In March, London’s Royal Opera House announced plans to produce Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. This will be the first musical ever to be performed by the company on its main stage at Covent Garden. In explaining the decision, Antonio Pappano, the company’s musical director, said he wanted to “open the windows,” adding:
I am not interested in this old argument about what is opera and what is musical theater. Often it’s so intense and serious here, but it is O.K. for this opera house to have fun, too.
The defensiveness of Pappano’s tone says more about Covent Garden in particular than about the state of opera in general. Sweeney Todd, after all, has been a fixture in American opera houses and concert halls ever since the New York City Opera staged it in 1984, five years after it opened on Broadway. The New York Philharmonic performed Sweeney Todd in concert three years ago, and the show was presented at Washington’s Eisenhower Opera House last summer as part of the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration. Earlier this season, Chicago’s Lyric Opera took Sweeney Todd into its repertoire, engaging the celebrated Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel to sing the title role.
Nor is Sweeney Todd the only Sondheim show to have entered the repertoire. A Little Night Music, Sondheim’s 1973 musical version of the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, has also been successfully produced by many companies, most recently this spring by the New York City Opera.1
Moreover, few American theatergoers would be likely to suppose that the way for an opera company to display its populist sentiments is to produce Sweeney Todd, or any other Sondheim musical. To the contrary, Sondheim is widely viewed as a coterie artist whose work appeals only to a small band of loyalists, and while most drama critics admire his work, there are several dissenters. (Prominent among them is Mark Steyn, who has called Sondheim “the man who knows more than anyone else about musicals except how to write one where you don’t notice how much he knows.”) Those who dislike his songs dismiss them as tuneless and cold, and even some of his most fervent admirers find his musical language forbiddingly complex.
Whatever the truth of these criticisms, Sondheim’s popular appeal is demonstrably narrower than that of the great Broadway songwriters of the past. Only one of his songs, “Send in the Clowns,” has become a standard, and the original productions of most of his shows have lost money. At the same time, Broadway itself is now far less hospitable to musically challenging scores, and in recent years a growing percentage of the new musicals opening in New York have been “jukebox” shows, such as Contact, Mamma Mia! and Movin’ Out, whose undemanding “scores” are pieced together from pre-existing pop songs. It is hard to think of a single memorable song of the past half-dozen years that was first heard on a Broadway stage.
Given all this, one inevitably wonders whether certain of Sondheim’s shows might indeed belong in opera houses rather than on Broadway. Sondheim himself makes no secret of thinking otherwise. He even affects not to like opera, and has never written a work intended for opera-house production. Still, the alacrity with which Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music have been taken up by major opera companies in America and elsewhere raises the question of whether they might really have been, all along, modern operas in disguise.
The question cannot be answered without first attempting to define two famously slippery terms. To take a pair of radically contrasting examples, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is definitely an opera, and Annie Get Your Gun is no less definitely a musical. One obvious difference between them is that Annie Get Your Gun is a play with spoken dialogue into which simple closed-form songs have been interpolated, whereas Tristan is a quasi-symphonic work in which every word is sung.
Admittedly, this broad-gauge distinction does not hold true in all cases: Carmen, a French opéra-comique, and The Magic Flute, a German Singspiel, both contain spoken dialogue and simple, song-like arias. In that respect, both of these operas would seem to have more in common with Annie Get Your Gun than with Tristan, and it is worth noting that Oscar Hammerstein II rewrote the libretto of Carmen and successfully brought it to Broadway in 1943 as Carmen Jones.2 Similarly, Michael John LaChiusa, a Broadway composer who contends that his stage works are musicals rather than operas, regards The Magic Flute, which ranks among the highest and most profound expressions of the operatic ideal, as a “prototype” of the modern musical.
Yet Carmen and The Magic Flute, different though they are from Tristan, also have something essential in common with it. They are scores, unified musico-dramatic structures whose separate parts serve a larger theatrical end. By contrast, nearly all the songs in Annie Get Your Gun are free-standing entities that can be sung on their own without reference to the show and its plot. And while the arias of Bizet and Mozart are fully as hummable as the songs of Irving Berlin, they aspire, like the music of Wagner, to a far higher level of technical sophistication and—lest we forget—emotional intensity. Not all musicals are comedies, but few if any are tragedies.
