It was inevitable that Ethan Mordden, the musical theater historian-critic distinguished for his wit, cattiness (he once described the 1970s “concept musical” as "Love Life gives Allegro a blowjob") and gossipy tone, would tackle the life and musicals of Stephen Sondheim. He has previously written about Sondheim’s musicals in his indispensible six-volume history of the musical's golden age and his one-volume tirade on musicals from 1980 through 2004 (pessimistically titled The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen). But as with his 1995 coffee table book on the musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein, On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide allows Mordden to merrily romp through half a century of Sondheim musicals (from West Side Story in 1957 through Road Show in 2008) and draw connections and conclusions as to what makes Sondheim so essential to the artistic evolution of the American musical.
Not surprisingly, Mordden is wholly admiring of the Sondheim cannon, and he can even find merit in musicals that Sondheim himself is less than fond of, including Do I Hear a Waltz? (which Sondheim derided in the video segments of the musical revue Sondheim on Sondheim as lacking in purpose) and West Side Story, which marked Sondheim's Broadway debut (at least as a lyricist). Mordden makes a case for why the lyrics to "I Feel Pretty" (which Sondheim claims are too self-conscious) truthfully represent Maria because she was innocently trying to be witty at that moment in time. He also argues that the songs in Forum are in fact rooted in plot and character.
On Sondheim is an accessible, conversational work, but not without plenty of analysis and insight. Mordden even has a thesis statement: Sondheim, "the man who intellectualized the American musical," is "a classically trained composer who chose the theatre over the concert hall." Thanks to the fatherly influence of Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim entered an industry dominated by the musical comedies of George Abbott and the syrupy optimism of Rodgers & Hammerstein and out sprang Assassins and Sweeney Todd.
He sees Sondheim's career as three-fold: pre-Harold Prince (Saturday Night through Do I Hear a Waltz?), the Prince era (five critical successes in the 1970s followed by an epic fall from grace with the misdirected original production of Merrily) and post-Prince (dominated by his work with director/book-writer James Lapine). From Company onwards, Mordden considers every Sondheim musical to be an openly presentational "concept musical," one that "doesn't simply tell the story; it dissects the story." Mordden begins with a chronology and brief biography of Sondheim's early life, followed by individual chapters on each show. He closes with notes on the various audio and video recordings of his musicals (even the bootleg Merrily, which can easily be found on YouTube).
It is hard for Mordden to restrict himself to a single work at once, and he frequently makes comparisons to other musicals by Sondheim and others (especially Rodgers & Hammerstein's Allegro) to put everything in context and emphasize his other main thesis: Sondheim shows are all about the need to exercise free will and make choices (i.e. Bobby in Company) and the compulsion to regret those choices later on (i.e. Ben in Follies).
The most valuable service performed by Mordden may be in highlighting the inestimable, often neglected contributions made by Sondheim's book-writers. He notes the influence of experimental 1960s playwrights like Harold Pinter in George Furth's book of Company, the sense of mystery that pervades every line of James Goldman's book to Follies, and the brilliant way that the limits of time and space are overturned in John Weidman's book of Assassins.
Mordden also provides an alternate explanation on why the “chic,” scaled-down revivals of Sondheim shows have been so successful: Many people could not appreciate them on first viewing, and they are finally catching up. He bluntly criticizes John Doyle's actor-musician concept (as seen in the 2005 and 2006 Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company) as idiotic.
There is less gossip than you'd expect, but still some, including the names of the two primary lovers in Sondheim's life, the reason why Sondheim is apparently not fond of choreographer Agnes de Mille, and Ingmar Bergman's blunt comment to Sondheim on Glynis Johns' sex appeal in A Little Night Music.
My only regret about On Sondheim is that it is not longer. One gets the sense that Mordden could go on for days talking about these shows and sharing additional insights, but he stops at just over 200 pages. That hardly seems like sufficient space when it comes to exploring "the man who intellectualized the American musical."