Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

The Artistic and Philosophical Legacy of Stephen Sondheim


Stephen Sondheim in 1994 (photo by Fred R. Conrad)

The great composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim recently passed away at the age of 91. His cool cleverness and skeptical, often ironic, intellectual character have long been commented on. It is not hard to find pieces with titles like “The Case for Sondheim as Existentialist,” or an obituary describing him as a “philosopher of music.”

So I was struck, but not surprised, by the sheer number and diversity of philosophers I could see who, like me, were taking it hard over the loss of so marvelous and so philosophical an artist. No less a figure than Cornel West (who interviewed Sondheim back in 2002) offered praise in such terms: “His genius shall live forever! He was profound in content, subversive in form and always beautifully lyrical.” It is hard to imagine any other composer for the stage in the last century commanding as much attention and respect from the philosophical community.

To honor his passing, and to celebrate his work, we have assembled a symposium of thinkers to mull on and explore the artistic, philosophical, and social legacy of Stephen Sondheim.

Our contributors are:

  • Dorian Bandy, Assistant Professor of Musicology at McGill University
  • E. M. Hernandez, President’s Post-Doctoral Fellow at UC Irvine
  • Robert L. McLaughlin, Emeritus Professor of English, Illinois State University
  • Neil Van Leeuwen, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Georgia State University; Lyricist, Song of Solomon: A New Musical
  • Jonathan M. Weinberg, Professor, Department of Philosophy & Program in Cognitive Science, University of Arizona
  • Stacy Wolf, Professor of Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts and American Studies, Princeton University

Dorian Bandy

Dorian Bandy is Assistant Professor of Musicology at McGill University.

In the recent outpouring of gratitude for Sondheim and his work, something that has become apparent is the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of pinning down the precise nature of his greatness. Some elements of his art have already been the subject of significant discussion, most notably the flamboyant brilliance of his rhymes. Comparatively little has been said about the philosophical acuity of his shows—yet not only are his works richly philosophical, they seem to be effortlessly so. At times, they condense complex ideas into remarkably breezy lyrics. Elsewhere, the shows themselves seem to enact the process of thinking through philosophical problems.

In their peculiar flavor of intellectual sophistication, Sondheim’s shows differ from many other fictions. Often, for instance, philosophical novels put ideas into characters’ mouths, as in the weighty speeches from Daniel Deronda or The Brothers Karamazov. Sondheim does his share of this too: the Baker’s Wife is in a consequentialist mood when, in Into the Woods, she articulates this excuse for lying to Jack about the magic beans; and the ghost of Cinderella’s Mother channels Freud when she advises that we distinguish between wishing and wanting.

Yet more often it is Sondheim’s shows themselves—rather than characters or author—that seem to know how to think.

This is most evident in Sunday in the Park with George, widely considered Sondheim’s masterpiece. Sunday is, ultimately, a meditation on the power of art. Yet it tackles its subject obliquely, masquerading as a show about the challenge of making art. Act I dramatizes Georges Seurat’s work on a massive canvas. As the painting comes together, the artist’s personal and professional lives fall into shambles. In Act II, set a century later, Seurat’s great-grandson (also an artist and also named George) effortlessly garners commissions, but struggles to maintain contact with his aesthetic vision.

Throughout, Sondheim presents a series of propositions about the ontology of art. For Franz in Act I, “Work is what you do for others, Liebchen, / Art is what you do for yourself.” For Dot, Seurat’s estranged lover, all art aspires to the condition of pastry. (“Louis’s really an artist, / Louis’s cakes are an art.”) In Act II, a museum board-member describes art as a process: “You can’t divide art today into categories neatly— / What matters is the means, not the ends.” This view is expanded by George himself in “Putting It Together,” where those “means,” reduced to matters of funding and politics, are abstracted entirely from a work’s content, to say nothing of its quality.

The characters who disdain neat philosophies are Seurat and his daughter Marie. Seurat, contrary to popular opinion, is no fictionalized surrogate for Sondheim. The quasi-mystical view he espouses in “Finishing the Hat” is incompatible with Sondheim’s unremitting craftsmanship. For Seurat, the artist finds beauty in artifice: he seeks to “revise the world.” This estrangement from reality is mirrored in his own inner detachment, which leads him to refer to himself in the second and third person (a grammatical block that afflicts his great-grandson as well). Only Marie, in Act II, truly connects. Through her we grasp one of the show’s core themes: that artworks themselves are children, launched into the future, soon to accumulate meaning, ideas, and a significance that is neither defined nor bounded by the intentions of their creator-parents.

