Are Musicals Reviewed By Ignoramuses?


OK, but Stephen: compared to you, everyone is an ignoramus!

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.

52 thoughts on “Are Musicals Reviewed By Ignoramuses?

  1. For me, West Side Story is the musical to which all others are compared. It is the perfect marriage of lyric and music, each with its own themes and variations, but with a distinct single musical theme implied throughout that binds this into the perfect masterpiece. I saw Les Miz in London in ’98 and while I was impressed with it’s production values, it is the music one hears on a CD that remains. “Bring Him Home” was really the only song that moved me. Amidst the inordinate collection of songs, the only thing tying these together was the string of plot. Sondheim has earned his griping stripes.

    • Oh, no question. SS is not my cup of tea much of the time, but I yield to no one in appreciation of his professionalism, intelligence, care, craft and talent.

      I just saw the movie of WSS for the first time in decades. For me, taking it off the stage and putting it in real NY settings kills my suspension of disbelief dead—watching these street toughs burst into Jerome Robbins ballet moves feels like a Monty Python skit.

          • It may be that the street toughs in WSS have lost their power through their association with Grease and Happy Days which make toughs thoroughly unmenacing. If they were dressed like punks or present day gang bangers dancing to Alvin Ailey, you could accept the expressionism. So I think that if you could set yourself in the mindset of these people as working class and threatened (as opposed to middle class poseurs) you might be able to get beyond it.

            I suppose there’s only the very slightest hint of blame in your comments, so I’ll call that a friendly amendment.

      • I concede that seeing the stage production is probably always going to be superior to the movie in many respects, especially given the live aspect and the dynamism one experiences between performer and audience. But comparing it to a Monty Python skit? I love MP, but they did not exist back when the movie was made, for one, and to apply them as a reference that happened later in history doesn’t seem fair, appropriate or accurate. “Psycho” could be trashed in similar fashion (different medium, yes, but stay with me here), yet many still appreciate its artistry, form, and frankly, I still get scared when I watch it. It is a record of a work, and just as in jazz, the live improv is always better than a recording; even if it is a recording of the live performance. I think it was Eric Dolphy who said that once jazz is played, it is gone forever. Well, WSS – The Movie captures that which others may not be able to witness in a stage performance. We do not all live in New York. Fortunately, we have recordings that can at least hint at the greatness of the work.

        • It’s the contrast of ballet-dancing hoods that gets me–there was a skit somewhere about “Ballet Parking” instead of valet parking. The magic of musicals—thoughts and emotions expressed in music and dance—doesn’t quite work for me in movies since 1960, especially WSS.
          I’m not sure what the closest Python skit would be, but there are several. Why would it matter, in making a comparison, when the Python troup was active?

          I think the greatness of the work is completely and totally captured in the recordings: Bernstein.

  2. Very few critics know what there are talking about. Most of them just reiterate the story being told and then write a short paragraph about the actual acting , direction and technical parts of the show. The good critics can tell you what the play is about and not give it away in a sentence or two. The bad ones spend most of the review telling you.

    There was a critic in this town who could tell you technically what was wrong with a performance from what he read in books about theater , forgetting , or maybe not even knowing , that acting isn’t something that is done by a precise set of rules. While some people thought he was a good critic I always thought he was a boob.

  3. The reviewers of musicals are illiterate? Maybe not such a bad thing. I don’t need a Ph.D in music theory to understand what the reviewer is writing. I generally enjoy musicals because I don’t have a high level of sophistication in that genre in order to acertain whether a production was truly dreadful. At times, ignorance can be bliss. Of course, if I were fortunate enough to have Oscar Hammerstein as a mentor, I would most certainly think differently. However, with that knowledge would I ever be able to just sit back and enjoy a musical production without torturing myself by tearing it apart in my head for all the things which are wrong or could have been done better?

