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   Sondheim Notes

“Outside Looking In”
The Double Perspective in Sondheim’s Musicals

Larry A. Brown

August 2019


In the 1940s with the success of Oklahoma! Rodgers and Hammerstein established a pattern for musical theater which most other lyricists and composers of the time followed, what came to be called the integrated musical. All the elements of dialogue, music, lyrics, dance, and staging worked together to further the story by advancing the plot and developing the characters. The goal was to create a believable fictional world, producing the illusion of reality on stage.

Of course, a musical breaks the illusion of reality whenever characters burst into song, suddenly joined by dozens of people dancing and singing along with them. But in the traditional musical, such exhibitions happen within the fictional world of the story. The characters sing words that express their thoughts and feelings at that particular moment in the dramatic action, words which would otherwise be spoken as dialogue. There is no break in the action; the plot continues through the musical number.

In contrast, in the musicals created by Stephen Sondheim and his collaborators, we often see instances where characters step out of the fictional world to offer commentary on the action, breaking the illusion of reality to prompt us to evaluate what is happening in the story. This narrative device offers an additional perspective on the dramatic action. More than simply telling a story, these musicals comment on what we are witnessing as it happens, offering a critical review in progress. This double perspective – the story itself and evaluation of the story — creates a second layer of meaning for the audience to interpret and appreciate.

In some shows this dramatic device of stepping out of the story appears mostly for humorous effect. In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), the Roman slave Pseudolus opens the show by explaining to the audience what they are about to see:

Something appealing,
Something appalling,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!
Nothing with kings,
Nothing with crowns.
Bring on the lovers, liars and clowns!

Without pretense, he openly acknowledges that they are putting on a play for the audience’s entertainment. From his initial vantage point outside the story, he proceeds to describe the cast of characters including a less-than-humble version of himself: “Pseudolus is probably my favorite character in the piece. A role of enormous variety and nuance, and played by an actor of such – let me put it this way – I play the part.” This metatheatrical contrivance of characters admitting their artificial nature has been part of comedy since the time of Aristophanes.

In Company (1970) Sondheim uses what critics began to call “comment songs” for more serious dramatic purposes. In one scene Robert, a committed bachelor, visits the Manhattan apartment of his married friends Harry and Sarah, a couple who compete in everything they do. During the evening Harry persuades Sarah to demonstrate what she has learned in her karate lessons. While Robert awkwardly watches from the sidelines, they proceed to toss one another onto the floor in an increasingly aggressive bout.

In the midst of this marital power struggle, the action freezes, and an acerbic neighbor Joanne appears on an upper level (in the original production) to sing about “the little things you do together.” To be clear, Joanne is not part of the scene in Harry and Sarah’s apartment; instead, she and the rest of the cast stand outside the story and just watch, much like Robert avoids serious relationships but observes them from a distance:

It’s the little things you do together,
Do together,
Do together,
That make perfect relationships.
The hobbies you pursue together,
Savings you accrue together,
Looks you misconstrue together,
That makes marriage a joy.

So far, nothing sounds unusual. The lyrics are clever with their internal rhyme scheme (pursue / accrue / misconstrue), and the high-spirited Latin beat of the music goes along with the playful antics on stage. Then the next phrase appears:

The concerts you enjoy together,
Neighbors you annoy together,
Children you destroy together,
That keep marriage intact.

This last statement comes as a surprise. It takes a calloused observer to consider enjoying concerts and destroying children on equal terms. However, the rhyming pattern clearly intends for the last of the three items to receive emphasis. Later in the song, other phrases add to the incongruity:

It’s not so hard to be married,
It’s much the simplest of crimes,
It’s not so hard to be married,
I’ve done it three or four times.

It’s things like using force together,
Shouting ‘til you’re hoarse together,
Getting a divorce together,
That make perfect relationships.
Uh-huh …
Kiss, kiss …

These last utterances are loaded with knowing sarcasm as if to say, “I’ll bet, sure it is.” Through the perspective of Joanne, an outside but experienced observer, Sondheim gives us fair warning that Company will not romanticize marriage as the usual “happily ever after” adventure promised in traditional musicals.

