Broadway’s First “Concept” Musical Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In Company, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim emphasized character-driven songs that were integrated into an overriding thematic focus, or “concept.”

Summary of Event

The Broadway musical had coasted for several decades on the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II approach to theater: cardboard characters in elaborate plots moved forward by the “book” and not by the songs. Although such musicals as Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945) had once been noteworthy and innovative, imitators had watered down the form, and the theatrical world had moved past the pastel niceness of the upbeat, happy-ending product. Even experimental Broadway fare such as Hair Hair (Ragni, Rado, and MacDermot) (1968) followed essentially the same formula: emphasizing moments in the play that could be culled or inserted almost at random, moments that froze the play’s action as they were sung and danced. Company (Sondheim and Furth) Musical theater Theater;musicals Concept musicals [kw]Broadway’s First “Concept” Musical Premiers (Apr. 26, 1970)[Broadways First Concept Musical Premiers] [kw]"Concept" Musical Premiers, Broadway’s First (Apr. 26, 1970)[Concept Musical Premiers, Broadways First] [kw]Musical Premiers, Broadway’s First “Concept” (Apr. 26, 1970)[Musical Premiers, Broadways First Concept] Company (Sondheim and Furth) Musical theater Theater;musicals Concept musicals [g]North America;Apr. 26, 1970: Broadway’s First “Concept” Musical Premiers[10800] [g]United States;Apr. 26, 1970: Broadway’s First “Concept” Musical Premiers[10800] [c]Theater;Apr. 26, 1970: Broadway’s First “Concept” Musical Premiers[10800] [c]Music;Apr. 26, 1970: Broadway’s First “Concept” Musical Premiers[10800] Sondheim, Stephen Furth, George Prince, Hal

Some signals of a desire for change in the theater-going public were apparent in the successes of Man of La Mancha (1965), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), and Cabaret (1966). In these musicals, plot was subordinated to mood and to a more introverted psychological message, with characters more complex and fully defined.

In the old mode, however, was West Side Story West Side Story (Bernstein, Sondheim, and Laurents) (1957), a modernization of the Romeo and Juliet story set on the rough West Side of New York City. Its young lyricist was Stephen Sondheim, and the complexity and sophistication of the lyrics he provided signaled a new talent on Broadway. The success of the musical afforded Sondheim the opportunity to expand his contribution and his distinct style in a string of subsequent successes.

The next musical with Sondheim lyrics was Gypsy (1959), with music by Jule Styne, another success in the Rodgers and Hammerstein form but moving toward more serious, more substantial songwriting. By this time, Sondheim had gained a reputation that allowed him to try both music and lyrics. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A (Sondheim, Shevelove, and Gelbart) (1962), the first musical for which Sondheim contributed both lyrics and music, was successfully produced by Hal Prince and directed by George Abbott. Though the production was still episodic and superficial in characterization, the clever lyrics and the unexpectedly convoluted musical forms became the signature of Sondheim’s unique personality.

The play that truly changed the face of American musicals, however, was Company, which opened on Broadway on April 26, 1970, after a Boston tryout. Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics for the work, while George Furth wrote the book, in this case a loosely woven, virtually plotless series of scenes focusing on the marriage prospects and the development of the central character, Robert. Unlike in other musicals, however, the lion’s share of song and dialogue was given not to the central figure but to the characters surrounding him. In addition, the songs were distinctly integral to the movement of the play and could not be comfortably removed from the musical and performed as individual pieces. Even the show-stopping “The Ladies Who Lunch” "Ladies Who Lunch, The" (Sondheim)[Ladies Who Lunch] demanded the urban, cynical setting that Elaine Stritch gave it in performance.

The play was produced and directed by Hal Prince, who had enjoyed several successes in collaboration with these artists in the past. Michael Bennett was chosen as choreographer, although there were no chorus numbers in the strict sense. The set was designed by Boris Aronson Aronson, Boris and the costumes by D. D. Ryan Ryan, D. D. .

A Boston tryout revealed several problems with the script; one song (“Happily Ever After”) was dropped as being too negative and was replaced by “Being Alive.” Every segment of the play’s parts, from the musical harmonies to the structure of the moments through the play, was worked on in minute detail by the whole creative team. No single voice overrode the piece; it was truly a collaboration of creative spirits. Never before had a musical been talked about in terms of its integrity, its overall message, its texture. Now, with Prince and Sondheim both approaching the project in terms of its artistic unity, the work became a model for more complex, richer artistic experiences on the part of the artists as well as the audience. The ratio of spoken to sung dialogue was closer to that of opera than to that of standard musical fare.

The Alvin Theater was chosen as the site for the show, and the cast was assembled. Notable among the cast were Elaine Stritch Stritch, Elaine (Joanne), Beth Howland Howland, Beth (Amy), and George Coe Coe, George (David), but the entire cast consisted of professionals who knew their way around the Broadway musical stage.

The play opened to mixed reviews. Reserved but intrigued, Clive Barnes Barnes, Clive of The New York Times wrote, “It is a very New York show” that, despite his reservations, deserved to be a hit. Barnes noted that Sondheim’s lyrics stood out and that “they have a lyric suppleness, sparse, elegant wit, and range from the virtuosity of a patter song to a kind of sweetly laconic cynicism in a modern love song.” Barnes also commented that Sondheim “must be one of the most sophisticated composers ever to write Broadway musicals, yet the result is slick, clever and eclectic rather than exciting.”