So far, so good. But the process of thought enacted by Sunday occurs at the level of the entire show, not within individual utterances. One clue involves the musical structure. Almost every tune presented in Act I is reprised in Act II. Such thematic cross-references may have appealed to Sondheim’s love of games, yet they are no idle tricks. They suggest that Act II is actively listening to, and commenting on, Act I. Act II does not merely present a new plot: it refracts the earlier material, pushing us to understand it in a new light.

Sunday goes still further. Much of the show’s intellectual labor occurs in the final scene, when George visits La Grande Jatte. His attempts to conjure the memory of Marie lead him to a century-old grammar book—and the marginalia therein brings him into contact with the spirit of his great-grandmother Dot. She emerges from the tattered pages and teaches George to look beyond physical artifacts: to see not merely a book or canvas, but the mind and persona who held the pen, who wielded the brush.

This encounter is the subject of the show: the eponymous Sunday, the leap of imagination towards which the entire work points. Act I, we realize, is an expanded parenthetical nested within the final minutes of Act II. It is here that the words George finds scribbled in the grammar book—Order, Design, Composition, Balance, Light, Harmony—are presented, becoming the mantra from which Act I unfolds. In this scene, George peers through the scrim of time, imaginatively reconstructing the painting and, at long last, attaining the aesthetic understanding that eluded him until now. Sondheim created Act I through a similar process of imagination; and we, too, share in it when we seek meaning in an artwork such as this. Sunday both demonstrates and embodies the workings of critical, creative thought.

E. M. Hernandez

E. M. Hernandez is President’s Post-Doctoral Fellow at UC Irvine.

Sondheim regularly compared his creative process to that of an actor. The playwrights he collaborated with created the character, situations, and stories, which he then inhabited (like an actor) to write the songs. The writing process for him was exploring and getting to know fully formed characters, to bring their mental lives into view of the audience experiencing the story. And because Sondheim held that songs should in some way move the story or character development on, his most memorable songs often take place at major crossroads for the characters, where they deliberate on their situation and decide what to do. 

A major theme in Sondheim’s work then is character introspection, figuring out what one really wants and what they should do. A prime example of this is Cinderella’s “On the Steps of the Palace” in Into the Woods. At this point in the show, Cinderella has run away twice from the prince and is surprised to find that the prince has thrown pitch on the stairs, trapping her. We take a pause to explore Cinderella’s reaction to this circumstance. She begins to feel the pull between the safe but normal life of hers at home and the exciting but scary life she may have with the prince and must decide whether she will let the prince catch her or if she will escape back home. In deliberating between these two options and the consequences of each, she decides there is a third option where she runs away but leaves a shoe behind so that the prince can find her.

While this kind of song is not Sondheim’s invention (he learned this approach to songwriting from his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II), it is something he exceled at. His songs resonate so deeply with many of us because he was a student of human character. He wasn’t just interested in writing songs, but in understanding why we feel the way we do and why we make the decisions that we do. His creative process was animated by the same types of questions that animate work in ethics and moral psychology. 

Whereas philosophers attempt to answer these questions in the abstract and general, Sondheim looked to answer them in the concrete reality of these characters he was presented with. It’s not a question of how we, as humans, make the decision between the safe and boring versus the scary and exciting, but how does Cinderella specifically wrestle with that tension. But in exploring how these characters deliberate and work through that tension, it gives the rest of us insight into how we too may do that. 

Consider another example from Sunday in the Park with George, “We Do Not Belong Together.” Here the character Dot has already decided that she is leaving with the baker Louis to go to America and, in effect, leaving her relationship with the artist George behind. They fight, with George frustrated because he thought Dot understood that he was an artist first and foremost, and that any affection and care he can communicate will not be through words but through putting Dot into his work. However, Dot not only needed more from him, but she realizes that George is living a life where his work is so central that he is “complete”—that he does not need her like how she needs him. Dot could come or go, and while George would care, he would survive. She realizes that they do not belong together, that this relationship she invested so much time in could never work. Earlier in the show we get the same insights from George’s perspective in “Finishing the Hat,” which reveals how deeply he feels this loss—if anyone could understand his devotion to his art, he thought it’d be her. Simultaneously, we get confirmation that Dot’s understanding of the situation is right. George does not need her and is not willing to prioritize her.

