Marketing or art

25 January 2011

I like musicals and I like Stephen Sondheim, so wanted to know what he had to say in an 80th birthday interview in The Guardian just before Christmas.

Certainly there are some observations about the craft of the musical – especially lyric-writing – that intrigue. Hammerstein’s “Oh what a beautiful morning”, from Oklahoma, for example:

“Nothing could be more banal,” Sondheim says. “But that song changed the history of musical theatre.” And it did so through simplicity, clarity and repetition.

And reflecting on this seems to have made him regret his own, later, lyric for ‘Maria‘, in West Side Story, with its famous couplet:

“Say it loud and there’s music playing / Say it soft and it’s almost like praying”

Sondheim thinks that this contributed a “wetness” to the words which persisted throughout the show’s romantic numbers. I think I have to disagree: the whole point of the romantic numbers in West Side Story is to create a difference from the directness and toughness of the streets, to build in our minds the idea that Tony and Maria might be able to escape (“there’s a place for us”) from the world of the gangs and the garment district. Sondheim doesn’t have a lot of time for Bernstein, but here Bernstein understood what he was doing.

But the thing that puzzles the most is his comments on Allegro, a failed musical which Rogers and Hammerstein wrote in the middle of a run of huge success. Sondheim thinks he understands what they should have done, and it comes down to this:

“making clear to an audience why you’ve written what you’ve written, and what it’s about. Then if they like it, great. If they don’t like it, fine. But if they don’t like it because they don’t understand it, that’s bad. That is the writer’s fault. If you write it and it’s clear and they don’t like it, that’s not your fault. That’s what art is about.”

But this isn’t about art, it’s about marketing. The history of our art and culture is full of works which audiences didn’t understand, were confused by, and hated, and had to puzzle out over time, from the impressionists to The Rites of Spring to bebop to Peeping Tom. It’s disappointing that someone whose craft is so rich – after 60 years in the theatre – seems to have such a one-dimensional view of art and its audiences.

The image at the top of this post comes from the Academy of Achievement website, and is used with thanks.

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