    • Your mention of Oscar Hammerstein implies a reference point as well as a standard (a good one, in my opinion!). Ignorance perhaps, can be bliss, but the more one knows, the more one can appreciate. I have no patience for the mental auto-eroticism that goes on with some who delve deep into some analysis they find relevant; sometimes it really does come down to whether one likes something or not. But in the case of true art, whether it be a musical, dance, performance, visual, it’s longevity is a good indicator of good quality. In my experience, there have been things I liked immediately, only to find years later that my taste had changed (or matured) and only like still because of the peripheral memories. Conversely, there are works I hated at first (by Elliot Carter, John Cage, Cecil Taylor, eg) but now, are not only appreciated and revered, but enjoyed. Like anything else, the more one is exposed to the arts, the more one develops an understanding, distinct appreciation and preference.

  4. I always assumed a media critic was a beginning journalist who thought “critic” meant one who criticizes or finds fault. I wonder if they were critics of their mother’s cooking. However I must disagree with Sondheim to a point. Public sculpture is also reviewed by know-nothings. They may have taken a survey course but that is the extent of their training.

  5. Sondheim, at least to me, has always been the public television of musical theater; his contemporaries more like Fox. The thing is, far more people watch Fox than they do public television. And, certainly, there are those who (like myself) watch and enjoy both. I like Les Miz, Miss Saigon, Rent, Jersey Boys, and Wicked. I also like Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Company, and Sunday in the Park with George.

    I understand Mr. Sondheim’s frustration with the lack of training on the part of folks on whom his livelihood depends, though. He makes a good point. I wonder, though, if these critics have the same power today, in the Internet age, as they did 20 years ago, considering that there are any number of unsolicited reviews available these days from many sources other than mainstream media. Many of these sources are blogs devoted to musical theater and are maintained by musical theater aficionados. I find that these are often better sources of information than, say, The New York Times.

    • No doubt, they have less power, and will have less still as time goes by. I think the PBS-Fox comparison is unfair, however. It’s more like Homeland vs NCIS, or Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In vs. Frazier. I know it drives Sondheim crazy, and I understand why, but craftsmanship doesn’t conquer joy. His problem always was that he was essentially an intellectual working in a visceral art form. That he was as successful as he was is remarkable, and a testimony to how far pure craft will go; that in the end the shows in which Sondheim was not the main creative force—West Side Story, Gypsy, Forum—-will always be more popular, more performed and more seen and enjoyed than those where his vision was a driving force.

      • I was looking for the end of each spectrum comparison, perhaps I went too far— I’ll give you that. I have to admit, I am not the biggest West Side Story fan. (I know. I know. Heresy!) Personally, I love Sweeney Todd.

        I agree that Sondheim is an intellectual working in a visceral art form. And, yes, the amount of success he has achieved in spite of it is a testament, I think, to the audiences that have embraced him (whether or not they realize his genius).

        I can see why it drives him crazy, though.

  6. the oldie musicals have a great quality to them but you cant blame people for being sick of musicals with the load of tosh that passes for ” a musical” nowadays.. the deluge of crap out there means most of us run a mile when the word “musical” is mentioned… and rightly so. thanks for the blog tho!

    • Agreed—well-crafted, well-written musicals that don’t depend on gimmicks and special effects (“Spiderman”? Really?) are so rare, which is why revivals generate more excitement than new works in the musicals field. I’m pessimistic about the art form—I see things like the revivals, “Les Miz” (opera) and the juke-box musicals (revues) as the equivalent of someone’s life passing before his eyes as they die. The Sondheim musicals, along with William Finn and others followers, were a brilliant dead end. The Hollywood musical has been essentially dead for decades. I don’t see much hope.

      • Not much hope? My view is that it may be in a hibernation, but I would not say that it is dead. Once toothpaste is out of the tube…
        In my observations, parochial though they may be, there always seems to be a resurgence due to an artist who brings some new and unique perspective. It has happened in jazz, in the visual arts, in cinema (we still see black & white “silent films” today). I’m not fond of reviews either, as these seem to take existing works and re-apply them in a different context such as the animation, “Happy Feet.” While this was a clever use of classic songs, I would have been more impressed if the producers would have insisted on original material instead of relying upon music that is already impressed in the public consciousness and brings with it an instant recognition and subsequent emotion. Seems like cheating to me.