This song is exploring a specific conflict between the characters of George and Dot, their specific interpersonal dynamics given their needs, goals, and desires and specifically the story of a lone artist who cannot manage both a life dedicated to creation and a life of social and emotional fulfillment. But in these songs too, we find something to relate to. That the ones we love, and who even love us back, are not always the people for us. That sometimes there is an incompatibility which makes it so that our needs are not being met, and we must do the difficult thing and move on to find fulfillment. 

One of the most popular tweets after Sondheim’s recent death stated, “Incredible that Sondheim himself gave us the very lexicon of expressions through which to grieve him.” Sondheim, unlike many other artists and especially musical theater writers, not only helped us see these rich and complex characters, he also gave us insight into our own humanity. He explored tensions in our needs and desires, our goals and the choices before us, the value of relationships, and the hurt that the loss of those relationships create. While not aimed at general theories of emotions, attachment, or decision making, his work provides invaluable insights into what it is to live emotionally complex, messy, and therefore all too human lives.

Robert L. McLaughlin

Robert L. McLaughlin is Emeritus Professor of English at Illinois State University.

In “The Last Word,” a New York Times video obituary for which he was interviewed in 2008, Stephen Sondheim explained why few of his groundbreaking shows of the 1970s were financially successful: “It takes an audience a while to get used to new ways of storytelling.” That audiences must learn to understand new forms of storytelling, especially in a convention-hugging genre like the musical theater, perhaps accounts for why none of Sondheim’s shows cracked the 1,000-performance mark in their initial Broadway runs, while in time they became beloved classics. I’ve written elsewhere about how Sondheim’s (and his collaborators’) fractured narratives reflect a questioning of narrative knowledge and his fragmented characters reflect a questioning of coherent identity. Here I’ll discuss another convention-transgressing tendency of Sondheim’s musicals: their ambivalent, ambiguous endings.

Musicals, from the operettas and musical comedies of the 1920s and 1930s to the shows of the present day, have tended to end in the formation of some kind of community, often marked by a wedding. Characters and groups that for whatever reason, serious or contrived, have been in conflict, are brought together. As much as Oklahoma! defied other conventions, it embraced this one: the conclusion offers us not only a wedding but also the promise of the formation of a new state. The farmers and the cowmen are symbolically united in the wedding, and the frontier society’s misfits are either assimilated or killed off.

Two of Sondheim’s musicals use this convention. Through most of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Pseudolus has been a trickster, providing a narrative for each of the other characters, narratives that they believe represent the “reality” of their situations. When it’s revealed that Miles and Philia are brother and sister, everyone snaps to the actual reality and are brought together to participate in a happy ending. More complexly, at the end of Into the Woods, the death of the Giant marks the completion of the characters’ journeys through the woods and the lessons they’ve learned there, primarily that no one is alone, that our acts have consequences that touch others, that we must join with others to achieve our goals. Appropriately then, as the characters begin the final reprise of the title song, their joyous dance breaks down family and class boundaries, past and present, and creates a giant community. Not surprisingly, Forum and Into the Woods are probably Sondheim’s most popular musicals.

More frequently, however, Sondheim and his collaborators have given us endings (not really conclusions) that represent the fragmentation, ambivalence, and loneliness of life in the second half of the twentieth century. The finale of Assassins, which followed Into the Woods, is a mockery of the latter show’s optimism. The assassins, who have throughout the play been trying to make their narratives heard, narratives of failure, oppression, and subversion, narratives that challenge the official narratives of the American Dream, finally form a community—they “connect”—but it is a solipsistic community based in shared alienation, anger, and madness. It can’t make good on its critique of mainstream America; it offers only violence.

The end of Sweeney Todd is even more unsettling. After mad Toby delivers his final speech, a trapdoor slams, the lights come up full for the first time all evening, and the ensemble sings once again the title song, telling us of the demon barber and his murderous obsession with revenge. This time, however, something has changed: the singers describe the places Sweeney exists in the world of the audience, and, in so doing, they draw us into the world of the play. Suddenly, Sweeney isn’t on the stage but all around us; they point him out everywhere in the theater. We’re drawn against our wills into Sweeney’s victimization, obsession, and revenge.

Passion ends in a different kind of madness. Giorgio, his affair with Clara over, his army career ruined, his health shattered, receives in his hospital a box of letters, papers, and souvenirs. When he opens it, the stage is filled with the cast singing snippets of songs, his memories before his eyes. A final letter from Fosca, accompanied by her memory, allows the two to affirm their now-impossible love. Giorgio is left alone, alienated from all he knew before and haunted by his memories.

