck rigidly to this pattern. Some tried to introduce thematic depth and social relevance. Particularly in the fervent political climate of the 1930s, musicals began to reflect social anxieties. Kurt Weill realized that Broadway was the heart of American theater and adapted his political commitment to its idiom. His major works of the thirties-- Johnny Johnson (1936), a diatribe against war, written withPaul Green and produced by the Group Theatre; The Eternal Road (1937), a pageant of Jewish history written withFranz Werfel and directed byMax Reinhardt; and Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), in which, together with Maxwell Anderson, he attempted to expose the evils of fascism--present a sharp contrast to the work of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern. Harold Rome wrote a prounion lehrstuck in his revue Pins and Needles (1937), for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, and Marc Blitzstein The Cradle Will Rock . . .

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