Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Opinionated and Complete

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Opinionated and Complete

Article excerpt


Mordden's new guide covers all of Sondheim's shows

Longtime Broadway chronicler Ethan Mordden devotes his latest book, On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide (Oxford University Press, $27.95), to an examination of how Stephen Sondheim "attained a position that had never existed before, that of philosopher-king of the American musical." While by no means a definitive overview of Sondheim's work, Mordfrequent insights make his book a worthwhile read.

As with his earlier volumes on Rodgers and Hammerstein, Flo Ziegfeld and Kurt Weill, his tone is more celebratory than critical. The usually outspoken writer allows for only a few bits of gossip - one involving Agnes de Mille's thoughts on Oscar Hammerstein II and another on drama critic Walter Kerr. Mordden mentions he was offered a chance to write a Sondheim biography in the early 1980s, but Sondheim refused to discuss his sexuality.

He does an excellent job connecting Sondheim to his mentors. On Sondheim recounts the well-known story of Hammerstein's initial syllabus to the adolescent Sondheim, asking him to write musicals based on a well-written play; a flawed play; a non-dramatic source such as a novel; and an original idea. Mordden trenchantly observes, "Amusingly, Hammerstein was running through the experiments himself - they became the first four Rodgers and Hammerstein titles" - Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and Allegro.

The major problem with the book? Simply, Mordden has already written two comprehensive one-volume histories of the American musical theatre (1983's Broadway Babies: The People who Made the American Musical and 2013's Anything Goes: A History of the American Musical Theatre) that discuss Sondheim's influence, as well as decade-by-decade Broadway books, the final four of which chronicle Sondheim shows. Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s and One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s even take their titles from Sondheim lyrics. At this point in his career, Mordden simply has little new to say about Sondheim's work. As a result, he sums up Sondheim's 18 stage works in a mere 118 pages. Into the Woods, probably Sondheim's most successful work, gets only four pages of analysis.

Opening On Sondheim Mordden promises, "I have endeavored to address all readers simultaneously, from the aficionado through the average theatergoer to the newcomer whose familiarity with the subject is still in process. …

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