Why Stephen Sondheim is wrong.

Stephen Sondheim is a genius.  And as I said in one of my first blogs, way back in 2007, he’s the Shakespeare of American Musical Theater.

But that doesn’t mean he’s right all the time.

And last week, he was just wrong.

Not about anything artistic, mind you.  I’m certainly not correcting a lyric of his, or a time signature.

But in an interview he gave with Billboard (where he talks Radiohead, Disney and more), he took the interviewer’s bait and agreed that our industry was “too insular to age well.”

Honestly, I didn’t have an issue with that.  In fact, it’s an excellent and challenging point.  We’ve got a homogeneous makeup that makes coloring outside the lines difficult.

But when the interviewer then asked, “Does the success of Hamilton and works like it help with that insularity?” Mr. Sondheim said . . .

“Yes, yes. But you don’t get a lot of those ­because, first of all, ­producers don’t take chances on new stuff.”

Well that’s where I’ve got a problemo.

Saying “Producers don’t take chances” is one of those sweeping generalizations that I find hard to take, especially from a man who is so brilliant at choosing just the right words to express what he means.

And while it may be easy to point the finger at Producers, that generalization is also just incorrect, and a little insulting to those folks who have taken gigundo chances.

In the last ten years, Producers have gone out on a thin limb and produced a whole bunch of shows that stared conventional commercial formula right in the face and said, “Bring it!”  Need some examples?  Here are just a few . . .

Fun Home
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
The Scottsboro Boys
Passing Strange
Holler If Ya Hear Me
Next to Normal
The Visit
Spring Awakening 
(the original and dare I also add my revival)

And there are more.

In fact, we’re doing a lot better than we were in the 90s.  Remember when Sunset Boulevard won the Best Musical Tony in 1995 . . . and there was only one other new musical nominated (Smokey Joe’s Cafe)?  Or even in 1994 when Passion won Best Musical and to fill out the category, the nominators gave a nod to the R&H revue A Grand Night for Singing?

I’d say Producers are taking more chances than ever.  I mean, Fun Home, people!

And the above list is just for shows on Broadway.  What about Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812Here Lies Love and many of the other Off Broadway productions (many of which were enhanced (translation – partially funded) by commercial Producers in the hope of them someday arriving on Broadway)?

And don’t even get me started on plays.  Remember when they said the new play was dead?  In the past ten years we’ve seen non-star driven new plays like Hand to God, August: Osage County, Jerusalem, and more.

I’m proud of my peers for the work they’ve done over the last decade, so yeah, I get a little defensive when someone as VIP-ish as Sondheim says it’s our fault that there isn’t more new stuff on Broadway.  Sure, sure, there were a bunch of jukebox musicals in the last ten years, and a lot of star driven commercial vehicles, but before you say it’s the Producers fault, you have to remember three things:

  1. Producers don’t hold the keys to the theaters.  Ultimately, we’re not making the decision of what gets on and what doesn’t get on.  The theater owners are the St. Peters of Broadway.  I actually think they’ve been done a pretty good job of balancing art and commerce as their cupeth runeth overeth with the number of Producers lining up to put show in their theaters.  But at the end of the day, they call the programming shots.
  2. Producers have responsibilities to investors.  I would love to do nothing but produce new daring and adventuresome musicals twenty four hours a day, 365 days a year.  But first, see point #1.  I have to get a theater in order to work, and I’m subject to the algorithms of the theater owners on whether or not that is possible.  Second, the majority of the Broadway audience wants a certain type of show.  Yes, it’s our job to push that envelope with shows like Hamilton, Spring Awakening, Rent, A Chorus Line, etc. but we are producing a product for a specific audience that is looking for a certain experience.  Additionally, the investors who fund those shows are not writing a check to a nonprofit.  They are looking for a return, or at the very least their money back.  I always say that I produce for three groups: my authors, my audience, and my investors . . . and I have to balance those three entities, which ain’t easy as they are often in opposition.  And, well, if my shows don’t make money, I don’t eat.
  3. And lastly, new stuff like Hamilton . . . well, shoot, it just don’t come around that often.  In other words, great is hard to find.  That’s what makes it great.  It’s not that we’re not taking chances, it’s just that we’re panning for gold, and nuggets are rare.  Now, in his defense, Mr. Sondheim said something just like this in the rest of his interview, so I know he gets it.  But it is worth repeating.  We want to take risks.  God knows, every day I wake up hoping, dreaming, begging to stumble across what I believe is the next Les Mis, Rent, Hamilton . . . Sweeney Todd.   

