Rethinking musical theatre: the successes of Sondheim

Joe Hytner 1 February 2008

Joe Hytner

This term people seem to have gone a little Sondheim-crazy, and frankly, I don’t blame them. With the recent release of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, starring Johnny Depp a.k.a Captain Jack Sparrow as the twisted barber whose precision with the shaving knife isn’t always what it should be, it’s no wonder that Sondheim’s on the lips.

But Stephen is probably patting himself on the back at the moment for altogether different reasons – the ADC Theatre’s Lent Term season offers punters a choice of not one, but two Sondheim musicals. If fairytales are your thing, then Into the Woods is bound to delight you. If it’s beautiful showgirls, on the other hand, you’d be well advised to get stuck into a bit of Follies.

“No, no! Not that meaningless filth!” I hear you cry (though it pains me to listen). “We don’t want Prince Charmings. We don’t want glitter and jazz hands. We want the opposite of that, in fact.” Well, you just trapped yourselves, didn’t you?

Nothing in Sondheim is what it seems: Into the Woods is a fairytale that goes very wrong, and in which the only character who tells the truth is the (consequently Wicked) Witch. She sings “I’m not good; I’m not nice; I’m just right.” Follies may kick off with a song called ‘Beautiful Girls’, but it’s sung by a bunch of aging showgirls who’ve started to go a bit cuckoo.

Sondheim is, at heart, a piss-taker, and he does it very stylishly, too. The expected is not only turned on its head, but is also positively ridiculed. Follies refers both to the frivolous and light-hearted entertainment that used to be served up between the two wars (which is, after all, the context for the reunion of these ex-performers), and to the foolishness of indulging in such artificiality.

At the climax of the piece, the four central characters, realising the naivety of their past and driven ever-more-crazy by it (‘folly’ is as much a synonym for ‘madness’ or ‘lunacy’ as ‘foolishness’), each perform their own folly. Though it’s done in the style of a mock-Ziegfeld theatrical revue, the subject matter is the futility of their own lives, and it’s increasingly difficult to divide the two meanings of the word ‘folly’ at this point.

The characters aren’t the only butt of the joke, though – Sondheim’s also taking down the entire genre in whose style he so seamlessly composes. In some ways the musical is a celebration and nostalgic commemoration of the Follies, in all their extravagance and gaiety, but in more ways it is about how their ideals were inherently flawed and deceptive. It’s a musical that effectively sends up musical theatre, and all it stands for.

So, Patrick Kingsley, and all the rest of you self-confessed “culturally elitist bastards”, perhaps Stephen Joshua’s worth a shout. He hates musicals as much as you do. This is not the ‘Doh-Ray-Me’ genre of musical theatre; for me, at least, Sondheim proves that musical theatre is simply a medium – no more, no less – rendering generalisations and stereotyping impossible (if you’re not him). I feel remarkably confident that he’ll be able to cater for the Beckett enthusiast every bit as much as the needle-pulling-thread variety of theatregoer. Time will tell.

Follies is at 23:00 at the ADC Theatre 6th-9th February and Into the Woods is at 19:45 at the ADC 11th-22nd March