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Sondheim, Stephen (b. 1930)  
page: 1  2  

Pursuit of the American dream invariably involves people selling out what they value most. "Franklin Shepard, Inc."'s accomplishments as a Hollywood producer are deconstructed in Merrily, the play moving backwards from his most recent moment of public success to the recognition of the creative potential and the friendships that he betrayed along the way.

Juxtaposing the ghosts of hopeful young people with the middle-aged persons they have become in the reunion of Weissman Girls in Follies, Sondheim anatomizes the disintegration of pre-World War II American optimism into late-century cynicism and emotional emptiness.

The ultimate result of Admiral Perry's "gunboat diplomacy" in the 1850s, Pacific Overtures shrewdly demonstrates, is Japan's learning only too well the lessons of American economic imperialism and undercutting the American economy in the 1980s.

Joanne's toast to "The Ladies Who Lunch" in Company is a stinging analysis of the emptiness of their seemingly prosperous lives.

Consequences of Exclusion

There is a consistent concern in Sondheim's plays with the individual or group excluded from the mainstream, and what the consequences of that exclusion are for the community as a whole.

For example, Benjamin Barker revenges himself upon the Victorian sentimentality and hypocrisy that allowed him to be falsely imprisoned and his family destroyed in Sweeney Todd; and Assassins dramatizes the devastating social consequences of the American system's exclusionary politics.

Ironically, the most rousing number in West Side Story is the Puerto Ricans' celebration of the "America" into which they will never be assimilated: "Life is all right in America / If you're all white in America."

The theatrically brilliant "Cookie" sequence of Anyone Can Whistle questions whether the self-appointed guardians of the American dream are not more insane than those who, emotionally broken by their pursuit of it, have withdrawn to the margins of society.

Interpersonal Relationships

As pervasive an impulse in Sondheim's canon as the of the American dream is his queering of interpersonal relationships.

The men in Company recognize that in marriage one is "always sorry, always grateful," just as Bobby eventually accepts that "Being Alive" demands going beyond the isolation of the self even while accepting the ambivalences and compromises of a relationship.

"Send in the Clowns," like the "Soon/Now/Later" trio earlier in A Little Night Music, dramatizes the comedy that results because one's desires never coincide with those of one's partner.

The extraordinary "Loveland" sequence of Follies shows the two principal couples forced by experience to alter their naïve concept of love.

And the play Passion functions as alchemically as a John Donne lyric, inviting the audience initially to identify with Giorgio and Clara's soaring celebration of the happiness they've discovered in love, only to betray those assumptions by revealing the passion "implacable as stone" that the sickly and unappealing Fosca arouses in the romantic hero.

There are no absolutes and, thus, no "happily ever after" in Sondheim's world, only the struggle to live humanely after breaking through the prison of one's romantic illusions.

Sondheim and Popular Culture

"I'm telling you, the only times I really feel the presence of God are when I'm having sex, and during a great Broadway musical!" the rambunctious Father Dan tells the title character in Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey (1994). "Phantom. Starlight Express. Miss Saigon! Know ye the signs of the devil: overmiking, smoke machines, trouble with Equity."

Sondheim delivers to Broadway musical queens like Father Dan what the musicals of anti-Christ Andrew Lloyd Weber cannot: psychological depth rather than special effects; witty and insightful lyrics rather than clichéd expressions; and complex, often atonal music rather than vapidly hummable melodies.

Thus, Sondheim has been absorbed by gay popular culture in the most unusual ways: the line "add 'em up, Bobby," from Company, is used as a refrain in James Kirkwood's P. S. Your Cat Is Dead (1972); William Higgins star Ben Barker fixes the Sondheimian dimension of his "nom de porn" by wearing a Sweeney Todd t-shirt in the opening scene of The Boys of San Francisco (1980); and the songs "Somewhere" from West Side Story and "Being Alive" from Company became the anthems of two very different generations of gay men.

Moreover, the Sondheim revue became a staple of AIDS fund-raising on both coasts in the 1990s. As Father Dan understands, the lyrics and music of Sondheim allow the heightened perception and intense feeling of being alive that are usually associated only with religious experience and sexual orgasm.

Raymond-Jean Frontain

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arts >> Overview:  Cabarets and Revues

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arts >> Overview:  Music: Classical

Classical music is an important component of Western culture to which glbt people have contributed significantly.

arts >> Overview:  Musical Theater and Film

The musical has been a significant aspect of American gay male culture, manifesting itself both in diva worship and, more recently, in the presentation of openly gay characters and shows written by gay writers primarily for gay audiences.

literature >> Overview:  Musical Theater

There has always been homosexual involvement in American musical theatre and a homosexual sensibility even in straight musicals, and recently the Broadway musical has welcomed openly homosexual themes and situations.

arts >> Barclay, Paris 

Award-winning television director Paris Barclay is also an activist for glbtq rights, including marriage equality and the opportunity to adopt children as he and his husband have done.

arts >> Barrowman, John

Accomplished actor and singer John Barrowman has won plaudits as a musical theater star, as well as for his roles in film and television.

