Stephen Sondheim completed his personal memoirs about his career in American musicals more than a year ago, but they are so thoughtful, detailed and dense that I keep discovering new treasures, provocative observations by a first-rate mind. Yesterday, I found one that was buried in a footnote, in the middle of a technical tangent that most readers, like me in my first tour through the books, probably skimmed.
Sondheim pointedly did not use his erudite analysis and reflections in his two retrospectives (“Finishing the Hat” and “Look! I Made a Hat!”) to settle scores with critics, a group that obviously annoyed and to some extent handicapped him over the course of his long career. In this brief footnote, however, the composer/lyricist delivers a withering verdict:
“The sad truth is that musicals are the only public art form reviewed mostly by ignoramuses.”
At the end of the note, he repeats the indictment, this time changing the description to “illiterates.” Sondheim is accusing theater critics of engaging in professional conduct they are incompetent to perform, rendering expert opinions that are not really expert, and as a result, misinforming the public and undermining the efforts of serious artists, like him. If he is right, not only are the critics unprofessional and unethical, the media organs that hire and publish them are unethical as well.
Though this passage is from the first volume of his memoirs and approaching three years old, it is a timely one. The footnote appears in the section in which Sondheim mocks the Broadway fad of “sung-through” musicals, which he suggests owe their success to a false sheen of sophistication that depends on critical and audience ignorance. He is writing about the hit musical Les Misérables, the monster of the “sung-through” genre and currently racking up Golden Globe nominations as a film.
I certainly think Sondheim is right if he believes that Les Mis is pompous, derivative junk, but his footnote’s ethical implication is the true topic at hand. His statement alone cannot be reasonably challenged; I have observed the same phenomenon. Reviews of stage musicals, even those by otherwise celebrated critics, regularly contain evidence of musical ignorance and shocking unfamiliarity with the form. While operas are reviewed by authorities who know the composers, musicology, history, and who have often seen and studied the operas being performed for years, and while professional theater critics typically understand stage craft, dramatic theory and have at least a passing knowledge of literature and literary criticism, the reviews of most Broadway musicals are written by non-musicians whose sole qualification to pass judgment on a production is that they were in the audience and probably have reviewed other musicals.
You wouldn’t have to read far in Sondheim’s autobiography (he denies that he’s written one, but that’s what the two volumes are) to understand why this drives him nuts. Musicals are his art form and passion, and he has mastered the craft of constructing them and studied the history of their evolution as thoroughly as anyone who has ever lived. He understands what works in a musical and what does not, and more important, why. Not only that, he possesses a mastery of words and rhetoric to explain all of this, clearly and persuasively. He would be the most qualified critic of musicals imaginable, and also the most frightening.
Whether he would be the best critic of musicals, however, is the more pertinent question.
I empathize with Sondheim’s frustration with the fate of having to be reviewed by disproportionately influential hacks who are incapable of noticing and describing the craftsmanship and artistic integrity that he regards as paramount. To a man whose lyrics are constructed with the precision and loving care of a Swiss watchmaker, reading reviews that shout hosannas over the Hallmark ditties to music that litter Les Mis must be torture. Like him, I wish that theater critics, and not just those reviewing musicals, would be better prepared, more modest, and willing to reveal their biases (as Sondheim does, by the way, to his great credit.)
Nevertheless, I disagree with Sondheim’s central premise. Yes, the critics who review musicals are, by his standards, “ignoramuses.” But so are, by his standards, the audience members the musicals are devised to entertain. A critic who views his or her job as delivering a technical, dispassionate and subjective analysis of a stage work from the peculiar perspective of someone who spends all his nights and weekend afternoons sitting in audiences isn’t performing much of a service. This is best illustrated by the odd case of stage comedies. I cannot count the number of times I have sat in an audience of a comedy listening to and participating in uproarious laughter throughout the evening, only to read a sneering review the next morning by a critic in that very same audience, who wrote that the play was as unfunny as a funeral. Even if that critic can explain, with superb reasoning and impeccable references, why he found the show unfunny, what good is that review to a reader hoping to be amused? The objective of comedies is to make audiences laugh; if the audiences laugh, it’s a good comedy. I don’t maintain that a critic who does not enjoy a play is obligated to write a positive review because everyone around him disagrees, but I do believe that for the outlier reactions of critics to have more influence over the success of shows than the vast majority of those who see them, simply because the critics may be more knowledgeable, distorts the purpose of public art.
It may be, ironically, that the theater critic who knows nothing about music other than what makes his toe start tapping, and nothing about musical craft and structure other than what makes his emotions soar at the finale, is doing a better job at what reviewers are supposed to do than the rare authority who appreciates the exacting nuances of a Stephen Sondheim. I agree: the reviewers of musicals are usually illiterate. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are necessarily incompetent.