        • Let me define dead. Opera and ballet are dead. Once you are only seen by wealthy aficionados and only exist through grants, your a dead art form, hanging around as a ghost.

          I don’t see musicals ever being THAT dead, but the symptoms of imminent demise are pretty daunting:

          1. Live theater itself is declining past the recovery point.
          2. There aren’t enough musicals to make a career as a musical theater performer viable. See Kristin Chenowith.
          3. Writing musicals isn’t lucrative any more.
          4. The essential conceit of musicals, that people sing and dance their emotions, has become unbelievable to most young people.
          5. Movie musicals are rarities, and most flop, even when the original, like Phantom, was a mega-hit.
          6. As Sondheim complains, the are of writing structurally sound musicals is about as healthy as cathedral building.
          7. BIG PROBLEM: the predominant popular forms of music don’t support musicals, which need harmonic, lyric-supporting musical forms. Rock, rap, hip-hip don’t tell stories. Even new musicals use old forms predominantly, which has demographic consequences.
          8. When was the last time a Broadway song was a popular hit? My guess would be “Memories” from “Cats”—and that’s 30 years ago. And IT was unusual.
          9. Licensing companies charge so much that fewer and fewer schools and community theaters can afford to do newer musicals, removing “the farm team.”
          10.Many of the most popular musicals simply can’t be done well or at all because special effects or extreme talents are integral to the show. Try staging Les Miz without a rotating stage. A high school “Cats” is just sad. So are amateur “Chorus Lines”.
          11. The art form is increasingly regarded as a niche for gays exclusively.
          12. Nobody successful stepped up to take Sondheim’s mantle as the innovator in the field, and he’s over 80. So is Jerry Herman, who was the last traditional lyrics and music guy. Kander and Ebb were the last musical writing team of note—one is dead, the other ancient. The most promising new team was Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman. Ashman died young, and Mencken has mostly written animated musicals, which leads us to…
          13. Like dinosaurs evolving into birds, Broadway musicals are evolving into animated musicals. They seem to be healthier.

          That’s my top 13, which is enough for now. Depressed yet?

          • Your “top 13” is just FABulous! And yeah, musicals definitely seem to be going the way of the animated realm. You mentioned Hal Ashman and Alan Mencken – to me, their “Beauty and the Beast” was a perfect marriage of animation, music and story. Now excuse me while I leave to go resume my marathon viewing of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and John Wayne movies….

          • I must cry foul on reason #7 why the Broadway musical is dying. Rock, rap and hip-hop can and do tell stories–what about Tommy or The Wall or Operation: Mindcrime? In addition, I don’t think that the old forms are all that different from modern bubblegum pop or easy listening, so there should be at least some ability for outreach already. Personally, though, I think that incorporation of those newer forms would be an excellent start for anyone who wants to get serious about reviving the Broadway musical.

            • Yes, I’ve heard that argument for years. Then name me a single true rock or rap musical that 1) was successful and 2) produced a hit song. I mean, you’ve had 40, nearly 50 years. And starting with a rock album and making it into a show, as with “Tommie” or “Superstar”, doesn’t count, nor does a jukebox musical…plus “Superstar” is ersatz rock. If they’re so easy to make musicals with, why haven’t those musical forms made any good musicals? Book musical that tells a story with original rock music, that worked, and launched a hit song, that actually made the charts. Examples, please.

              • What does having a hit song on the charts have to do with if rap or rock can tell a story? Both Rent and In The Heights were successful as musicals (and had cast albums that sold very well), and both musicals told stories.

                Part of the reason Broadway no longer produces pop singles is that pop has changed, but part of it is that Broadway has changed. In the days when Broadway songs became pop standards – the days before Sondheim became influential – songs in musicals were less rooted in specific characters and situations, and were not used nearly as much to forward the plot.

