I was pretty much useless with my work today, still reeling from the rare and fortunate experience of watching Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” live last night. Discovering the musicals of Stephen Sondheim a few years ago completely overturned my notions of what musical theatre could be. Or what drama in general can be. With the show last night, I couldn’t help naively asking: why is this not already a blockbuster movie, seen all over the world and beloved by millions?
Perhaps the reverse chronology concept was ahead of its time when it premiered in the 1980’s; I can’t see else why it would have started out as a flop. To me, though, this is one of the most brilliant things about it. This way, a story can be told very realistically about “growing up by selling out”, and yet end with convincing optimism that somehow isn’t even bittersweet, all the while inviting audiences examine their own lives and dreams. This is definitely romantic realism at it’s finest.
All the Sondheim musicals I’ve seen so far move me very personally. They deal with “grown up” themes, often dealing with challenges of relationships and personal integrity. I’m always struck by the great respect he has for the mind of each audience member, by not resorting to spectacle and escapism, and instead really grappling with these issues in intelligible ways.
And this is all the more impressive, with the kind of virtuosity that Sondheim tosses off effortlessly. The complexity of his musical technique defies anyone who would downplay the artform. And yet his supreme craft just serves to deepen the expression. The meaning is clear at every level, such that any audience member can grasp it no matter what their background. I could feel the enthralled focus of the audience in the air, and hear from their comments in the lobby that they understood it, and loved it for it. If artistic complexity and deep themes can still be received like that, then I feel a bit of renewed hope for art and humanity.
I suppose if you haven’t seen a Sondheim musical this all will sound pretty vague. I fully intend to write more about the brilliance of his work as I get more explicit on it for myself. But I think you’ll understand if you can see a show for yourself, which is as easy as renting a DVD, or borrowing one from a public library, or piecing one together on YouTube. Maybe it will change your world too….