To say that Sondheim has done a lot of brilliant work in the theater is like saying Elizabeth Swados musicals are a little hard to get into, but for all his unquestionable genius, even he has produced very few truly perfect shows. However, this show, along with Sweeney Todd, is one such rare achievement. The show gets some flack from the intellectual snobs, usually on the nominal grounds of being so open about its status as a didactic allegory, although I’ve long suspected that they simply resent it for being so accessible and leading so many new fans to Sondheim (at their core, most theater snobs are just using their supposedly refined taste to make themselves feel special, and they live in fear of their pet shows actually becoming popular with the “masses”).
But allegory is a perfectly legitimate literary field, and it’s rare that I’ve seen an allegory this brilliantly constructed anywhere, let alone in Musical Theater. Some have interpreted the show as a metaphor for nuclear war, or the destruction of the environment, or the spread of the AIDS virus, but the wonderful thing about the show is that it applies to all of these and more. It perfectly captures the universal process by which, through people’s careless attempts to achieve their own short-term goals, those kinds of problems turn into world-destroying disasters.
The show’s second act gets a particularly harsh reception from the theater snobs, but this is mostly because, while it certainly doesn’t lack for intelligent thought or profound themes, its sheer, open emotional power makes them uncomfortable. In reality, it is one of the finest second acts in musical-theater history, casting the events of the first act, which we accepted largely because they were familiar from the original fairy-tales, in a brutally realistic light, and leading us through a stunning descent of tragic events to a deeply bittersweet conclusion combining painful lessons with hard-earned hope.
The book, in addition to its genius-level construction, is full of dazzlingly witty dialogue, and the score is some of the most melodious and accessible work that Sondheim has ever done. The lyrics throughout are his usual intricate and complex work, but the music is divided down the middle between intricate, complex musical scenes and traditional self-contained songs with simple, almost sing-song melodies, many of them delivered directly to the audience. Particularly wonderful are the last four songs—the terrifying “Last Midnight”; the heartrending father-son duet “No More”; and the immortal hit ballads “No-One Is Alone” and “Children Will Listen”.
Even by Sondheim’s standards, this is one of his all-time masterpieces…there’s a reason why it’s his single most widely-performed show, and seems poised to stay that way for many generations to come.