Time to Remember: Stephen Sondheim at Oxford – an appreciation by Anthony Field

While the live theatre scene is paused, here is the first a series which aims to fill the gap. It delves into the past to remind us of certain interesting or memorable events. And what better way to start than with Stephen Sondheim. You’ll probably have seen that Stephen Sondheim turned 90 today, so a very Happy Birthday to you, Mr S!

Here’s an article from July 1990, in which ANTHONY FIELD looks back at the inaugural Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre – Stephen Sondheim, at the end of the first year of the establishment of a new Chair of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University, created by Cameron Mackintosh.

Focusing on Musicals in that year, Sondheim assembled an incredible range of performers, composers and lyricists. Participants included Patti Lupone, Jonathan Pryce, Julia McKenzie, Arthur Laurents, Tim Rice, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Burt Shevelove, John Weidman, Melvyn Bragg and Mark Steyn – almost all of whom have some input into the discussions outlined in this fascinating digest of some of the sessions. Enjoy the read!


The establishment of a Chair of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University in 1989/90 by Cameron Mackintosh was indeed an historic event. In particular, the appointment of Stephen Sondheim as the Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre was a first attempt to acknowledge that the musical has finally come of age. It is, after all, half a century since in the United States the Pulitzer prizes recognised Rodgers and Hammerstein alongside Arthur Miller.

A dozen absorbing sessions during this year at St Catherine’s College dealt with such varied subjects as the History of Musical Theatre, Lighting and Stage Design, Orchestration, Musical Direction and Sound Design, Producing in the Musical Theatre, the influence of performers on the writing and construction of musicals, the development of “sung-through” musicals as distinct from book musicals and finally two days of Master Classes presenting excerpts from musicals composed and written by Professor Sondheim’s leading students, sung and acted by members of the casts of LES MISERABLES, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and MISS SAIGON.

One of these musicals was an adaptation by Michael Bland of MEASURE FOR MEASURE which was significant to Jonathan Pryce who, as the lead in MISS SAIGON, had maintained that it was easier to keep a performance fresh and sustain the characterisation in a musical than in straight theatre. “Even after a year, when that orchestra starts it innervates you into a wonderful release of emotions. Whereas in Shakespeare and Chekhov I find myself counting the performances – even half a performance in the interval – in MISS SAIGON I find continually new and exciting things in the song and dance and characterisation. After a month in UNCLE VANYA I need a psychiatrist to stop me going mad and after six months in MISS SAIGON I asked a psychiatrist why I am not going mad”. Apparently, research is being undertaken into the discovery of confined areas of the brain used only for singing. During Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s research into conditions in Vietnam it was indicated that during their worst plight the population there often communicated only in song. Similarly, Nicholas Hytner’s production of GHETTO had illustrated how much past music had emanated from tragedy.

Performers such as Julia McKenzie (FOLLIES), Philip Quast (SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE) and Patti Lupone (LES MISERABLES) explained the problems of appearing in musicals that had not been written for them in the way that Broadway shows had been written for such performers as Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Gertrude Lawrence and Chita Rivera whose vocal ranges and acting capabilities were understood by the composers and conductors so that microphones were not required. Naturally the size and ambiance of theatre auditoria were significant factors in the success or failure of musicals and performers can be greatly affected by the transfer of a successful production from a suitable smaller space to an unsuitable larger one. “Hits are more fragile than flops!”.

The analysis of the writing and construction of musicals, like operas, varied from a composer like Sondheim who delivered a finished product, to Andrew Lloyd Webber who allowed changes by performers just as Ethel Merman had demanded of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.

Jonathan Pryce admitted he had written a few of the lyrics for MISS SAIGON including four extra lines required during an artist’s change (unfortunately these very lines were quoted by some critics to demonstrate that Alain Boublil’s lyrics were banal!). The most quoted lyrics from CATS were by Richard Stilgoe and not T S Eliot. Three important songs in LES MISERABLES were written at the request of the actors in rehearsal who felt that the through-action was too shallow without musical strengthening at those moments (STARS, BRING HIM HOME, and DOG EATS DOG).

The sessions with Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Tim Rice, John Weidman, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Melvyn Bragg were particularly illuminating. Kurt Weill had maintained that audiences don’t want to hear “Would you like a glass of white wine?” sung, and yet Mark Steyn pointed out that more drinks were poured in the libretto of ASPECTS OF LOVE than in the bars in the interval. It was generally agreed that there was a problem of having to sing basic information although there appears to be a current vogue whereby the public are flocking to musicals without dialogue (LES MISERABLES, MISS SAIGON). Schönberg and Boublil agreed about the benefit of not having been nurtured with an upbringing in musicals which were not a tradition in France. Thus, they had to create their own style whereby there is a perfect synthesis of all the elements – music, word, direction and design. They had evolved a personal method of working as an integral whole, so much so that if they agreed to change one bar they needed almost to change the whole libretto.