In addition, opera differs from musical comedy in that its theatrical effects are almost always nonverbal in origin. An opera libretto is a dramatic situation brought to life by music. To be sure, words are sung (or spoken) by the performers, but their literary quality is irrelevant. All that matters is the quality of the music and the plausibility of the situation it illustrates. Even in an opéra-comique or Singspiel, the performers usually spend much more time singing than speaking. In a musical, most of the book is spoken, so it must be engaging enough in its own right to hold the audience’s attention.
Musical-comedy singing is also more conversational in style than operatic singing: the words of a song must be as memorable as the music (though their relative importance will vary from song to song). That is why relatively few opera-goers know the words to the Liebestod in Tristan und Isolde, whereas most theatergoers know the lyrics to all their favorite show tunes.
Where do the musicals of Stephen Sondheim rank on this continuum? A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Company (1970), and Follies (1971), the first four Broadway shows for which he wrote both words and music, are all essentially non-operatic in structure. Instead, they are book-driven, and the songs and ensembles, though distinctive in style, are nonetheless rooted in the conventional musical-comedy practice that Sondheim learned from his youthful apprenticeship with Oscar Hammerstein II.
Even so, two things set these works well apart from other musicals of the 60’s and 70’s. The first is Sondheim’s compositional technique. Unlike most of the American songwriters who preceded him, he had extensive classical training—he studied with the avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt—and was strongly influenced by the harmonic usages of the French impressionists. As a result, his songs are typically based on undulating chordal figurations over which he superimposes melodies painstakingly built up out of short, angular motivic fragments.3 Listeners familiar with the music of Debussy and Ravel (or with modern jazz) will hear nothing abstruse or elusive in this approach, but anyone whose knowledge of music is limited to the ballads of such Broadway composers as Berlin or Richard Rodgers, with their long, seemingly self-generating melodic lines, will likely find Sondheim’s songs to be insufficiently tuneful.4
No less individual are his lyrics—and the sentiments they express. Though Sondheim’s virtuosity is not without precedent (few of his elaborate rhymes would sound out of place in a lyric by Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter), his ambivalence toward love is all but unique in American songwriting. Ambivalence, he has said, is his “favorite thing to write about, because it’s the way I feel, and I think the way most people feel.” Perhaps, but it is also arguably the main reason why his work has never become popular. Even Lorenz Hart, the most disillusioned of American lyricists, left no doubt of his fervent, even desperate longing for the condition about which he wrote with such self-lacerating wit. Not so Sondheim, whose best songs are more often than not written from the point of view of a fearful, alienated man unable to open himself up to the prospect of romantic love.
Sometimes, as in “Being Alive,” the finale of Company, he suggests that true love necessarily entails a near-intolerable sacrifice of personal autonomy: “Someone to need you too much,/Someone to know you too well,/Someone to pull you up short,/To put you through hell.” At other times, as in the title song of Anyone Can Whistle, he portrays it as desirable but impossible: “It’s all so simple:/Relax, let go, let fly./So someone tell me, why/Can’t I?”
Sondheim’s perspective on love, which is as distinctively “modern” as is his musical language, constitutes a near-complete break with the romantic optimism of the American musical-comedy tradition. In his next show, A Little Night Music, he moved still farther from that tradition, composing an operetta-like musical about the narrowing horizons of middle age. Though it is a bittersweet comedy with a happy ending à la Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (from which Sondheim quotes directly in “A Weekend in the Country,” the brilliantly constructed first-act finale), A Little Night Music is ultimately no less bleak in its view of romantic possibility than its immediate predecessors, Company and Follies. It is, however, far more musically elaborate and demanding than any of Sondheim’s previous shows, so much so as to approach in places the complexity of a full-scale opera.
Two things, however, prevent A Little Night Music from attaining true operatic status. One is the vocal writing: two of the show’s leading roles were originally intended for performance by nonsinging actresses. The other is the large amount of spoken dialogue, which many opera singers are unable to negotiate effectively.5 Still, it is obvious that Sondheim was interested in moving beyond the narrow expressive compass of the old-fashioned Broadway musical, and in his next show he would do so decisively.