                “Just One Of Those Things” is a fabulous song, but how many people who know it can say who the character who sung it was? Or even that it came from a musical named Jubilee? Few decent musicals nowadays have songs that work well uprooted from character and context, and I think that’s good even though it doesn’t lend itself to pop singles. It seems arbitrary to make “the charts” the only measure of success while ignoring album sales.

                Go to a junior high or high school and start singing “Defying Gravity” from Wicked – I guarantee half the girls there will know the lyrics. Hit singles played on the radio aren’t the only way for songs to be popular nowadays; “the charts” mattered much more before there was an internet. I live with two girls who have never once listened to a radio, but they listen to music constantly.

                • I knew you were going to cite “Wicked”—a legitimate mega-hit that can, in fact, be done in schools. The Producers? Not really. The Drowsy Chaperone? Jersey Boys? It’s the exception that proves the rule. The reason the hit song factor is significant is that once Broadway mattered, kids listened to the cast recordings and recording stars covered the songs, raising them on the pop culture pecking order. Few decent musicals have songs that work well uprooted from context because there are few decent musicals these days, and also because the retro gimmick represented by Phantom and Les Miz were also retrograde.The device of putting generic songs in a musical made to do little more than house them was made scarce by Oklahoma!, which managed to advance the story in song AND have hit-worthy songs. I think most people knew “Hello Dolly!” came from “Hello Dolly.” A lot of rock isn’t lyrical…Rap and hip-hop tells stories, but I’d sure hate to stage the chorus.

                  If Broadway were producing songs a lot of people wanted to here, Glee wouldn’t spend so much time recycling music that’s 40 years old. Here is DC, the respected musical theater, which rose to prominence on Sondheim productions and which pledged to create “cutting edge’ musicals, is now producing “Hairspray” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” The new musicals are neither well-received or worth doing, and “cutting edge” means “The Capeman” or “Special effects instead of a story worth watching.”

                  I really wish you were right, but I think you’re whistling in the dark.

                  • I hate the expression “the exception that proves the rule,” which is a way of saying “I don’t have to be logical, I’m going to dismiss any example that proves I’m wrong.” (The phrase “the exception that proves the rule” originally didn’t mean that, but it’s evolved in usage in an unfortunately way.)

                    Of course, I could have used Hairspray as my example as well – another musical that’s popular with kids, and which has been on Glee. So has the extremely popular Rent, so now we have three “exceptions.” (Most of the songs on Glee aren’t from musicals at all, of course).

                    I agree, of course, that Broadway isn’t producing a lot of songs that huge masses of people want to hear – although there are some Broadway musicals that are hits with a mass audience (such as the three mentioned above), most musicals never hit that level. But I think that’s okay. Mega-mass appeal is not the best measure of legitimacy.

                    It’s been decades since the last time Broadway had a chart-topping hit, but many good shows and a few great ones have come out during that time. I don’t think musicals are ever going to be the center of pop music the way they once were, but they might well continue surviving as a marginal art form. If so, that’s okay. (But I’m biased: After all, I’ve built my life around a marginal art form that used to be much more popular.)

                    • …and no one has yet mentioned, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” I agree with Ampersand in this comment “Mega-mass appeal is not the best measure of legitimacy;” how often have we seen the public slow to appreciate a show, an art, a dance, a TV Series, etc that was later found to be a enduring and endearing classic? In this regard, I think it was Robert Persig who said something to the effect that artists will always be the front of the train and the rest of us are somewhere behind. Perhaps most critics are the caboose. We can argue that many art forms have faded or become extinct eventually – vaudeville certainly comes to mind. I prefer to see that they all get blended into an as yet undiscovered form, and today, we are just in the transition somewhere.

                    • No no, you are missing the one legitimate and important meaning of “the exception that proves the rule,’ which was the genius of Kurt Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems, which apply to mathematics and physics but in broad strokes to normative rules as well. He proved that no rule (at least no rule that can be delineated in available human communication) is going to work all the time, that there will always be anomolies, and that one of the characteristics of a rule IS that it has anomalies. So the existence of an anomaly, or exception doesn’t disprove a rule, it only shows that indeed it is a rule. That was the sense in which I used it. In ethics, this line of reasoning shows the limitations of absolutism.

