Sunday, Sondheim, And Spoilers

When Sunday In The Park With George premiered in 1984, it received mixed reviews from critics, lost every Tony award to La Cage Aux Folles except for scenic and lighting design (the advantages, I suppose, of being a musical based on a painting with a song even titled "Color And Light"), and though it ran for about a year and a half, closed at a net loss. It did win a Pulitzer prize, but while it has an obvious appeal to artistic snobs, it doesn't seem to have much to offer the average Broadway audience.

Since then, it has become revered as one of the greatest works by one of the greatest composer-lyricists ever to write for Broadway. Its most recent revival, currently on Broadway, was adapted from a sold-out concert performance at City Center, and since opening at the Hudson Theater has received rave reviews. And deservedly too. Jake Gyllenhall is not as good a singer as Mandy Patinkin, but he still plays the part exceptionally well. Annaleigh Ashford is a weaker Marie than Bernadette Peters, but an equal if not stronger Dot. The scenery is not as lush as the 1984 production, and all of the cardboard cutouts save the dogs are eliminated, but projections make for an excellent substitute. The entire audience seemed enthralled by the story and the music, which are fantastic even in the most stripped-down production. The show is basically the same as it was thirty years ago, so what changed?

Similar redemption stories have littered Sondheim's career. Merrily We Roll Along, initially a dramatic failure running not even two weeks, was later revised and has since then become acclaimed as an obscure gem of Sondheim's career. Company, originally lukewarmly received, has grown exponentially in popularity, with Sondheim saying that the 2006 Broadway revival seemed to be the first time the audience really clicked with the show's protagonist. And aside from a few select musicals that have been popular from the start (primarily Sweeney Todd and Into The Woods), this pattern makes up most of Sondheim's career. Very few of his shows have been plain unambiguous flops, but equally few have been unambiguous big hits, until well after their original premiere.

I think there are two main factors at work here, and they play into each other, so it's hard to say which comes first. With that in mind, I've decided to start with the one which I don't plan on leading into a tangent for the rest of the blog post. And that is that at some point, Sondheim started to become renowned as a legendary composer and lyricist. It's possible that this is simply the result of a couple of popular shows causing people to recognize his name more. (Notably, two of Sondheim's biggest hits, Sweeney Todd and Into The Woods, both came closer to the second half of his career.) Once people associate Sondheim's name with a couple of musicals they really like, it's more likely they'll treat his less popular works more kindly. When Company premiered, it was not a "Sondheim musical," it was just a "musical that happens to have songs by a guy named Stephen Sondheim whom you've probably never heard of." But nowadays, name recognition has even a highly flawed musical like Anyone Can Whistle being looked upon more favorably.

(Funnily enough, the reverse seems to have happened with Andrew Lloyd Webber. He had counterintuitively megahit musicals early on, such as Cats and Jesus Christ Superstar, which later started to decline in popularity as Webber produced more and more flops. I'm not sure what to read into that, but I do think all of the hate toward Cats is unwarranted. You know what other musical doesn't have a plot? Company.)

The second factor at play here, which may have been caused by the first, or perhaps might be the cause of the first, is an increased number of people taking a second look at Sondheim's musicals. I live in an age of easily-accessible recordings and research materials, and so it's easy for me to fall in love with a Sondheim musical in the space of a day. But for the majority of Sondheim's career, your first interaction with his shows was seeing them in the theater, and Sondheim does not do well to go into blind. In his book, Sondheim speaks of a reviewer who saw a preview performance of Company, and was so thoroughly baffled that he came back the next day to see it again before writing his review, which was a rave. (On the other hand, upon finding that the original production of Passion had been professionally filmed, I did watch that without a clue in advance what it was about, and loved it the very first time through. On the other hand, I already love Puccini, while many casual Broadway-goers probably do not. I imagine Passion does better with people who are predisposed to like Puccini. It's actually not that unconventional in form, except for the letters. It's style where it's radically different from most of Broadway.)

Knowing what you're getting into dramatically shifts how you approach theater, and it makes easier to enjoy shows that you might not entirely comprehend the first time through. This is especially important in theater as compared to other art forms. When you're reading a book, you can flip back a page if you think you missed something. Television you can rewind, or enjoy those helpful "last time on..." clips. And even when you see a movie in cinemas, where you can't control your own speed, movie direction can control what information and how much of it you get in a way theatrical direction cannot. In theater, you've got one pass to get everything. And in a way, it makes sense to do everything you can in advance to make sure that that one pass is successful.