The opening scene of Sweeney Todd is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most spectacular dramatic coups. An organ fills the theater with sober, Bach-like sounds. The ugly shriek of a factory whistle cleaves the air, and, as its echo dies away, the orchestra begins murmuring nervously. Then, one by one, the members of the chorus emerge from the near-silence, each singing a single ominous sentence: “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd./His skin was pale and his eye was odd./He shaved the faces of gentlemen/Who never thereafter were heard of again.”
So begins Sondheim’s macabre musical version of Christopher Bond’s play about a demented barber who slits his clients’ throats, then uses their flesh as filling for the tastiest meat pies in London. By his own account, Sondheim’s immediate reaction upon seeing the play for the first time was to wonder whether it might serve as “the basis of a good operatic piece.” The stage director John Dexter, who had been encouraging Sondheim to write “a through-composed piece” and was familiar with the theatrical requirements of opera, replied unhesitatingly that it would be “perfect.” Six years later, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, billed as “a musical thriller,” opened at Broadway’s Uris Theater, where it ran for 558 performances, 434 more than the original production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
The question of what Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler had written thus seemed to have been answered more or less straightforwardly: Sweeney Todd was a musical. But just as Porgy and Bess defied such easy categorization, so did Sweeney Todd refuse to fit into any known theatrical pigeonhole. Parts of it were comic, but in a manner so black as to recall Jonathan Swift at his most ferocious. Nor did Sondheim and Wheeler spare their audiences anything in the way of horror: Sweeney Todd ends with a stageful of dead bodies and dazed survivors. The score, as Sondheim had promised, was “through-composed,” with a minimum of spoken dialogue and a maximum of richly expansive music greater in force and intensity than anything that had previously been heard on a Broadway stage. No other musical, not even the similarly operatic Porgy and Bess or Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (for which Sondheim had written the lyrics) had pushed so hard against the outer limits of the genre.
True, for all its self-evident sophistication, the sources of Sweeney Todd were wholly popular. Bond’s original play was a modernized version of a 19th-century melodrama that had once played in theaters all over England; Sondheim had gone to see it because it was the closest thing he could find to the grisly spectacles of Paris’s Théâtre du Grand Guignol, the long-popular company that specialized in one-act horror plays written for the sole purpose of scaring tourists. And once he started writing the score to Sweeney Todd, he found himself drawn to the music of Bernard Herrmann, the film composer whose scores for such thrillers as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and John Brahm’s Hangover Square were at once ripely romantic and psychologically unsettling. “It’s an open secret,” Sondheim has written, “that the music for Sweeney is in homage to Herrmann’s harmonic language.”
All this notwithstanding, Sweeney Todd is rooted in a style of music drama far more characteristic of the opera house than of Broadway or Hollywood. Just as its tightly knit ensembles and Debussyan harmonies (“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” contains near-verbatim quotations from La Mer and Nuages) speak of a wider musical awareness, so do its theatrical methods imply a seriousness of purpose alien to the musical-comedy idiom of Sondheim’s youth.
It is not merely the lurid subject matter that sets Sweeney Todd apart, though that alone would have been sufficient to put it far outside the ambit of conventional musical comedy. Major characters may have died violent deaths in other musicals, among them Oklahoma!, Carousel, and West Side Story, but what was unique was the savage irony with which Sondheim killed them off. The first-act finale, “A Little Priest,” is a rollicking waltz whose lyrics pay sardonic homage to the social utility of cannibalism: “The history of the world, my sweet,/Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” Similarly, the show’s most tender ballad, “Not While I’m Around,” is sung by Toby, an unsuspecting street urchin, to Mrs. Lovett, an amoral monster who at that very moment is scheming to have him killed.
Most disturbing of all is “Epiphany,” an overtly operatic mad scene in which Sweeney dedicates himself to the sacred cause of mass murder. Wracked with grief over the death of Lucy, his wife, he comes to the horrific conclusion that “we all deserve to die” and vows to bring about that end by slashing the throats of his customers, one by one: “I will have vengeance,/I will have salvation! . . /I’m alive at last/And I’m full of joy!”