The original Robert was Dean Jones Jones, Dean , but he was replaced a few weeks after the opening by Larry Kert Kert, Larry . Mel Gussow Gussow, Mel , then a second-string reviewer for The New York Times, reviewed the play after Jones’s departure and wrote:

This is, by design, not a musical about a man, but about a theme: marriage and non-marriage in an urban society. Intentionally, the hero is underwritten, which makes him especially difficult to play. . . . The scenes whose impulse comes from the music, and not from the book, seem distinctly superior.

Gussow had picked up on one of the initial concepts behind the show, which was to produce a play that had no plot. The same surprise birthday party is repeated several times with different events, each meant to illustrate a different aspect of the protagonist’s relationship to his friends.

Gussow’s remarks became the basis for the term “concept musical,” a production in which a theme or idea is examined in musical and dramatic terms. What the audience saw was not what they expected. There were no leading man and lady singing their way through a plot with songs popping up at arbitrary occasions. Instead, five couples, all married or committed in some way, took turns arguing in favor of the institution of marriage to their bachelor friend Robert.

The play’s musical numbers identify the specific relationships between members of each pair and articulate the couples’ various and complicated relationships with Robert. At the same time, Robert is shown involved in superficial ways with three girlfriends, each a candidate for marriage but none fulfilling Robert’s expectations completely. The theme, or “concept,” of the musical, then, is the examination of the variety of marriage contracts, the ways in which people commit or do not commit to each other. Nor is there the typical happy ending—Robert does not “get the girl” in the end. Instead, Robert simply disappears, never showing up at his surprise party. Audience members are left to draw their own conclusions, although it is strongly suggested that Robert’s awkward relationship as the third wheel in each of five couples has come to an end.

Also absent from Company was a big dance number, with dancing that showed off the choreographer’s virtuosity rather than providing movement integral to the show itself. Michael Bennett Bennett, Michael , the show’s choreographer, painstakingly structured the actors’ movements into an ensemble, highlighting the structure and rhythm of the individual scenes. The show’s structure was not interrupted by the typical full-cast spectacular number.

Company’s action and music explored the complexities of the art form of musical theater. For example, one of the most successful songs in the musical, “Getting Married Today,” "Getting Married Today" (Sondheim)[Getting Married Today] is sung at a double-staccato pace; it is a tour de force for the actress who sings it but is not easily singable by audience members leaving the theater. Another hit, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” is so cynical in tone and so arhythmic and atonal in musical structure that it takes a hard-edged singer such as Elaine Stritch, and a jaundiced audience, to recognize the truth in the complex social image it captures.

Significance

Theatergoers and critics acknowledged the quality and innovation of Company by giving it several awards at season’s end. The musical won Tony Awards Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Music, Best Lyrics, Best Director of a Musical, and Best Scenic Design. The play also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical that year. Company was a moderate box-office success. The 690 performances set no records, but a relatively modest budget and daily cost of production allowed the musical to realize a profit for its investors.

As the Sondheim hits continued, it became clear that there was a new kind of musical in the making, one far removed from the niceness of the old. Sondheim followed Company with another ensemble show, Follies Follies (Sondheim and Goldman) (1971), which focused on the reminiscences of mature people whose love lives were now being remembered and experienced through the past rather than the present. Follies was followed the next season by A Little Night Music Little Night Music, A (Sondheim and Wheeler) (1973), an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s film Sommarnattens leende (1955; Smiles of a Summer Night). Both shows won the Tony Award for Best Musical, resulting in Sondheim winning the Best Musical award three years in a row.

Many of Sondheim’s later musicals had in common a central theme or idea that was not easily paraphrased. Each was also structured to accommodate a multiple perspective, driven by complex musical and lyrical creativity, and aimed at artistic expression rather than box-office success. They cannot easily be lumped together as concept musicals, or in any other category, however. Indeed, Sondheim himself has summed up his contribution to musical theater by remarking, “The biggest challenge for me is the opportunity to constantly try new things. I believe it’s the writer’s job to educate the audience . . . to bring them things they would never have expected to see.” Company (Sondheim and Furth) Musical theater Theater;musicals Concept musicals

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodhart, Sandor, ed. Reading Stephen Sondheim: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 2000. Compilation of essays by scholars treating Sondheim’s plays as deserving of serious critical contemplation. Includes an essay by Kay Young on Sondheim’s representation of marriage. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Stanley. The World of Musical Comedy. 4th rev. ed. San Diego, Calif.: A. S. Barnes, 1980. Best for the history of the form as it moves through pairs of collaborators chapter by chapter. Sondheim’s contributions are placed in perspective with those of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and others. Discography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horowitz, Mark Stanley. Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2003. Collected interviews with Sondheim on his career and work. Discography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kislan, Richard. The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theater. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1980. Sondheim is discussed at great length as a mature artist who has contributed to the complexities of the elements of musical theater. More than simple stage history; especially valuable as a guide to the collaborative process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spurrier, James Joseph. The Integration of Music and Lyrics with the Book in the American Musical. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1982. An important book for the study of “the techniques by which and the degree to which the musical elements” of Sondheim and others advance the plots of their musicals. Best for explaining Sondheim’s unique contributions. Appendixes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swain, Joseph P. The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. A sophisticated examination of the relation of music to theme in the American musical. Mostly post-Oklahoma! selections are discussed; requires an ability to read music for full appreciation of the thesis and its thorough treatment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zadan, Craig. Sondheim and Co. 2d ed., updated. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994. A thorough, informative, conversational overview of Sondheim’s career, told primarily in interview form by those who worked with Sondheim. Rehearsal problems, backstage controversies, and reviewers’ comments are surveyed. Illustrated throughout with production stills and candid photographs. Full appendixes of production information and cast albums; index.

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