|By Michael Coveney|
Sondheim sounds off
Date: 5 March 2012
Stephen Sondheim is depressed by the West End. "When I scan what's on," he told The Times on Saturday, "my heart sinks into my boots." As on Broadway, he sees on Shaftesbury Avenue nothing but "commercial crap" which must be slightly upsetting for the authors of Billy Elliot, Matilda, Chicago and Les Miserables, not to mention Alan Ayckbourn, Alan Bennett, Zach Braff and the estate of Noel Coward.
It's all very well to dismiss Wicked as "an event" rather than a show, but there is a danger here that Sondheim's own high standards of operation have seeped into a cul de sac of critical opinion when it comes to looking at what's around him. I probably dislike Legally Blonde as much as he does, but I'm realistic enough to understand its commercial appeal and also the necessity of that appeal.
For if the West End was full of Sondheim shows, the place would be dead. But presumably, in his eyes, the West End list is salvaged by the arrival next Saturday of his acclaimed Sweeney Todd from last year's Chichester Festival Theatre.
Sondheim is also on record as saying that Floyd Collins by Tina Landau and Adam Guettel (the grandson of Richard Rodgers), newly revived at the Southwark Playhouse, is the best musical of the past 25 years. It's certainly very good, but there's also a very good reason why it's never been presented on Broadway and is unlikely to transfer from the Southwark vaults to the West End.
Instead of transporting an audience to a higher plane of delirium, an ecstasy of musical theatre heaven, Floyd Collins keeps you pinned back in your seat thinking hard and seriously about what you are watching and listening to. Finally, like most of Sondheim's own musical theatre pieces, it shuts out the audience, denies them access. It's trying too hard to be art.
Now, this may be a very good thing. And there are days when I consider, say, London Road, or Sondheim's own Passion (which I really can't stand), and I think that this is the way forward. It may well be the way forward for Sondheim, for some critics and for musical theatre aficionados. But it's the exit sign for the popular audience.
Lyn Gardner of the Guardian said to me at the Southwark Playhouse on Friday night that Floyd Collins is a musical for people who don't like musicals. I'm always puzzled by this kind of statement (people who say they don't like musicals never think twice about going to the opera) and challenged her on the definition of "musicals" that people do like.
"Oh," she said airily, "Singin' in the Rain and Andrew Lloyd Webber, those kind of musicals." I know what she means, but the lofty dismissal of anything that might be too obviously pleasure-spreading in a large popular audience always carries with it the short-circuiting of serious critical appraisal, certainly in the case of Lloyd Webber.
It's interesting that the Critics' Circle will on Friday give a lifetime achievement award to Sondheim, who represents, in their eyes, critical respectability, whereas Andrew Lloyd Webber, who's had infinitely more success with the British public, and has never been taken seriously by the critics (despite the fact that he shares a birth date with Sondheim), never even makes the short list in those discussions.
Ah, but success cannot be equated with artistic respectability, the cry goes up. And we hit the wall. The more difficult and more recherche, the cleverer, something is, the more respectable and award-prone it becomes in the eyes of the critics.
Actually, I'm not alone in thinking that Lloyd Webber's score for Love Never Dies is one of the finest of his illustrious career. I was listening to a recording of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana the other day, and it's as good as that. But it's clever, too, in embracing other, modern musical idioms in a way that Sondheim, perhaps to his credit, always eschews.
The Book of Mormon? "A fun college show," sniffs Sondheim and he may well be right. But he may well be wrong, as he is wrong (and curiously bitter) about so many other things and people in his provocative annotated collection of lyrics, a publication, incidentally, that has made him odds-on favourite to win this week's memorial Sheridan Morley prize for theatrical biography.
The only point of awards, says the sagacious composer, is the money. Has anyone yet told him that the SM prize only comes with £2,000? Well, at least that should buy him a few West End theatre tickets to actually see the shows he's so pompously dismissive about.
Oh, and he's wrong about awards, too. The point of awards is to give wider public attention to deserving artistic projects or artists, and they're always most effective when the project or the artist really needs the recognition (or indeed the money). Giving Sondheim another award is like giving an obese man another chocolate cup cake. He's had enough already, and one or two more won't make any difference to anyone.
- by Michael Coveney
Any opinions expressed above do not represent the view of Whatsonstage.com nor any of its staff or contributors beyond the bylined author.
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|Oh good god, another hack writer bitterly reporting on Sondheim's alleged bitterness--it's just as infuriating as it is ironic, but I digress. Clearly you lack the compassion, union of logos and ethos, and sophisticated ear and open mind to consider Mr. Sondheim's canon--I get that a show that makes its audience realize how mediocre their minds are might be...difficult and upsetting for said mediocre souls, but really, don't deride great art just because you don't understand it or take the time to appreciate not understanding. For all of you cretins, Sondheim DOES have an educated opinion. And just because his work in some ways surpasses Legally Blonde or Wicked does not make those shows worthless----but his work is a vital part of the theater. "Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." I would say I'm sorry for the aggression but I'm not; ignorance and idiocy are particularly reprehensible in matters of taste. Mr. Coveney, I hope you enjoy a lifetime of Grizabella's yowling in your ear. - EJH||19 Sep 12|
|I have to agreed with Mr. Sondheim to a large extent. Both the London and Broadway stages are not exactly inspiring. I come to London each year and this year I find that I am going to be hard pushed to fill my evenings with theatre going. I hate to say it but I have not seen anything at the National in a number of years that was worth my time (the last play I saw that that was worthy of a comment was 'England - nice people',,,, or something like that ,,,, it was the story of Bethnal Green and quite funny - yes, I was born in Bethnal Green! Wanna make somefin of it?). There are a few plays in London worth seeing, but it is THOSE DREADFUL MUSICALS that ruin the place. I went to 'Wicked' - absolute rubbish - who can remember ONE song from it? All I recall of it was crescendo after crescendo and feeling that I had sat through a lecture in political correctness. 'The Lion King' - one can leave after the animals walk across the stage - I would have preferred that to have happened without that awful song. 'Matilda' - the head mistress was good. 'Two govs etc' WAS funny and brilliantly presented. I WAS very very surprised to find that both 'We will rock you' as well as 'Blood Brothers' were both entertaining and well presented - by then the latter was written by the terrific Willie Rushton (have I spelt his name correctly?). As for 'Love never dies' - it lacked 'flash' - ALW should write his musicals and then allow others to present them and stay in the background. The Australian version had all of the vigour and energy that the London production lacked. I will grant 'Mama Mia' on stage was much better than the film, but I had to run out of the theatre prior to the finale - I would have been unable to tolerate all of those Europeans and Japanese dancing and clapping 'out of time'.