Robert’s own failure at relationships is dissected by three girlfriends in a jazzy parody of the Andrews Sisters trio from the 1940s. While it’s unlikely that these three women ever met each other in Robert’s world, here they get together outside the story to commiserate with one another about his failure to make a connection:

Knock, knock, is anybody there?
Knock, knock, it really isn’t fair.
Knock, knock, I’m working all my charms.
Knock, knock, a zombie’s in my arms.

Later, when Robert briefly connects with dim-witted April in a one-night affair, all the wives collectively look on, criticizing his choice:

Poor baby, all alone,
Throw a lonely dog a bone,
It’s still a bone.
We’re the only tenderness
He’s ever known.
Poor baby.

Apparently these women have enjoyed their roles as surrogate companions and seem reluctant to let Robert go.

Toward the end of Act 1, Sondheim provides another trio, this time singing separately of their clashing perspectives on Amy and Paul’s approaching marriage. The “church lady” provides contrasting views of the “blessed” occasion:

Bless this day, pinnacle of life,
Husband joined to wife.
The heart leaps up to behold
This golden day.

Bless this day, tragedy of life,
Husband yoked to wife.
The heart sinks down and feels dead
This dreadful day.

While Paul sings, “Today is for Amy,” his neurotic bride-to-be addresses the audience and rattles off the countless reasons why she is “not getting married today.”

Listen, everybody,
Look, I don’t know what you’re waiting for.
A wedding, what’s a wedding?
It’s a prehistoric ritual
Where everybody promises fidelity forever,
Which is maybe the most horrifying word I’ve ever heard,
And which is followed by a honeymoon
Where suddenly he’ll realize
He’s saddled with a nut
And want to kill me, which he should.

One reviewer of the original Broadway production compared Company to a cubist painting by Picasso, examining its subject of marriage from multiple viewpoints. Much of this effect derives from the freedom these characters have to step outside the story world and reflect upon the events happening there.

Although Company provides the best example of characters on the outside looking in, Sondheim’s works continue to utilize this technique. His next collaboration with director Hal Prince, Follies (1971) depicts a reunion of aging showgirls at their old theater, soon to be demolished. Throughout the evening ghostly dancers representing their younger selves wander the stage, dressed in black and white, all larger than life the way memories tend to be.

The plot focuses on two couples, unhappily married and regretting their past choices, the roads they didn’t take (as Ben sings). During the last half of Act 2, all the characters are arguing when suddenly the stage transforms into a lavish revue called “Loveland” in which each performs a song about themselves, a variation of stepping outside the story world to evaluate their lives. These fantasy numbers give the characters room to express truths about themselves that they might not otherwise recognize or want to acknowledge.

First, Buddy comes out dressed as a vaudeville comic to sing, “The God-why-don’t-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I’ll-see-you-later blues.” Next, Sally performs a sad torch song “Losing my Mind” in a Gershwin style. In “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” Phyllis describes the split between her younger but duller self and the older, a bit wiser, but more calloused woman she has become. Last, Ben leads the chorus in a big song-and-dance routine, “Live, Laugh, Love,” but eventually he stumbles, forgets his lyrics, and the number falls apart, the illusion of “Loveland” fading as reality breaks through. The couples return to the story world and wearily exit the ruined theater, leaving the ghosts to keep vigil over the past.

In A Little Night Music (1973), a vocal quintet begins and ends the show and flutters about between scenes whenever needed. Not characters in the story but observers, these singers function like a Greek chorus commenting on the action. In the first act the quintet provides the audience with memories of the main characters.  At the play when Desiree and Fredrik spy each other, they freeze in place, and the quintet sings their recollections of a romantic weekend from the past:

That dilapidated inn–
Remember, darling?
The proprietress’ grin,
Also her glare.
Yellow gingham on the bed–
Remember, darling?
And the canopy in red,
Needing repair?
I think you were there.

The unresolved chord at the end of the song calls into question the final phrase, “I’m sure it was you,” raising doubts about the clarity of memory as time passes. However, these sentiments by the chorus do not necessarily reflect the inner thoughts of Fredrik and Desiree, as Sondheim notes in his comments on these lyrics (Finishing the Hat 261). They imply some uncertainty about the affair which the characters never express. The quintet imagines a casual sexual relationship in the past, but the audience comes to recognize that this perspective does not truly represent the deeper feelings of commitment that this couple has for each other.