arts >> Bennett, Michael

Bisexual choreographer and director Michael Bennett, winner of eight Tony Awards, developed a fluid, cinematic style of choreography and staging.

arts >> Bernstein, Leonard

For most of his life, the specter of the closet lurked threateningly behind the glamorous and often brash public image of American composer Leonard Bernstein.

arts >> Blitzstein, Marc

American composer Marc Blitzstein, whose homosexuality probably inspired his sympathy for outsiders, attempted to write politically relevant music, and in doing so influenced other composers to blend classical and popular forms.

literature >> Coward, Sir Noël

Although Coward's plays are about heterosexual couples, they are written in the language and spirit of camp and reject traditional domestic values.

arts >> Coward, Sir Noël

Accomplished playwright, actor, composer, and lyricist, Sir Noël Coward was also a singer and cabaret performer; he dominated the British stage between the world wars, then reoriented his career in the direction of America.

literature >> Donne, John

England's supreme poet of heterosexual love in the late Renaissance, John Donne also wrote a series of homoerotic verse letters to a young man and a remarkable dramatic monologue in a lesbian voice.

arts >> Durang, Christopher

A fiercely comic playwright, as well as actor and screenwriter, Christopher Durang often incorporates gay themes and characters in his plays.

arts >> Finn, William

Playwright and composer William Finn, best known for his Tony Award-winning musical The Falsettos, speaks with understanding about confronting life in all its complexity with sadness and joy, dilemmas and hope intermingled.

arts >> Gordon, Ricky Ian

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon, often seen as an heir to the musical legacy of Stephen Sondheim, has been praised for the lyrical quality of his music and for bridging the worlds of theater and art song.

arts >> Harris, Neil Patrick

Child actor Neil Patrick Harris has made a successful transition to mature roles, showcasing his singing and dancing abilities along the way; he has also spoken out on behalf of glbtq causes.

arts >> Hart, Lorenz

Despite having written lyrics as witty as any sung on the Broadway stage before or since, Lorenz Hart is best remembered for his songs of unfulfilled desire and failed romance.

arts >> Herman, Jerry

A proponent of the "diva musical," Broadway composer and lyricist Jerry Herman made homosexuality the undisguised subject of La Cage aux Folles but he did so just as gay culture lost its need of a diva to voice its concerns.

arts >> Kert, Larry

Gay actor and singer Larry Kert introduced some of the most memorable songs in American musical theater.

arts >> Kirkwood, James

Co-author of the book of the celebrated musical A Chorus Line, James Kirkwood also wrote five popular novels and two nonfiction books.

arts >> LaChiusa, Michael John

Composer Michael John LaChiusa, identified as a heir to Stephen Sondheim's legacy in the American musical theater, creates works that demand intellectual involvement on the part of the audience.

arts >> Larson, Jonathan

Although apparently heterosexual, musical theater composer Jonathan Larson wrote sympathetically about a diverse community of artists, many of whom are glbtq.

arts >> Laurents, Arthur

Playwright, librettist, screenwriter, and director, Arthur Laurents brought an independent sensibility to some of the most important works of stage and screen in the post-World War II era.

arts >> Long, William Ivey

Among the most prolific and respected of contemporary costume designers in America, William Ivey Long has always been openly gay in his professional life.

arts >> Mantello, Joe

Having staged a variety of well-received and award-winning productions, actor-turned-director Joe Mantello has emerged as one of the most accomplished artists now working in the American theater.

arts >> Perkins, Anthony

In his personal life, American actor Anthony Perkins often seemed as tortured as the troubled characters he played on film, hiding--and perhaps despising--his true nature while desperately seeking happiness and "normality."

arts >> Porter, Cole

Living the paradoxical life of an openly closeted gay man, songwriter Cole Porter introduced non-normative values and risqué double entendres into what was one of the most pedestrian and hackneyed of cultural forms.

arts >> Robbins, Jerome

Bisexual choreographer and director Jerome Robbins was both a great choreographer of classical ballet and a Broadway innovator, but he was fearful that he might be outed.

arts >> Rudnick, Paul

Out American playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Paul Rudnick brings a gently subversive wit to all of his projects.

literature >> Shaffer, Sir Peter

British dramatist Peter Shaffer emerged in the 1960s in the paradoxical guise of the last great twentieth-century poet of the numinous who was also capable of writing commercially successful plays that could be turned into equally successful films.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

arts >> Zadan, Craig (b. 1949), and Neil Meron (b. 1955)

Prolific film, television, and stage producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have created a diverse body of work, including a number of theatrical films and television features with glbtq themes.


Banfield, Stephen. Sondheim's Broadway Musicals. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Clum, John M. Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Goodhart, Sandor, ed. Reading Stephen Sondheim: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 2000.

Gordon, Joanne. Art Isn't Easy: The Theater of Stephen Sondheim. Updated ed. New York: DaCapo Press, 1992.

_____, ed. Stephen Sondheim: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.

Miller, D. A. Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Zadan, Craig. Sondheim & Co. Second ed., updated. New York: DaCapo Press, 1994.


    Citation Information
    Author: Frontain, Raymond-Jean  
    Entry Title: Sondheim, Stephen  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 10, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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