Sondheim Uses Operatic Techniques in

In Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim explored both a darker side and an operatic side of the musical theater.

Summary of Event

In the decade from 1969 to 1979, the team of Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince essentially defined the American musical theater. Both had made significant contributions prior to this time and both continued to work afterward, but that decade belonged to Sondheim and Prince. Usually, when one refers to a team in the musical theater, the partnership includes a composer, lyricist, and librettist, sometimes with one partner taking on two of the roles. Famous teams have included Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Sondheim and Prince, however, took the idea of the musical theater team in a new direction. Sondheim worked as composer and lyricist, and Prince served as producer and director. Theater;musicals
Musical theater
Musical theater
Sondheim, Stephen
Prince, Hal

Stephen Sondheim was born in 1930. When he was ten years old, his parents were divorced and his mother, with Stephen, moved to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where they had as a neighbor Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein, Oscar, II Hammerstein became almost a surrogate father to Sondheim, and Sondheim was allowed to watch the development of some of the truly great American musicals. As Sondheim grew and expressed interest in the field, Hammerstein took to teaching him how to write a musical. The “course” had four parts and took six years. Sondheim was to write four musicals. First, he was to take a play he admired and turn it into a musical. Next, he was to attempt to improve a play with music. Third, he was to take nondramatic material (a novel or short story) and turn it into a musical. Finally, he was to write a completely original musical. Hammerstein evaluated each of these efforts. Through this work, Sondheim learned very specific things, such as how to address the problems of dramatic structure.

This was not the full extent of Sondheim’s education. He was also a student at Williams College, where he majored in music. After his graduation and his subsequent winning of the Hutchinson Prize at Princeton University, Sondheim went to New York to study for two years with Milton Babbitt, Babbitt, Milton an avant-garde composer. Sondheim had no aspirations to be a “serious” classical composer. His clearly stated goal was to be a serious composer for the musical theater. With that goal, it is ironic that Sondheim’s first professional job was decidedly nonmusical. Through friends, he was hired as a writer for the Topper television series. Although he did a good job writing for the situation comedy, he was quite unhappy, and he quit when he had enough money to return to New York.

Once back in New York, Sondheim made some contacts and was hired to write the score for a project called Saturday Night. The project ended with the untimely death of the producer. Sondheim, however, had made an impression with his work and soon was hired to write the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957). West Side Story (Bernstein, Sondheim, and Laurents) The show’s producers were Robert Griffith Griffith, Robert and Hal Prince. This was not Sondheim’s first meeting with Prince; the two had met originally at the opening-night party for South Pacific (1949). When Prince was released from the U.S. Army in 1952, he went to work for George Abbott Abbott, George as an assistant stage manager. Sondheim and Prince would meet for lunch and discuss plans for taking the theater in a new direction. West Side Story was a first step toward their goal.

Sondheim did not see it quite that way, however. He wanted to be a composer, not a lyricist, so he was torn when he was asked to write the lyrics to Jule Styne’s music for Gypsy (1959). Gypsy (Styne, Sondheim, and Laurents) Although Sondheim wanted to write the complete score, in the end he was rather proud of Gypsy. He thought it was the last good show written in the form developed by his mentor, Hammerstein.

In 1962, Sondheim got his chance. He composed the entire score for a Broadway musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A (Sondheim, Shevelove, and Gelbart) Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart wrote the show’s book. George Abbott directed, Prince produced, and choreographer Jerome Robbins Robbins, Jerome came in to doctor the show. The show was a success in its original run and continued to be a success in revival.

Not everything Sondheim touched turned to gold, of course. His next show was the avant-garde Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Anyone Can Whistle (Sondheim and Laurents) which lasted only six performances. Although the show failed, its score demonstrated a complexity that would appear in later Sondheim works. It also featured Angela Lansbury Lansbury, Angela in her first major appearance in a stage musical. Sondheim’s collaborator on Anyone Can Whistle, Arthur Laurents, Laurents, Arthur then began to turn his play The Time of the Cuckoo
Time of the Cuckoo, The (Laurents) (pr. 1952) into a musical. Richard Rodgers Rodgers, Richard was asked to compose and, as Hammerstein was dead, Sondheim was approached to write the lyrics. Not wanting to write just lyrics, Sondheim was hesitant, but Rodgers’s daughter, Mary, and Laurents were friends of Sondheim, and they prevailed on him to accept. It was not a happy collaboration, however, and the show, Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), Do I Hear a Waltz? (Rodgers, Sondheim, and Laurents) was not particularly successful.

Stephen Sondheim.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Sondheim’s next shows were more collaborations with Hal Prince. By this time, Prince had decided to direct as well as produce. Company (1970) Company (Sondheim and Furth) was Sondheim and Prince’s first production. George Furth had written a series of short plays that Prince and Sondheim believed could make a good, if different, musical. Rather than having a conventional plot, Company showed a contemporary view of marriage in New York City. Because of the work’s structure, many view Company as the first “concept” musical—that is, a musical driven more by ideas than by plot. Because the show was different from the offerings that musical theater audiences were used to seeing, many had a difficult time understanding it. Among those who understood Company and appreciated the skill involved in its creation, many were left cold by what they perceived to be a lack of feeling in the work. It was respected, made a profit as a result of its low-cost production, and won several awards.