One of Sondheim’s creative credos was that content dictates form. He would have been false to the stories he and his collaborators chose to tell had he ended them with inappropriate but audience-pleasing community-forging. Instead, he risked leaving his audiences uncomfortable and narratively unsatisfied by writing endings that reflected the world he was trying to represent. In so doing, he not only showed us the world but taught us new ways to see it.

Neil Van Leeuwen

Neil Van Leeuwen is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgia State University and
Lyricist of Song of Solomon: A New Musical.

It’s daunting to write about Stephen Sondheim.

But my gratitude for what he put on this earth compels me to say something. He had a complete life, and his work and approach influence how I write both philosophically and lyrically

So here it goes.

My favorite pieces by Sondheim are philosophical meditations. Not arguments, not theses, not theories, but meditations. 

Sunday in the Park with George is his meditation on creativity. Follies is his mediation on memory. Sweeney Todd is his meditation on madness. 

These musicals are philosophical meditations in the sense of being contemplative exercises that clear the mind. If you go along with them, you’ll find yourself thinking more clearly and with greater insight about the topics they explore. We notice an important similarity here. Descartes’s First Meditation was meant to do precisely that: Descartes wasn’t practicing skepticism by the fireside because he wanted to have no beliefs at all; rather, he was clearing his mind of any false or confused beliefs that might stand in the way of knowledge (or thinking with clear and distinct ideas). Meditation is about clarity.

If I interpret Sondheim in this way, then it is fair for you to ask the following: What confusions or false beliefs about these topics is Sondheim pushing us to see past in these works?

Sunday in the Park with George is inspired by Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. In portraying the painter’s painstaking process, Sondheim’s music disabuses us of the expectation that genuine exercises of creativity are supposed to be fun. Sometimes they are, and great. But if you want to finish a huge canvas using only pecks with the tip of a brush, be prepared for tedious hours of work in the middle of the night. Even finishing a hat can be hard. Of course, memory might retroactively paint past creative work as having been fun, but it probably wasn’t at the time, as Sondheim reminds us again and again throughout the piece. That brings us to the next topic.

Follies tells the story of a reunion of dancers just before their old theatre is demolished. It forces us to contemplate what a trickster memory can be—not in that it gets facts wrong (though that happens too), but in that it gives a disorienting emotional coloring to past events. Through their encounters with the space in which they once danced and flaunted their beautiful young bodies, the former dancers of Weissman’s Follies see their younger selves from years before. These former selves somehow compare favorably in memory to their current selves—happier, more light hearted, having a greater sense of purpose—despite the series of career successes that many of them have had and despite the fact that the roles they occupied as young dancers made them indistinguishable and replaceable. As dancers they were objectified props, yet their memories tell them that those were the days. Sondheim doesn’t give a theory of why memory does this, but this meditation enables us to see memory’s emotional deceptions for what they are. 

Of course, if we dwell too much on the past, we go mad, as did Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Todd, a barber who is tormented by past loss, joins forces with Mrs Lovett, a failing pie baker, to take revenge on a cruel society. What we glimpse here is that madness is not mere confusion about what is real, as people often think. (Mere confusion comes in the more pedestrian forms of stupidity and ignorance.) Rather, the insanity of Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett lies in their committed decision to step outside of normal society and to play a certain game with it. Therein lies their break with sanity. They make the normal folks unwittingly eat other normal folks in the form of a pie. We must here meditate with awe the play, creativity, and even fun that go on in the secret games of the insane. 

On reading over what I have written, I cannot help but feel that these glosses are inadequate. But I’m not surprised: meditation offers something theory doesn’t. So I mainly hope I have persuaded a few readers to experience Sondheim’s works as meditations. 

Meditation is what brings clarity, which Sondheim himself liked. He had three chief rules for writing: “Content dictates form. Less is more. God is in the details.” To what end were these rules? 

All in the service of clarity.

Rest in peace, Stephen J. Sondheim. 

Jonathan M. Weinberg

Jonathan M. Weinberg is Professor in the Department of Philosophy & Program in Cognitive Science
at the University of Arizona.