In the final scenes, the quintet repeats phrases from previously heard lyrics but in a different context, giving the words an ironic touch. For instance, when Fredrik sees his wife Anne and son Henrik running off together, the group reprises a section of his earlier song, “You must meet my wife”:

She lightens my sadness,
She livens my days,
She bursts with a kind of madness
My well-ordered ways.
My happiest mistake,
The ache of my life …

Fredrik must listen to his own words, reminding him of his folly expecting any other result from this frivolous marriage to a teenager.

Pacific Overtures (1976) relates the history of the westernization of Japan, forced upon their isolated country by the arrival of American warships in 1853. Sondheim, Prince, and writer John Weidman wanted to convey this unique story through an Asian perspective. They imagined a Japanese playwright seeing a Broadway musical and returning to his country to produce something similar but in the style of Kabuki theater. Thus the show’s form mirrors the content of the story in its blending of East and West.

This amalgamation of opposing cultures can best be seen in two adjacent numbers, “There is no other way” and “Four black dragons,” both dealing with the arrival of the Americans. In the first song, Kayama has been assigned the formidable task of ridding Japan of the barbarians, a confrontation from which his wife Tamate fears he may never return. She goes about her daily routine, preparing for dinner. Routine has become her protective illusion, but she fools no one with the empty charade, least of all herself.  Rather than having the characters sing for themselves, Sondheim uses two observers, the first poetically describing the situation and the second expressing Tamate’s doubts:

The word falls, the heart cries.
The heart knows the word’s disguise.

I shall expect you then at evening.
(Is there no other way?)

The lines are simple, resembling Japanese haiku and reflecting the uncomplicated lives of these people. As the song continues, Sondheim utilizes this economy of expression to indicate the inevitability of the encounter with the Americans:

The leaf shakes, the wings rise.
The song stops, the bird flies.
The storm approaches.

Sondheim’s use of natural imagery illustrates his search for the other perspective, his willingness to see through the eyes of his characters. These images of birds and trees are drawn from outside his usual urban experience. The metaphor works on a philosophical level as well. Just as the bird must accept the coming of the storm and its own impotency to stop it, Kayama must submit to the fate placed before him:

The word stops, the heart dies.
The wind counts the lost goodbyes.
There is no other way.
There is no other way.

Immediately we are thrust into the next scene when a fisherman on the beach sounds an alarm bell. He reports an astonishing site: “Four black dragons! Spitting fire!” rising from the sea. His peasant mind cannot comprehend what he actually sees: the four war ships of Commodore Perry sailing over the horizon. Another man thinks they are “four volcanoes, spitting fire.” These images express the indescribable horror of this situation for these simple people. Only the Reciter, a narrative figure watching from side-stage, remains calm, having the advantage of historical perspective and understanding what is happening.

A crowd gathers in amazement, their terrified minds interpreting the vision as an apocalyptic event: “And the earth trembled, and the sky cracked, and I thought it was the end of the world.” With great insight, the Reciter adds, “And it was.” He observes from a future point of view, knowing the changes about to take place which will shake the foundations of this island nation.

Sweeney Todd (1979) features an actual chorus (rare in Sondheim musicals) who sets the stage for what’s to follow:

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again.
He trod a path that few have trod,
Did Sweeney Todd,
The demon barber of Fleet Street.

When the choral voices rise to the climactic “Swing your razor wide, Sweeney! Hold it to the skies!” the melody resembles the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) motif from the 13th century Mass for the Dead. The music associates Sweeney with the Grim Reaper who brings judgment on all mankind. At the end of the opening ballad, Sweeney himself joins the ensemble, singing in third-person: “What happens then – well, that’s the play, and he wouldn’t want us to give it away.”

The ensemble cast resembles a Greek chorus in its dual dramatic functions. Most of the time they play minor characters in the story, the common people of London: police, street merchants, beggars, patrons of Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, and potential victims of the demon barber. But periodically, they step out of these roles, joining voices to reflect upon the action, summarizing events such as dispatching the blackmailing Pirelli (“His hands were quick, his fingers strong. It stung a little but not for long”), and foreshadowing what’s to come (“And who could see how the road would twist?”). In the concluding ballad, all the cast including those characters who have died make a final choral appearance. Pointing to the audience, they suggest that Sweeney’s legacy of revenge may continue beyond their telling of this tale: “No one can help, nothing can hide you – Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?”