As for Sondheim musicals: not all are great - I am sure he is aware of that!!! I would like to know if 'Follies' is coming back to London. Now why wasn't the recent Broadway production brought over immediately? Mind you, they could forget to collect Bernadette Peters - Britain has enough talent to fill her shoes.
Don't get me started now on the rubbish on Broadway at present: Broadway enjoys paying has-been 'faded stars' to appear so that the box office can ask $120 a seat and the large companies are only too happy to cough up that kind of loot for their clients (it is tax deductible remember).
Oh where are the likes of 'Showboat' and the Cole Porter wit, I ask myself? - Execelsior||19 Jul 12|
|As I said before, I very much like Lloyd Webber, up and including to Sunset, but you do him no favours with your relentless raving about him and slamming of everyone else. Have you ever given less than 4 or 5 stars to ANY of his shows? You're a joke, Mr Coveney. No wonder you no longer review for an actual newspaper.
- RS||17 Apr 12|
|Birthdate/birthday - yes they're the same... - Eric||12 Mar 12|
|Mr Hewitt, the answer is yes, probably. He often comments about shows that goes to see and likes, for example Next to Normal and Floyd Collins, but refuses to comment on shows that he doesn't like, out of respect. The commercial crap comment was a general but even I was surprised by it. He is ubdoubtedly getting a little bit crabby in his old age. Nonetheless he does have an educated opinion. That is undeniable. He's lived the last 75 years working in musical theatre. He knows what he's talking about. His books on lyrics aren't bitter, just openly critical. And the writer he's most critical about is himself. Anyone who truly cares about craft and song writing will understand where he's coming from. Anyone looking to be just entertained will of course be offended. Cest la vie. - Mr Jai||11 Mar 12|
|Some one told Sondheim much too early in his career that he was a 'genius' and he believed them. He became "serious" and denigrating. His books on lyrics in which he build up his 'genius' while taking away from the achievements of others made me very sad that a person of such talent could only justify his lack of commercial success by dragging down others instead of acknowledging how his art is built on the backs of others equally or more talented than he. He cuts a sad figure to me but then I'm one of those who thinks that as well as making one think theatre should also entertain. Or it should just entertain. But entertain is the key and those musicals that entertain, that theatre that entertains, will succeed irrespective of the opinions of Mr S - Shows||08 Mar 12|
|In fact, Sondheim has commented publicly before on how impressed he was with aspects of "Billy Elliot". I don't think he was denigrating most of the shows you list, but the fact that most of them are revivals or have been playing for years. What excites him, I think, are new works. And that's what there's very little of. How many of this generations Ayckbourns, Bennetts, and Cowards are getting their shows produced on the West End? That's what's depressing. - Mark Horowitz||06 Mar 12|
|"Andrew Lloyd Webber...has never been taken seriously by the critics, despite the fact that he shares a birth date with Sondheim." What's his birth date got to do with it? Anyway, he won the Critics Circle award for The Beautiful Game, so he has been taken seriously. - Philip Godfrey||05 Mar 12|
|I for one kinda agree..... West end for musicals is kinda depressing After seeing Follies on Broadway's and Donmars celebration of Sondheim last year I agree the west end is very safe and boring with the exception of Matilda and crazy for you, when people do take a chance like the fantastic Betty Blue eyes it closes as doesnt have the support of the public..Things are very safe and shame producers don't take a risk.. Thank god for Ragtime this summer and Merrily we roll along later in the year.. - Jed||05 Mar 12|
|How to write an article about nothing - and fairly typical of Mr Coveney's shallow output.
So, Stephen Sondheim has tastes in theatre that don't coincide with those of Mr Coveney? Shock, horror!
I know which one I'd be more interested in hearing.
And 'Love Never Dies' is as good a score as 'Cavalleria Rusticana', Eh??
... and I suppose'Cats' is on par with Mozart's Requiem ? - but I digress...
The real travesty here is that someone is paid real money to write such peevish, spiteful and ill-informed twaddle in the name of theatre criticism.
- Gary Dooley||05 Mar 12|
|I think he is just a little jealous because his shows are starting to become a little old hat, whilst Lloyed webber is getting bums on seats consistently. I almost feel a little sorry for him - Michael mitchell||05 Mar 12|
|Completely agree with this article. I do enjoy Sweeney Todd and Company, but when I want to be uplifted, Sondheim is not what I turn to! Then again I'd rather watch Into The Woods than one of those 'jukebox musicals'.
Also agree with your comment on Love Never Dies. One of my favourite scores and so underrated!! Hopefully there will be a revival at some point in the future. - Harriet Reed||05 Mar 12|
|A very good article. And you are not alone, Mr. Coveney. - SH||05 Mar 12|
|Has Mr Sondheim seen any of the shows he says is commercial crap? I think one should have an educated opinion when trashing others hard work! - Mr Hewitt||05 Mar 12|
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