In contrast, Tim Rice, whilst expressing admiration for the unified writing of Schönberg and Boublil, found it difficult to sit down with a composer and write with a blank page in front of them. He required the restriction of eight musical notes- the strict boundary within which he had to find the few words to convey what had to be said. He suggested that while composers needed to be able to “wander off”, lyricists needed discipline. Sondheim insisted that content dictates form and considered that to sing the banalities of exposition was like an endless chocolate sauce smothering a scene. Tim Rice agreed that it was easier to sing “give me another country” (EVITA) than “pass me the salt” (ASPECTS OF LOVE). Arthur Laurents confirmed that alternating scenes without music and scenes with music helped to pace the action. Sondheim suggested that a composer wrote musical fragments on and on until sometimes a song developed as in WOZZECK, in contrast to CARMEN where songs alternated with other songs. He did not consider this was the same with SWEENEY TODD where he kept the under-scoring going continuously to prevent the plot from appearing silly. His next musical is ASSASSINS with a book by John Weidman (PACIFIC OVERTURES) and would require a drop in tension achieved by contrasting speech and song. He cited WEST SIDE STORY as being much more effective than if the street gangs had sung all the time. Burt Shevelove had pointed out the wisdom of Plautus in writing one-hour long farces because longer ones become wearisome. Hence the songs in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM give you time to catch your breath since the action accumulates and becomes so fast that songs are demanded by the text.

The enormous craftsmanship required in the creation of a musical was constantly evoked. GYPSY had made enormous demands on the creative team. Originally Ethel Merman had insisted on stopping the show with ROSE’S TURN to take a bow since it was clear that audiences wanted to applaud her. However, in giving them the opportunity to release themselves they did not give proper attention to the important last scene. Accordingly, when Angela Lansbury played it in London it was arranged by Arthur Laurents for Rose to continue taking bows in a spotlight until the applause finished and the spot died and then she would go on taking bows in silence again and again so that it dawned on the audience that she was having a nervous breakdown and the daughter then became the mother, and the mother the daughter.

All the composers and lyricists insisted that they simply wrote what they themselves liked. Only time would tell if any of the works would out-live them. The great operas of previous centuries were largely forgotten and the present repertoire of opera houses was composed of the few survivors. In Beethoven’s time, Ludwig Spohr was the most popular composer – the public flocked to his FAUST (1818) and JESSONDA (1823) both of which have completely disappeared, but not Beethoven.

Within a week of Professor Sondheim’s Master Classes, John Maucieri, the Musical Director of Scottish Opera, delivered a superb speech in Glasgow to the International Society of Professional Arts Administrators in which he referred to Britain’s “hardening of the categories”. He maintained that LES MISERABLES was the popular opera of the 1990s just as Puccini’s works were a century ago. Similarly, Professor Sondheim saw no difference between PORGY AND BESS, PARSIFAL and WEST SIDE STORY. Ricordi had marketed Puccini’s operas with ice-cream boys on bicycles whistling the popular arias, just as disc jockeys now play the songs of MISS SAIGON. The great composers we revere today were, in their time, writing to audience demand like craftsmen.

What is of great concern is that the University academics have not yet indicated that they are prepared to enter into serious debate about musicals with composers and conductors such as Leonard Bernstein, John Maucieri and Stephen Sondheim. They owe it to this new Chair to be ready to assess musicals using the same criteria as for other art forms.

What we need to do is to analyse why a certain formation of notes (B, G, B, G, A, F, G, D, G, D, F) which make up “Un bel di, vedremo levarsi un fil de fumo” is regarded as great art whereas a similar group of notes which form “The Last Night of the World” is “just a musical”. Why is the libretto of MADAME BUTTERFLY (“One fine day we’ll notice a thread of smoke arising”) part of operatic history to be studied at Oxford but the libretto of MISS SAIGON (“A cry that tells us love goes on and on”) simply part of a West End “show”? If academics maintain one cannot dissect an opera in this way and it is the composite whole that matters, what about the composite whole of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at the National Theatre?

John Maucieri laid a great deal of the blame for the present situation in music education and the gulf between art and society at the door of critics, particularly those who ignore popular concerts and those who side with the composer against the listener. Perhaps, he wondered, they are popular because no critics were there to tell you whether to like it or not. They followed Arnold Schoenberg’s definition “If it’s popular it isn’t art”. Yet the visual arts have never split into “popular” and “classical”. The British music categorisations never cease to make one wonder: “Mainly for pleasure”, Music in our Time”, “Classics for Pleasure” (as distinct, no doubt, from “Classics for Pain”?). Further, music critics do not cover the enormous range of music constantly composed for films and television. Bernard Hermann’s score for Hitchcock’s PSYCHO went to the very essence of the film, and similarly Elizabeth Parker’s score for David Attenborough’s THE WORLD AROUND US.

Only rarely do critics acknowledge film scores such as the Sir Arthur Bliss music for THINGS TO COME or the WEST SIDE STORY dances by Leonard Bernstein. Certainly the music of Michel Legrand and Henry Mancini is ignored and, furthermore, prejudicial terminology splits even more the popular field: Ragtime, Jazz, Swing, Bebop, Hillbilly, Blues, Rock, Country, Folk and so on. Try looking for various works in major shops. Apart from Rock and Classics nearly everything else is under “Easy Listening” or “Orchestral (Miscellaneous)”!

Finally, if time is a factor in that TOSCA has been around long enough to have become “great art”, does this mean that OKLAHOMA! only has to wait 100 years for similar recognition? One is bound to recall that the first performance of MADAME BUTTERFLY at La Scala Milan on February 17th 1904 was “a complete failure – one of the great fiascos of operatic history” according to Kobbe.

Next year (1990/91) the Cameron Mackintosh Chair of Contemporary Theatre turns its attention to Drama when the Visiting Professor will be Ian McKellen.


Article reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of Anthony Field.

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