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What's New on the Rialto

Stephen Sondheim and the Reinvention of the American Musical
By Robert L. McLaughlin

Book Review by David Levy

The academic study of musical theater is still a relatively young and underdeveloped field, due in no small part to a pervasive snobbery about the worthiness of popular culture for in-depth exegesis. It should come of no surprise that analyses of the musicals of Stephen Sondheim are something of the exception that proves this rule; Sondheim, after all, is the quintessence of "snob appeal." (I say this as a devoted lover of his work, of course.) Sondheim studies got a big boost with last year's publication of the massive (if massively uneven) Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies (edited by Robert Gordon), which featured 27 articles from across an array of disciplines. Now, Robert L. McLaughlin has expanded his essay "Sondheim and Postmodernism" from that volume into a full-length book, Stephen Sondheim and the Reinvention of the American Musical.

Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with postmodern theory will recognize what a natural lens it provides for looking at Sondheim's work. With a focus on transcending the limits of realism, postmodernism is very much in the DNA of the creative output of the artist often credited with popularizing the concept musical. McLaughlin's approach isn't purely theoretical, though; he places Sondheim's musicals in their cultural contexts, allowing the reader to understand the ways in which Sondheim and his collaborators' work both fit in with and innovated against other works of art, on Broadway and otherwise. Beyond that, McLaughlin's chronological approach to his analysis also uncovers turning points in Sondheim's own work, including a move beyond postmodernism as that once-groundbreaking aesthetic became itself formulaic.

McLaughlin is primarily a professor of English, and he approaches the texts of Sondheim's musicals as he would any other text. There are pros and cons to this method. The result is a thrilling dissection of the meaning of the words that make up each of Sondheim's musicals, but the other elements of theatrical performance get something of a short shrift. McLaughlin is up front about the extent to which he treats the work of Sondheim's librettists and Sondheim's own work as part of a whole cloth, and he makes a persuasive case for the appropriateness of this approach. (This does become frustrating at times; for example, his work on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is almost entirely about that musical's book.) But his nearly complete lack of engagement with Sondheim's music, and his sporadic and anecdotal notes on direction, performance, and other aspects of production, are a major shortcoming of McLaughlin's project. Particularly given postmodernism's focus on the ways in which discourse mediates experience, the insufficient treatment of the various factors that mediate how audience members partake of Sondheim's musicals is curious.

Regardless, there is much to admire about Stephen Sondheim and the Reinvention of the American Musical. Each of Sondheim's full-length musicals, including those considered minor and those for which he wrote only lyrics, receives due consideration—there's no zipping past Do I Hear a Waltz? or glossing over The Frogs. Without watering down his analysis or engagement with the work of previous scholars, McLaughlin largely keeps his writing accessible to those further from the academy, helpfully explaining major aspects of postmodern theory before applying them to Sondheim. If you've never read Michel Foucault on power or Louis Althusser on interpellation, you should nevertheless be able to follow McLaughlin's arguments without too much difficulty. He also, thankfully, largely avoids the kind of academic elocution that provokes uncontrolled eye-rolling outside of university settings.

And his observations about the shows themselves? I found them keen and insightful. As McLaughlin notes, he is offering a way (or, in some cases, a few ways) to understand these shows, not the way. You don't have to believe, for example, that Passion is only (or even primarily) about the limits of language "making the absent present" in order to find McLaughlin's analysis of this approach to Passion enlightening. For those of us who have internalized every note and inflection of Sondheim's canon, it can be rare to encounter genuinely new observations about his work. I found myself constantly surprised by the meaning McLaughlin took from these shows, and not because his readings were unlikely. McLaughlin has provided this Sondheim fanatic the gift of being able to see and hear some of these old favorites anew.

The volume concludes with a chapter on musicals by Sondheim's contemporaries and successors, highlighting the ways in which Sondheim was part of a movement and how those who came of age after Sondheim inherited, advanced, or pushed back against his innovations. In an effort to paint as full a picture as possible, McLaughlin opts to write briefly about quite a few musicals, from Pippin to See What I Wanna See. The scope impressively makes his point, but the lack of depth in discussion of any individual example is disappointing. Perhaps that will come in a follow-up volume, either by McLaughlin himself or someone inspired to expand the work begun here.

Stephen Sondheim and the Reinvention of the American Musical
Robert L. McLaughlin
312 pages
University Press of Mississippi
Official Publishing date: August 11, 2016
Hardcover/Kindle Edition
ISBN: 978-1496808554

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