Stephen Sondheim was not a cynic; he was a romantic. That in a nutshell is the thesis Ben Francis places forth in Cautious the Spell You Solid: How Stephen Sondheim Prolonged the Vary of the American Musical (Methuen Drama, 184 pages), a compact vital evaluation of Sondheim’s musicals, organized in 9 chapters, each titled after a significant mentor or collaborator, from Oscar Hammerstein to James Lapine.
Francis argues that Sondheim’s musicals are primarily based on a “wealthy and intriguing” paradox: The characters in them change into disenchanted, persistently fail or betray one another. “But counterbalancing his seeming pessimism Sondheim maintains an idealistic viewpoint in his reveals, within the aspirational Rodgers and Hammerstein custom.”
Would Sondheim himself have agreed? The creator communicated instantly with the composer twice. After Sondheim gave a lecture on the Cheltenham Pageant of Literature within the U.Ok in 2010, Francis raised his hand, mentioned he was writing a PhD thesis on Sondheim’s work, and requested him if his musicals have been about how characters take care of disillusion.
Sondheim answered: “Have you ever thought-about mineralogy?”
Moderately than changing into disillusioned, Francis communicated with Sondheim once more 4 years later, through Skype, asking him if his reveals have been about characters occurring regardless of disillusioning experiences. “He mentioned that that was a part of ‘to make use of an overused phrase the “journey” of the characters’ in most tales.”
These two exchanges are the closest to interviews in “Cautious The Spell You Solid,” which largely reads like an bold time period paper for a graduate course in literature, offering shut evaluation of vital passages; comparisons, analogies and allusions to a variety of imaginative works (not simply musicals, but in addition movies, novels, performs and poetry); and erudite observations about every of Sondheim’s stage reveals (aside from the one simply introduced for September, 2023 at The Shed in New York Metropolis, primarily based on two movies by Luis Bunuel, which Sondheim had been engaged on for years when he died in 2021 at age 91; the present is now entitled “Right here We Are.”)
Here’s a kind of typical paragraph sampling the creator’s method, taken from the George Furth chapter, specializing in “Firm,” one of many two musicals Sondheim wrote with Furth. (Robert and Amy are characters within the musical; the Hammerstein music is from “South Pacific”; critic Richard Dyer’s quote is from his ebook “Pastiche,” Follies is one other Sondheim musical.):
“…Robert has no predestined companion. He has three girlfriends – April, Marta and Kathy – however none of them is correct for him. For Hammerstein, marriage meant certainty, as in ‘Some Enchanted Night’: ‘And by some means you understand, / You recognize even then’ (Hammerstein, 1949: 17). Whereas, within the music ‘Wait’, Robert wonders: ‘Would I do know her even when I met her? / Have I missed her? Did I let her go?’ (Sondheim, 2010: 179). Sondheim has the identical perception as Hammerstein in dedication, however not the identical certainty. Amy sings of the phrase ‘Without end’ that it’s ‘perhaps probably the most horrifying phrase I’ve ever heard’ (Sondheim, 2010: 181). What Richard Dyer says a few music from Follies, ‘You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow’, additionally applies right here: ‘Maybe the longed-for eternally of affection songs is usually tinged with dread on the thought’ (2007, 86). Maybe, however solely tinged.”
If typically dizzying and dense, Francis’ analytical method is on stability recent and informative, with some memorable observations: Francis is explicit good at analyzing the “Gypsy” character Mama Rose and her songs, in all of which, he factors out, she is manipulating someone.
Such apercus are accompanied by orienting overviews; intensive quotes from Sondheim’s writing and the work of different critics; and temporary explanations of Sondheim’s relationship with every mentor/collaborator. The biographical content material is most elaborated within the chapter on Hammerstein, the place we study that Sondheim’s first contact with Hammerstein was on the age of 9, when he noticed “Very Heat for Might,” the lyricist’s present with composer Jerome Kern. At 15, he grew to become a household good friend, and discovered on the grasp’s knee. At 17, he was a gofer on Hammerstein’s “Allegro.”
A part of the pleasure of the ebook is the best way he assumes an accumulation of data from chapter to chapter on the reader’s half, making comparisons and establishing patterns,
To select two examples from the final chapter:
“The formation of the household unit is a central trope in Sondheim’s work. It may be seen in West Facet Story (‘You bought brothers round, / You’re a household man’ from ‘The Jet Music’), ‘Collectively, Wherever We Go’ from Gypsy, ‘Not Whereas I’m Round’ from Sweeney Todd, ‘Youngsters and Artwork’ from Sunday within the Park with George,‘Our Little House’ from Into the Woods and ‘Household’ in Assassins, a uncommon instance of a household making a state of affairs worse, the place the ‘household’ of assassins tempt Oswald into killing the president. It’s actually household (typically an improvised household equivalent to an performing troupe or a gaggle of neighbours and associates) that assist Sondheim’s characters face the disillusion that always overtakes them.”
An easier instance:
“Simply as Follies took the musical comedy revue aside and reassembled it, so Into the Woods (1987) does the identical for the fairy story, and for a similar cause: each genres can construct unrealistic expectations of trouble-free lives. Neither present is solely a chunk of literary criticism, however slightly they each take care of the hole between the desires created by the style, and the fact of life.”
The ebook’s title comes from the music from Into the Woods “Youngsters Will Hear,”
Cautious the spell you solid,
Not simply on kids
Generally the spell could final
Previous what you possibly can see,
And switch in opposition to you.
However this can be a level Francis makes all through the ebook. It isn’t cynical of Sondheim to show this hole between desires and actuality, Francis argues repeatedly; it’s solely when the characters settle for actuality that they’ve an opportunity at discovering some lifelike satisfaction in life.
One needn’t agree with the creator’s central thesis to search out his ebook worthwhile. (You needn’t be a cynic, for instance, to marvel why he’s implicitly giving credit score to Sondheim for setting the tone for all of the musicals for which he wrote the music and/or the lyrics, however didn’t create the characters, devise the plot, nor assemble the dialogue.) “Cautious The Spell You Solid” can work as a primer or a refresher or a teaser for every of Sondheim’s particular person musicals, and a immediate to consider musical theater typically and Sondheim’s contribution to it.
Listing of chapters and the Sondheim reveals which can be primarily mentioned in them
Oscar Hammerstein: This serves as one thing of an introductory chapter (though there may be additionally an introduction within the ebook, evaluating a raft of Hammerstein and Sondheim reveals)
Arthur Laurents: West Facet Story, Gypsy, Anybody Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz?
Hal Prince: Extra of an summary of their collaboration than a deal with any single present
Burt Shevelove: A Humorous Factor Occurred on the Option to the Discussion board, The Frogs
James Goldman: Night Primrose, Follies
George Furth: Firm, Merrily We Roll Alongside and Getting Away with Homicide (a play)
Hugh Wheeler: A Little Evening Music, Sweeney Todd
John Weidman: Pacific Overtures, Assassins and Street Present
James Lapine: Sunday within the Park with George, Into The Woods, Ardour