I think theater was doing this right for the vast majority of its history. Greek plays were based on stories everybody knew. Shakespeare's plays, if the stories weren't common knowledge, were often given to the audience in a prologue. Or if not, the extensive exposition early on makes the plot clear. And the comedies were based, if not directly on preexisting stories, on common archetypes and tropes. In opera, to this day it's generally expected that you know the plot going in. I don't know exactly when the concept of spoilers became something people were worried about, but while I can justify preserving spoilers in literature, I think theater had it right for most of its history. Less so for plays, which can communicate information more cleanly in dialogue and are therefore less risky insofar as confusing the audience, but more so in musicals, and especially in operas. (And even more especially in ballet, where the story has to be conveyed without any words in any language -- that is, assuming you go to the ballet for the story. I'm not really a ballet buff, so I don't know how important story is to the ballet community.)

My experience with Sunday In The Park With George I think supports this. When I saw the current revival, the audience around me seemed as into it as I was. Lines such as "not Marie again" in Act I got a stronger reaction than you'd expect from an audience who hadn't already seen Act II. Even the musical foreshadowing seemed to work exceptionally well -- although that's harder to judge. "We Do Not Belong Together" landed so much that the audience seemed really put out at not being allowed to applaud (the music segueing directly into the next scene). And the chatter around me at intermission seemed to confirm for my suspicion that not many people were going into this performance completely blind. A good thing too, because seeing it live for the first time, I realized just how easy it would be to miss things if I hadn't already known them.

And all of this plays into something I've said a lot regarding spoilers: A well-written work of art, be it a book, a movie, an opera, or anything else, should not become less enjoyable the second time through. A really well-written one will become more enjoyable each time through. A surprise plot twist is only effective once. Extended dramatic irony is effective every time. I've used Il Trovatore as an example before, but I continue to do so because it is such a good example. Imagine that Azucena never spelled out for the audience that Manrico is DiLuna's long-lost brother in Act II. Then the audience would go through the opera thinking it's your basic love-triangle plot, until the very end, when DiLuna sends Manrico to be executed, and then Azucena exclaims the secret. That might catch a first-time audience off-guard, but it also seems like a shoehorned twist put in there for the sole purpose of giving the finale a little extra oomph. But since we know from near the beginning of the opera that Manrico is DiLuna's brother, and they don't, it makes their conflict that much more gripping, and since we know before they do, DiLuna's reaction to the revelation at the end is that much juicier. And this stays consistent throughout every performance, because from the beginning, we pretty much already knew how this opera was going to end.

Likewise with Sunday In The Park With George. The musical is rife with foreshadowing, both in the music and the text, that becomes more effective the more you know in advance. That's what makes dramatic irony. Aside from the finale, the music of Sunday In The Park With George more or less spends the entire show building up to the big duet at the end of Act II, "Move On," which builds on musical motifs previously established and explored in "Color And Light" and "We Do Not Belong Together," and just as "Move On" becomes more effective in the context of those two songs, so do they become more effective when you know what they're building up to.

The same is true of many of Sondheim's later scores, starting around Sweeney Todd. The Beggar Woman's main theme in Sweeney Todd echoing the dance tune heard in another song, for example. Sondheim put that in, as well as a song for the Beggar Woman late in Act II (often cut), for the sole purpose of cluing the audience in to the twist before Sweeney finds out. Originally, when Sondheim tried to make it a surprise twist, it failed to land. But by inserting that new song, Sondheim made sure that however far ahead the audience was, that at least they all knew before Sweeney, which puts the focus on his reaction to the news, rather than the news itself. As in Il Trovatore, dramatic irony is stronger than a surprise twist.

Passion does not have much in the way of surprise twists, but it does have strong musical cohesion that becomes even stronger on repeat listens to the score. Fragments of the Garden Sequence are echoed in Giorgio's "Is This What You Call Love," which in turn develops into the Farewell Letter. But the second time through, it's the Farewell Letter (which I consider to be the dramatic turning point of the show -- supported, I think, by the fact that it echoes segments of, like, half the songs up to that point) being forewarned in the Garden Sequence, and even being foreshadowed all the way in the opening number. Wagner's leitmotives are more effective if you know what they are in advance, because otherwise it takes a few iterations of them to pick up on what they actually are. It's the same thing here. In the case of Sunday In The Park With George, it may be the reason reception to a premiere can be mixed, but reactions to a revival can be raves.

You might notice that I'm skirting around saying what the actual twists are in Sunday In The Park With George, Passion, and Sweeney Todd, even though they are written in such a way so as to favor dramatic irony. I do recognize that not everyone shares my view on spoilers, and therefore I think it safest to steer clear of dispensing them, although in most cases I do not mind receiving them. Because if a piece is well-written, it won't matter if you know what's going to happen or not. (Note that while I don't mind finding out spoilers on my own terms, I, like most people, would still rather people not blurt them out for no reason. Spoiler etiquette does still exist, and I do try to abide by it, two-hundred year old operas excepted.)

There is one Sondheim musical, however, that favors a surprise twist over a foreshadowed attempt at tension. But A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is a farce, and the apparent ridiculousness of the twist serves the same comedic function it does in any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.


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