                      Rent is 16 years old, or the distance in time from Oklahoma! and The Ziegfeld Follies of 1927. My statement is about progressive rot. Hairspray opened in 2002. Wicked is 9 years old. I don’t think the fact that the most prominent recent representatives of an art form are between 9 and 16 years old is a rebuttal of the claim that this is a death spiral.

                      “Once” swept the Tonys for musicals this year. Does anyone think this show will be remembered in 5 years? Do you know a single song from it? Meanwhile, the season featured revivals of Porgy and Bess, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Camelot, She Loves Me, Hair, Follies, Evita, and On A Clear Day.

                      I think the trend is clear too. (nice segue, if I do say so myself.)

          • I have to disagree on Rock not being able to support the musical form. I’ll sign off on Rap and Hip-Hop, though I’ve heard a few melodic, lyrical tracks in the latter (mostly, to my surprise, in German, as well as German Rock & Metal bands seem to prefer the ballad – now do tell me, what is more melodical and lyrical and designed for storytelling than the ballad?)

            • I love reading all these things from a couple of years a go about how the Broadway musical is dying. I think in the last few years musical theatre has been taking strides in the right direction and has moved form its niche-appeal. Hamilton is definitely a huge step in the right direction.

    • Well, SS doesn’t claim its 100%, but it sure isn’t “many.” His point is that it is the drama critics, who are (sometimes) versed in drama and play criticism, and not critics who have any technical expertise in music, lyric-writing, or the structure of musicals. He’s dead right–in 40 yers in the business, I can’t think of a review of a musical that was much more than, “Wow, I loved that song, and she could sing great!” Read opera or ballet reviews as contrast—that’s what Sondheim would like, I think.

  7. I totally understand, as you seem to, Sondheim’s frustration. I come from a theatrical background, and even musical shows, such as Country, Rock, R&B, Hip-Hop, Contemporary Christian, etc., get reviewed by individuals that have little to no music performance literacy. But I think the biggest issue I take with critics, of any genre of entertainment, is that what they are critiquing is so largely subjective. Thus the reason you experienced an audience laughing at a comedy that a professional critic disliked. It just plain subject to one’s taste. 🙂 Good article, btw. Thanks for posting.

  8. Two points. The first is the literacy issue. I think it’s interesting that it would appear that a good reviewer is either a novice or a master where everything in between is amateur. I’ve been reviewing movies for the past year (on a blog) and I’ve definitely felt that in my own stuff. The more movies I watched and connections I could draw, the more it became apparent how much I really needed to do to become proficient. I needed to read a lot more literature, read a lot more scripts, and watch a lot more movies. Otherwise, I would start to create a context but have a nagging feeling that the director/writer/actor (who are often scholars of film) might/probably know more than me and were doing something else. It seems that these musical reviewers aren’t expected to take the next step from reviewer to analyst.

    The second point is about objectivity. If the audience laughs, it doesn’t make it funny, but the reviewer should point out that other people were laughing. But she should do both. It is probably a more effective review that way (if the review is for guidance). I find musicals less and less funny the more I watch films or read classically funny books (Wodehouse, for example) and I can’t tell whether that’s the level of writing today or if it’s the medium.

    There’s a great point in your post that says that the vital thing in making Sondheim a phenomenal critic is that he knows *why*. I haven’t read a musical review in my life, but if they’re anything like film reviewers (and I suspect they are), the review is manically devoted to creating clever-ish descriptions. “Unfunny as a funeral” is a good example. They don’t go into why. I find my tripping point is expressing why something goes right (though I find it very easy to express why something goes wrong).

    Anyway, I love Sondheim. He always impresses when I see him in interviews. And you made me think of it and want to buy the books, so that means you did a damn fine job yourself. Thanks.