Why is Sondheim so especially beloved by philosophers? Many obvious explananda present themselves: sheer intellectual delight at his wordplay; the beauty and intricacy of his compositions; his sardonic tone that somehow mixes enough bitter into the sweet to allow those of us with treacle-allergic palates nonetheless to quaff what he has brewed. (To misappropriate Housman: “Webber does more than Sondheim can/to justify God’s ways to man.”) Surely those are all major parts of the story. I come to offer one more: that Sondheim has a particular talent for dramatizing recognizably philosophical movements in his characters’ inner lives.

I’ll start with one of my favorite songs in his oeuvre, “The Miller’s Son”. You don’t really need to know much about A Little Night Music to understand the song. It is sung by Petra, a supporting character, a lowly maid to one of the principals, and who has played little role in advancing the plot — mostly offering salacious commentary and chasing tail. Here we see her, having just made another conquest, considering her life’s prospects:

What I want to draw your attention to is the subtle but potent shift in the language at the end of each chorus. When Petra sings, in the first two verses, that “A girl has to celebrate/what passes by,” it reads as an all-too-knowing, winking justification of hedonism, combined with a cynical acknowledgment that there’s not much else that a girl can hope for in the hierarchical society she finds herself in. While the indefinite article in “a girl” could be construed as her making a general claim, in context it feels like she is speaking really just of herself, to herself, justifying her own actions and desires; or, perhaps better, indicating that she finds them in no need of justification.

But the third verse changes the stakes, utterly. She has fantasized of a life of power and luxury, one that she of course knows she cannot attain. (Like any good philosopher, she is willing to explore far-fetched hypotheticals to see where they might take her.) Yet this verse still, in keeping with the pattern established by its predecessors, pivots on that “Meanwhile…” (Was there ever a more delicious “Meanwhile” in musical theater?) Even if a life of “pearls and servants” were on offer for her, her pursuit of “flings of confetti/and my petticoats all way up high” would be undiminished. For now we see — we see her see — that the stakes at hand are existential: “There’s a lot I’ll have missed/But I’ll not have been dead/when I die!/And a person should celebrate everything/passing by.

And, without diminishing the force of those earlier self-justifications, the concluding formulation nonetheless resituates them as an ethical imperative to recognize the world’s mortal bounty. She now sings of her universalizable self as a person, and she advocates not just taking our pleasure where opportunities happen to befall us, but in the unrestricted — and musically climactic — universal quantifier. And what is celebrated has transformed as well: no longer “what passes by”, i.e., whatever happens to come along, but “everything passing by”, i.e., the whole glorious world which is now living and soon dying — very much including Petra herself, as I think Ms. Stanley’s reading in the above video captures perfectly.

Ah, but a character’s philosophy can move them towards good or ill, with the latter exemplified by Sweeney Todd’s “Epiphany”:

We have, 47 seconds in, a perfect, textbook-ready instance of constructive dilemma, sung by Sweeney to his soon-to-be partner in crime. It can be diagrammed thus:

  1. There are exactly two types of people, the wicked and the suckers.
  2. The wicked deserve to die, because wicked.
  3. The suckers deserve to die, as relief.

Ergo, we all deserve to die. QED!

And thus the plot transforms from personal revenge tragedy to something bigger, darker, sublime. He revisits and rejects his old motivations of avenging dead wife and stolen daughter: “And I’ll never see Johanna/no, I’ll never hug my girl to me — finished!” He is now possessed, “full of joy”, by a demonically indiscriminate idea.

One last example, from Sunday in the Park with George. Late in Act I, George shares a quiet and reflective moment with his mother, from whom he is somewhat estranged; she simply doesn’t understand him, and he doesn’t expect her to. (See Hernandez above on this theme of knowability and unknowability in SPG.) Yet he tries to at least get her to see the world how he does, even if she can’t truly see him.

“Pretty isn’t beautiful, Mother./Pretty is what changes./What the eye arranges/is what is beautiful.” What we see George see, is that to see like an artist is thus one way to celebrate the great Passing By.

Stacy Wolf

Stacy Wolf is Professor of Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts and American Studies at Princeton University.

High school productions of Into the Woods. Photos courtesy of Stacy Wolf

Of all his musicals, Sondheim thought that Into the Woods might turn out to be a money-maker. In Look I Made a Hat, he reflected that early on in the musical’s development, “I brashly predicted that if the piece worked, it would spawn innumerable productions for many years to come, since it dealt with world myths and fables and would therefore never feel dated” (58). Sondheim felt that the show “would appeal to schools and amateur theatres as well as professional ones, especially in conservative parts of the country which are hesitant to support shows that deal with contemporary themes in contemporary ways and use four-letter words (there are none in the show). I predicted that ITW could be a modest annuity for us, and I’m surprised to say I was right” (58). He was more than right, as the musical has become a high school favorite and its 60-minute Junior adaptation, a staple for middle schools and summer camps.