Both Into the Woods (1987) and Assassins (1990) use narrators in similar ways. The Sondheim/Lapine remix of Grimm’s fairy tales begins with the familiar words, “Once upon a time,” as the narrator introduces the characters and their interweaving plots. The first act concludes on a happily-ever-after note, but in Act 2, the story turns out badly when the giant’s wife wants revenge for her husband’s death and demands Jack’s life. The narrator interrupts the action with an observation:

NARRATOR: It is interesting to examine the moral issue at question here. The finality of stories such as these dictates – (He notices everyone looking at him menacingly. They move towards him.) Sorry, I tell the story. I’m not part of it.

LITTLE RED: That’s right. (pulls out a knife)

WITCH: Not one of us.

BAKER: Always on the outside.

NARRATOR: (nervously) That’s my role. You must understand, there must always be someone on the outside.

STEWARD: You’re going to be on the inside now.

NARRATOR: (frantic) You’re making a big mistake. … You need an objective observer to pass the story along.

WITCH: Some of us don’t like the way you’ve been telling it.

NARRATOR: If you drag me into this mess, you’ll never know how your story ends. You’ll be lost!

Momentarily the group pauses to consider this dilemma, then suddenly the Witch pushes him toward the Giant, claiming that he’s the lad she has been seeking. When she realizes that they have deceived her, she drops the Narrator to the ground with a sickening thud. The characters are left to figure out the rest of their story on their own.

In Assassins (1990) Sondheim and John Weidman introduce the Balladeer, a 1960s-style folk singer, to present the official voice of history. “The Ballad of Booth” begins: “Someone tell the story; someone sing the song. Every now and then the country goes a little wrong.” He paints the public image of Booth as a “madman” and speculates on “Why did you do it, Johnny?” Perhaps it was due to booze or the failure of his acting career, especially in comparison to his more successful brother Edwin. Booth objects to these accusations of petty reasons for the assassination, telling him to “Shut up!” He persuades the Balladeer to tell the “truth,” that is, Booth’s version of the story:

Hunt me down, smear my name,
Say I did it for the fame.
What I did was kill the man who killed my country.

What I did, I did well,
And I did it for my country.
Let them cry, “Dirty traitor!”
They will understand it later.
The country is not what it was.

At this point Booth shoots himself, and the Balladeer returns to his original narrative:

Johnny Booth was a headstrong fellow.
Even he believed the things he said.
Some called him noble, some said yellow.
What he was was off his head.

Later, the assassins explain that they just wanted what every American wants, the opportunity to succeed: “Where’s my prize?” The Balladeer cheerfully points out that “the mailman won the lottery, and the usherette’s a rock star,” but the group rejects his overly optimistic assessment of the national dream, forcing him off the stage. Having met only with failure, they now will march to “Another National Anthem” where “if you can’t do what you want to, then you do the things you can … until you’re heard … until you get a prize.” When we hear the Balladeer’s earlier songs, we might assume that his version of events represents the more accurate interpretation of history, but now we see that his perspective is just as slanted and limited as the assassins. He presents an alternate point of view but not necessarily a more authoritative one.

Looking back at Sondheim’s characters who step outside the story, we recognize that most are not objective observers but share their own biased perspectives. Pseudolus’ vanity sees himself as playing the most important role in the play. Joanne’s multiple attempts at marriage have soured her view of the relationship. Follies’ characters must escape to fantasy to admit the difficult truths about themselves. The Reciter looks back at the recent history of his country with sadness, considering the western influence not an advancement but a decline from their traditions. Those “outside looking in” offer the audience their own particular point-of-view without special privilege, leaving it up to the spectator to evaluate the meaning conveyed by this double perspective.



Lyrics are taken from Steven Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat (2010) and Look, I Made a Hat (2011), both published by Knopf.

Dialogue taken from James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods, Theater Communications Group, 1987.

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