  9. I have been a Sondheim fan for over 35 years. Audiences are mostly illiterate, these days.
    They are there to be part of “the event”, as Steve says.
    It’s a shame.
    I loved your post and I am becoming a follower.
    Great job!!

  10. I think there’s a difference between a reviewer and a critic. A reviewer is there to tell me, as a consumer, if I should spend a money on this musical (comic book, movie, novel, etc). Who’s in it? What genre is it? Am I likely to enjoy it? Reviews are useful, since I don’t have enough time or money to see everything, but there’s not much point to reading a review of a show I’ve already seen.

    A critic is there to deepen my enjoyment of a piece by pointing out interpretations and connections I might not have noticed otherwise, or that I would have noticed but not in as much detail or depth.

    To be a reviewer, literacy in the form isn’t all that necessary or expected. But critics need literacy in the form to be worth reading.

    • Yes, and I think Sondheim, who writes for a sophisticated listener, thinks his reviewers should be as educated on the form as critics. I think this is SS’s weakness, too. I’m sure he could dissect a Jerry Herman song and show how flawed it is, and that would stop him, as a reviewer, from enjoying it. In his critique of Noel Coward in the first of the books, he has a pedantic objection to Coward’s lyrics to “If Love Were All,” which misses the song by a mile. Critcs make lousy reviewers as much as reviewers can make lousy critics. That song always makes me cry, and I’m not the only one.

  11. Jack, I’ll admit to being an illiterate ignoramus, but I like to think I’m teachable. At the risk of going off-topic, I’d like to be educated as to why Les Mis is “pompous, derivative junk.” What does that mean? Derivative because it’s derived from a novel? Is that bad? Is it pompous because it’s themed around profound ideas, and makes value judgments, whereas we’re all expected to be post-modern now? Thanks for clarifying.

    • No, it is derivative, because most of the songs have recognizable antecedents that those familiar with better musical theater composers can immediately recognize, and junk because 1) the lyrics are devoid of cleverness or dexterity of langauge (Sondheim didn’t dissect them because it is shooting fish in a barrel for someone like him) and the story is incoherent. How do you know it is incoherent? Other than the fact that it is the only musical ever produced that requires (and has) a 3000 word plot synopsis in the programs to provide any hope that someone unfamiliar with the (fantastic) novel could follow it, the proof is in this fact: a majority of those who see the show on stage, even many who have seen it more than once, still think its about the French Revolution.

      “Les Miz” is pompous because it’s faux opera, and because almost every song requires the performer to throw back his or her shoulders and lift his chin in an attitude of self-conscious seriousness, angst and self-importance. The movie magnifies this latter quality to the point of nausea. It’s an inflated mediocre musical with delusions of grandeur, that the ignoramuses Sondheim was referring to told the trusting public was great art.


      If you enjoy it, that’s all that matters, you know, and it doesn’t make you an ignoramus.
      Sometimes, I like “Spaceballs.”

  12. Congrats on FP. Congrats on using the word ignoramus. On to “musicals” I have not seen Les Miz (the movie), and never will. My light bulb went off the year Sweeney Todd and Across The Universe were both nominated for Oscars. Julie Taymor’s ATU was brilliant, relevant, and visually gorgeous. Sweeney Todd had Johnny Depp and naturally took the Oscar. Holy crap.

  13. Interesting thoughts in the focus article. First I must say that the through-composed Les Miserables is tons more enjoyable than the Demon Barber of Fleet. And one is about a man excelling and one about a man failing. No matter. You may enjoy a discussion in the LinkedIn group “Choral Enthusiasts” about “Is it fair to expose an amateur singing group to world-wide viewing?” It’s another conflict between the elitist and the enthusiast.

    • Boy, I’d argue the Sweeney Todd-Les Miz comparison to the death, and I’m no SS worshiper. “Sweeney” is one of the most original and well constructed pieces of musical theater ever made, sick though it is. I won’t insult you by saying what I really think about Les Miz–though a genteel description is somewhere in the comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.