Nor is the blackness of Sondheim’s “comedy” merely cynical. Sweeney is a genuinely tragic figure, a man driven mad by his longing for revenge not merely on those individuals who have wronged him but on an entire society that he takes to be poisoned by hypocrisy: “Swing your razor wide, Sweeney!/ Hold it to the skies!/ Freely flows the blood of those/ Who moralize!” Yet as he looks into the abyss and laughs, he fails to see that the terrible logic of “we all deserve to die” must in time lead him to kill not only the wicked but the innocent—and even, in the end, those whom he loves most.
Such emotional extremism is the stuff of grand opera, of Rigoletto and Otello and Don Giovanni, and a few of those who saw Sweeney Todd in 1979 knew as much. On opening night, the veteran theater critic Harold Clurman spotted Schuyler Chapin, then the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, in the lobby of the Uris Theater. Chapin later told Meryle Secrest, Sondheim’s biographer:
He came charging across the lobby at me and said, “Why didn’t you put this on at the Met?” And I replied, “I would have put it on like a shot, if I’d had the opportunity.” And I would have. There would have been screams and yells and I wouldn’t have given a damn. Because it is an opera. A modern American opera.
Once again, Sondheim affects to differ with this appraisal. For him, Sweeney Todd is not an opera but, rather, “a black operetta in feeling and form.” The distinction is a finicky one, and not fully convincing: if Sweeney Todd is something other than an opera, then what is Carmen?6 In any case, such distinctions have grown less relevant now that the rampant hybridizing of postmodern polystylism has come to dominate art forms of all kinds. Besides, regardless of whether Sweeney Todd is a true opera, it is without doubt one of the 20th century’s most powerful and thought-provoking pieces of musical theater.
Never again would Sondheim write a work so frankly operatic in style and scale as Sweeney Todd, though two of his later shows, Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and Passion (1994), make similar use of operatic techniques and might also benefit from opera-house production.7 Sondheim’s continuing reluctance to abandon Broadway is undoubtedly rooted in his dislike of the old-fashioned operatic production style of his youth, with its enervating emphasis on singing over drama. In addition, and somewhat self-contradictorily, he seems to feel both that his talents are too good for musical shows and that the shows themselves are not good enough. “I’m serious,” he has said, “but I’m serious in an art [form] that is barely worth being called one. There’s a case to be made for ‘Am I wasting my time in the long run?’ ”
The first of these objections—the one about production style—is puzzling, since there are any number of medium-sized American opera companies in which theatrically serious productions are mounted as a matter of course. Foremost among them is the New York City Opera, whose artistic director, Paul Kellogg, intends to make Sondheim’s shows a regular part of that company’s repertoire.8 Moreover, it is now commonplace for operatdcally trained singers to be at home with popular music, and much of Sondheim’s music could only profit from being interpreted by such artists.
The question of whether he is working in a medium unworthy of his talents is harder to answer. It may make more sense to say instead that his best work is too serious in tone to appeal to the same audience that flocks to such latter-day Broadway hits as Mel Brooks’s The Producers. If this is in fact the case, then it is probable that his shows will flourish only to the extent that adventurous opera companies take them into their repertories (festival-style undertakings such as the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration being by definition exceptional).
To be sure, some of Sondheim’s musicals are hopelessly ill-suited to opera-house production. While Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music have long since proved their viability, a show like Company, with its extended dialogue scenes and pop-flavored score, is no more operatic than Annie Get Your Gun or Guys and Dolls, and would sound no less absurd when performed by classically trained singers in a large house.
As for his more musically ambitious scores, Sondheim himself may have predicted their eventual fate in observing pithily that “when [Gian Carlo Menotti’s] The Medium and The Telephone were done on Broadway, they were Broadway musicals; when they were done in opera houses, they were operas.” In recalling the short-lived vogue of the 30’s and 40’s for Broadway productions of such then-new operas as The Medium and Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts (a vogue distantly echoed in the Baz Luhrmann-directed version of Puccini’s La Bohème currently running on Broadway), Sondheim reminds us that his are not the only important musical-theater works that have initially presented problems of definition. Should Sunday in the Park with George and Passion be successfully taken up by opera houses, then they, too, will become operas, and Stephen Sondheim will be recognized as one of the notable opera composers of the 20th century, whether he likes it or not.