The next Sondheim and Prince shows were Follies (1971), Follies (Sondheim and Goldman)
A Little Night Music (1973) Little Night Music, A (Sondheim and Wheeler) —probably their most conventional and successful production—and Pacific Overtures (1976). Pacific Overtures (Sondheim and Weidman) The last of those was a musical about relations between the United States and Japan since 1852. It ran for 193 performances but lost $650,000 because of its lavish staging and effects. The Sondheim-Prince collaborations were artistically ambitious, to be sure. They experimented with new forms. Even A Little Night Music, which followed a conventional plot line, had an entire score of waltz music. It also had a book by Hugh Wheeler. Wheeler, Hugh

When the project of Sweeney Todd was first conceived, Sondheim planned to do all the writing. He envisioned the show as an opera. It had started as a melodrama in London. The original was written in 1847 as The String of Pearls: Or, The Fiend of Fleet Street, and since then several versions of the story had been produced as plays. Sondheim had seen a version written by Christopher Bond. Bond, Christopher It tells the story of Benjamin Barker, wrongfully imprisoned by the evil Judge Turpin. Turpin then rapes Barker’s wife and takes custody of Johanna, Barker’s child. Barker returns as Sweeney Todd, driven mad and bent on revenge. He opens a barbershop above a shop where Mrs. Lovett sells meat pies. Todd is rather indiscriminate in his vengeance and begins to slit the throats of his customers. At a loss as to what to do with the bodies, Todd donates them to Mrs. Lovett as the material for her meat pies. Todd continues to wield his razor until his vengeance is complete.

Sondheim was immediately intrigued by the idea of telling the tale of Sweeney Todd as a musical or an opera. Prince, on the other hand, was more difficult to interest. He did not share Sondheim’s interest in farce (the story is a bit over the top) and melodrama, and at first he could not form an approach to the material. Eventually, however, Prince came to realize that the plot could be seen as a commentary on the Industrial Age and how a human being can become a soulless machine. The set, by Eugene Lee, Lee, Eugene incorporated a real iron foundry from Rhode Island. Every time there was a murder, Prince inserted the piercing sound of a steam whistle. One of the songs Sondheim wrote for the show, “A Little Priest,” was a comic representation of how the big fish eat the little fish, but are in turn eaten by bigger fish.

Sondheim realized early on that he was going to need help in the writing process, so Hugh Wheeler was brought in to write the book for the show. A libretto was constructed, but the end result was far from a conventional musical. On March 1, 1979, Sweeney Todd opened at Broadway’s Uris Theatre with Len Cariou Cariou, Len and Angela Lansbury in the leads. The show ran for roughly a year and then went on tour. It won various awards but lost money.


Sweeney Todd had significance both as an individual show and as the culmination of a partnership. As a show, it continued what George Gershwin, with Porgy and Bess (1935), and Frank Loesser, with The Most Happy Fella (1956), had started, in that it further blurred the line between musical theater and opera. There were more spoken words in Sweeney Todd than in most operas, but there was almost constant music as well, and Sondheim made use of many recurrent themes and musical ideas to express character. The theme of blood and vengeance was also very operatic, as was the scale of the original production. In fact, that scale was one of the show’s economic problems. Because of the size of the set, the production was limited to larger theaters, and larger theaters require larger audiences to break even. (Eventually, some revival productions of the show completely rethought the original concept; instead of attempting to capture the sweep of the Industrial Age and humanity’s place in society, they focused on the individual characters.)

Given Sondheim’s operatic ambitions for Sweeney Todd, it is perhaps not surprising that, at the insistence of Beverly Sills, the show became a part of the New York City Opera repertoire. The operatic nature of Sweeney Todd certainly influenced later musical theater productions, such as Les Misérables (1980).

Sweeney Todd is also important as a high point of a truly important partnership. It was not the last show by Sondheim and Prince; their more conventional Merrily We Roll Along (1981) followed. Whether Sweeney Todd represents their best work may be debated, but Sweeney Todd did represent the team at its most ambitious. The intricacy of Sondheim’s music and lyrics and the high production values of Prince’s directing and producing were never more evident. As was evident in their other work, such ambitions rarely made room for romance or warmth. Sweeney Todd was difficult to care for, but many were impressed. Theater;musicals
Musical theater

Further Reading

  • Engel, Lehman. The American Musical Theater. New York: Macmillan, 1975. Useful sourcebook for the study of musical theater in general. Examines Sondheim’s early work and critically evaluates trends in musical theater. Includes several informative appendixes.
  • Horowitz, Mark Eden. Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2003. Compilation of the contents of a series of interviews with Sondheim focuses on his work as a composer and his creative process. Includes discussion of Sweeney Todd.
  • Kislan, Richard. The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theater. Rev. ed. New York: Applause Books, 1995. Textbook for a general course in musical theater includes a brief but thorough history and a study of the various crafts and artists in the musical theater. Features a chapter on Sondheim that is brief but deep. Includes excellent photographs.
  • Knapp, Raymond. The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006. Scholarly work examines how musical theater allows audience members to reimagine themselves through the alternative worlds that musicals offer. Chapter 7, “Operatic Ambitions and Beyond,” includes discussion of Sweeney Todd.
  • Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. New York: Random House, 1998. Comprehensive biography of the composer draws on interviews with him as well as with his collaborators, friends, and family members. Places Sondheim’s work within the larger context of his life and times.
  • Smith, Cecil, and Glenn Litton. Musical Comedy in America. 1981. Reprint. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1991. Excellent overall history of the musical theater provides photographs along with thorough and literate text. Goes beyond the expected chronology and discusses technique. Presents a view of audience responses to Sondheim’s work and, in addressing Sweeney Todd, emphasizes the conflict between art and audience expectations.
  • Zadan, Craig. Sondheim and Company. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Excellent starting point for research on Sondheim. Presents in-depth discussion of Sondheim’s career and features many interviews and abundant photographs. Focuses particular attention on the process of getting a show to the stage.

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