In other words, if we want new, daring, jump-off-a-cliff risk taking stuff, then it’s on all of us to be responsible for it.  We  have to find out ways to encourage every player in the Broadway ball game to figure out how we can work together to make it happen, not just say it’s someone else’s fault that we’re not doing enough of it.  The theater is a collaborative art form.  And the business of theater is even more so.

You should read the article, because despite The Maestro’s misstep with this one comment, he also dropped some serious truth-knowledge bombs like this one, that all writers should heed:

With any art form, you’ve got to know the past to be any good. You have to know what has been done before you.

Study the classics, my friends.  Before you can break the structure, you have to master it.

And now, I’m going to see if I can get Sondheim on my podcast.  Think I’ve got a shot?  🙂


(Got a comment? I love ‘em, so comment below! Email Subscribers, click here then scroll down to say what’s on your mind!)

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  • You are both right. There are always exceptions to the dominant money on Broadway; which can make money. But 90% of other viable works, including my own, never had enough money to get there. Or the entre to induce the Shubert, Disney etc to move SACCO & VANZETTI, or AFTER THE BALL amomng other shows to Broadway.
    At the same time, Stephen Sondheim remained a patron of my work for 20 years..
    We were always grateful for his support as our connection to Broadway fame and fortune Off-Off Broadway.

  • Ken Wydro says:

    Most of those shows listed above lost most or all of the investment $$$ on Broadway, even after being produced by regional or non-profit tester-outer. BLOODY, BLOODY, PASSING STRANGE, FELA, , HOLLER IF YOU HEAR, THE VISIT, etc. The trick is to get the Public or another prominent company to mount it first. That’s the really hard part. Also, most of those works are derivative based on a previously written genre and adapted for the stage. Yet something truly original like WE ARE and ALIVE! 55 and Kickin’ now playing up at the Dempsey theater in harlem — both original in the purest sense of the word and featured on 60 MINUTES gets barely a passing nod form established Broadway producers. That’s the way it is, for now, at least

  • Ed from CT says:

    Great points, Ken.
    For your list, I would also include ‘Book of Mormon.’
    A musical comedy that profanely insults (pokes fun at) every religion?
    Yes, they took a risk, too.

  • Rich Mc says:

    The simple answer to this question (and in response to the Shows Ken’s listed) is acknowledging the diminutive PERCENTAGE of new Broadway shows launched over the last ~10 years that are “take chance” originals?? And how many have recouped? The Devil remains defining the details, but it is clear that b-Way continues to predominantly offer shows that are proven winners, either on e.g., London stage or via Disney movies, et al. Sadly (IMOP) this trend, contrary to experimentalism, is perceived to make business sense and continues to accelerate, and thus validates Sondheim’s point.

  • It’s easy for me to agree with the points you’ve made here.

    One that I’ll respond to is your “hoping, dreaming, begging to stumble across the next Les Mis, Rent….”

    I think they are out there. I also think many shows never get their proper shot from producers (or a producer’s team) who are less able to imagine page-to-stage.

    Theater is meant to be seen–if it fails to jump off the page, it gets sunk.

  • Jim Freydberg says:

    I agree with Sondheim. What fascinated me is most of the so-called daring productions listed by you first came out of not for profs. Broadway has often become event theater star driven.

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