For the moment, though, we are left with just two Sondheim “operas,” of which the first, A Little Night Music, is problematic not only because of its heavy reliance on spoken dialogue but because of its characteristically ambivalent tone. The emotional power of comic opera—indeed, of all “serious” comedy—arises when the dramatic conflicts driving the plot are resolved through romantic reconciliation. The sense of restored unity this reconciliation produces in the viewer is what makes the “happy endings” of comic operas like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro or Verdi’s Falstaff seem earned rather than imposed.
The light-hearted ending of A Little Night Music, by contrast, is at odds with the anti-romantic sentiments expressed in such characteristic songs—compelling in themselves—as “Every Day a Little Death” (“Love’s disgusting, love’s insane/A humiliating business/Oh, how true”) or “The Miller’s Son”:
It’s a very short fetch
From the push and the whoop
To the squint and the stoop and
It’s not much of a stretch
To the cribs and the croup
And the bosoms that droop and
After such knowledge, what reconciliation?
Sweeney Todd, by contrast, does not pretend to be a comedy (despite the fact that much of it is bitingly funny). Here, at last, Sondheim has accepted the tragic implications of his worldview and produced a score whose “operatic” anguish and violence—not to mention its operatic scope and largeness of gesture—are consistent with that view.
Needless to say, Sweeney Todd continues to be produced as a musical, most recently (and impressively) as part of the Sondheim Celebration. But I am increasingly inclined to think that it makes its strongest effect when sung and played by classically trained artists capable of rising to its near-operatic musical challenges. Heard under such circumstances, it is easier to recognize as a work which, for all its deep roots in musical comedy, can hold its own without apology in the operatic repertoire. To be sure, one might well hesitate to compare it directly with such major works as, say, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Leoš Janá?ek’s The Makropoulos Case, or Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. But I have no doubt that it is the most successful of all American operas, better than Four Saints in Three Acts, or Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, or—yes—Porgy and Bess.
1 All of Sondheim’s shows have been recorded by their original casts, including Sweeney Todd (RCA Red Seal 3379-2-RC, two CD’s) and A Little Night Music (Sony Classical SK 65284). These albums, and others mentioned below, can be purchased online by viewing this article during May on COMMENTARY’s website, www.commentarymagazine.com.
2 The extent to which Carmen prefigures the Broadway musical is demonstrated no less vividly by the recording made in 1950 by André Cluytens and the Théâtre National de l’Opéra-Comique (EMI Classics 5 65318 2, two CD’s), the company for which the work was originally composed. This pungent small-scale performance, with its all-French cast and crisply delivered spoken dialogue, has little in common with the overblown, unidiomatic productions seen at such large houses as the Metropolitan Opera.
3 In addition to being his most popular song, “Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music) is a perfect example of Sondheim’s tendency to construct even the most lyrical of his melodies out of these building blocks—in this case, the four-note cell to which the first and second lines (“Isn’t it rich?/Are we a pair?”) are both sung.
4 Most of Sondheim’s songs are also too firmly rooted in their original dramatic contexts to be fully intelligible when sung on their own, though several of them, including “Another Hundred People,” “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Every Day a Little Death,” “I Remember,” “Losing My Mind,” “Not a Day Goes By,” “Pretty Women,” and “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” are frequently performed by cabaret singers and deserve to be taken up by other vocalists as well.
5 In its recent revival of A Little Night Music, the New York City Opera used experienced stage actors in most of the principal roles. As a result, the show was well acted but noticeably undersung.
6 A more compelling objection to Sweeney Todd‘s acceptance as an opera is that it was orchestrated not by the composer but by Jonathan Tunick, who has scored most of Sondheim’s Broadway shows. Indeed, Sondheim’s inability to write directly for the orchestra is a major limitation of his work. Not only is much of his “orchestral” writing too obviously pianistic in origin, but the fact that he allows the instrumental colors and textures of his music to be supplied by other hands means that he cannot be given full credit for its creation.
7 The original cast albums of Sunday in the Park with George (RCA Red Seal RCD1-5042) and Passion (Angel CDQ 55251) are both available on CD.
8 The company will be reviving its 1984 production of Sweeney Todd, directed by Harold Prince, next season.