For my book, Beyond Broadway: The Pleasure and Promise of Musical Theatre Across America, I visited numerous high schools that were producing Into the Woods, including a small private girls’ school in Baltimore; a large, wealthy public school in Palo Alto; a small, rural school in Sabina, Ohio; and a large socioeconomically and racially diverse high school in Belleville, Michigan. Resources—both monetary and human—varied at each school, yet each managed to pull off an impressive production. Whether mounted in a small and basic black box theatre, a well-equipped auditorium, or an historic movie house in the center of town that the school uses for the annual musical, each performance was capped off with roaring applause and a standing ovation from families and friends for the delighted young theatre makers and their exhausted, relieved, and proud teachers.

I observed rehearsals and also interviewed students involved with each production, including performers, stage managers, assistant designers, musicians, and techies. These conversations revealed that every community found itself in the musical; the students truly understood Into the Woods as their own. In Worthington, MN, for example, the community was divided over a recent influx of thousands of Latinx immigrants. Some white families who owned farms for generations resented new residents who rented apartments and didn’t pay property taxes, while others welcomed the newcomers and celebrated a racially diverse town. The students felt that the Giant symbolized their town’s conflicts. Charlotte, the student stage manager, explained that the characters “worked together and thought back to their own personal experiences and how they could use those challenges to try to overcome the Giant.”

In rural Ohio, where many students’ families struggled with poverty and the opioid epidemic, they connected with the characters’ determination to improve their situation. The actor who played the Witch told me, “The woods is life; you have to go out there, stand up for yourself.” And in Baltimore, where they did the show at the height of tensions around Freddie Gray’s death in a police van, a racially diverse group of students interpreted the musical as a model for how people can come together in spite of their differences. At every school I visited, the students felt that this musical was about them. Participating in Into the Woods, expressing the melodies and harmonies and dialogue in their bodies and voices, telling the story themselves, and playing the characters rendered the show distinct, unique, and local.

Into the Woods has held its position as the 4th most produced high school musical in the country for years. But Sondheim has also influenced the younger set. In 1996, concerned that young people no longer knew the Broadway repertoire, Sondheim and Arthur Laurents met with Freddie Gershon, then president of Music Theatre International, who had an idea about how to address the problem. Gershon said they could cut classic musicals to one hour to fit into a school day. They would transpose the music for young voices, create digitized orchestral accompaniment for schools without a pit band, and provide study guides for teachers. Gershon suggested that Into the Woods would be the perfect show to launch the catalogue, since Act 1 ends with “happily ever after.” Sondheim agreed, and the Broadway Jr series was born. And because of Sondheim’s stature and influence in the industry, other writers agreed for their shows to be “juniorized.” Today, millions of kids have participated in or have seen a “Broadway” musical, thanks to Sondheim’s willingness to imagine another life for Into the Woods.

While the familiarity of fairy tales, the combination of wry humor and forthright sentimentality in the libretto, the numerous excellent parts for girls, and the ability to expand the ensemble (one school cast 20 elementary school children as trees) all make Into the Woods appealing for schools, it’s the score that proves irresistible. On the one hand, like all of Sondheim’s shows, the music is hard to sing, and there is a lot of it, including almost constant underscoring for the pit band. The opening moment is especially difficult, since Sondheim and Lapine introduce the various stories in separate vignettes, and the actors are on their own, singing solo in challenging, often dissonant counterpoint. But then, Cinderella, the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, Little Red, and Jack join for the first of many repetitions of the title song, and they’re off. Sondheim’s score for Into the Woods is tightly constructed; he creates a musical world through three repeated motifs that become associated with specific characters and emotions, even as he provides variations and elaborations on the themes. In rehearsal, the entire student cast and crew typically learn all of the songs, absorbing the score’s interwoven melodic and harmonic fabric. The music creates a community of performers and musicians. In addition, many songs chart a character’s journey and lessons learned; many songs express ambivalence; many songs are simply beautiful and wrenching. Young people relate to these emotions, and they can get inside these songs. Students want to look out to the audience of adults and of their peers and, as themselves, sing the finale, “Children will listen.”

Edited by Alex King and Jonathan M. Weinberg.

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