Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Navigating in the Post-Sondheim Era

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Navigating in the Post-Sondheim Era

Article excerpt

Like others who have written for this series, I'm an avowed Sondheim fanatic, and I credit him as the biggest influence on my work. Of course, you probably have no idea who I am.

I am an emerging playwright/composer from Winnipeg, Canada, and a musical of mine, Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare, was recently given a high-profile professional debut in Toronto. The Sondheim Review sussed out that I was a Sondheim acolyte from a newspaper interview I did and invited me to contribute an article - hence these words you're reading now. However, as flattered as I was that the magazine would ask an abject rookie to write for it, for a while I hadn't a clue what I was going to write about.

But I figured that, since I am indeed a musical theatre rookie, I would write from a rookie's point of view. Specifically, I'd discuss the challenges of emerging writers developing their craft and their voice in the current musical theatre climate, which some critics have dubbed the "post-Sondheim" era.

Post-Sondheim? Composers like Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa have been described as post-Sondheim composers. But what does that mean? What are the prerequisites for entry into that club? Or is that just a term critics invented to sound smart? Well, for me, "post-Sondheim" is very real, something I'm grappling with as I claw my way to artistic maturity.

The term implies that history has been chopped in half and forever altered by the vision and work of a singular person. And though some may scoff at bestowing on Sondheim an importance normally reserved for great thinkers, leaders and maybe the odd messiah or two, nevertheless, he represents a great shift in the way musical theatre is used to tell stories. He certainly wasn't alone in bringing about this revolution, but he's the poster boy for it and with good reason.

So what docs this brave new post-Sondheim world look like? What are the fruits, the lessons learned? Everyone will have different answers, all very opinionated and controversial. So for what it's worth, here's my take on the post-Sondheim world: how it is and how it should be.

My ideal post-Sondheim world is one in which the spirit of innovation flourishes and where the heightened reality of musical theatre is tapped and experimented with in newways. But these experiments can be dicey. Music and theatre are powerful storytelling tools individually, but together they are especially potent and must be handled with care, diligence and craft. It's like plutonium: You can do great things with it if you know what you're doing, and you can make a huge mess if you don't.

Sondheim is among the most competent of the plutonium-handlers. He's not perfect, as he himself frequently admits, but when it comes to diligence and craft, you'd be hard pressed to find another so dedicated. Sondheim intimately understands the nature of musical theatre and over a lifetime has explored and exploited its quirks and idiosyncrasies. For example, he discovered that rhymes with dissimilar spellings ping more brightly than similarly spelled rhymes: rougher/ tougher is a pretty ordinary pair, but rougher/suffer somehow grabs the ear more. Such details speak to the sheer depth and thoroughness of his craft and something that I as an aspiring member of the Post-Sondheim Club wish to emulate.

But like all artists at the beginning of their careers, I have to walk the fine line between reverent emulation and outright parroting. Tom Kitt, the composer of next to normal, wrote (TSR, Summer 2012) of the difficult task of "creating one's own style while incorporating the lessons contained in [Sondheim's] work. Anything else will typically lead to half-baked imitation, a rabbit hole many composers are tempted to fall into at some point."

It's good to know I'm not alone at the edge of that rabbit hole. Sondheim's influence on contemporary musical theatre can only be a good thing. But I can't help but feel that some of us up-and-comers are learning the wrong lessons. …

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