Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com.
In Passion, Fosca sings, “If you have no expectations, you can never have a disappointment.” These are wise words to bring with you to Ethan Mordden’s latest book, On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide. Judging by its title, you might expect the book to provide a complete listing of Sondheim’s output with the author’s assessments of same, but it is oddly inadequate as both opinion and guide. The book immediately shirks its guide obligations by referring readers on the very first page to SondheimGuide.com (without a mention of Michael H. Hutchins, the man responsible for putting it together). It falls short in the opinion arena as well, offering far fewer than the title implies and hardly any that might register as controversial. And yet, taken on its own terms it offers pleasures for both the Sondheim expert and newbie alike.
Mordden knows his subject well, but he occasionally lets that get the better of him. Acknowledging in his preface that he generally did not consult other books on his subject in the writing of this one, he lets the occasional misstatement slip through. Mordden’s prose style is characterized by an awkward combination of SAT words (“manumission,” “equiponderant”) and slang (relating an artistic disagreement as a “hard-on contest,” or describing the opening scene of My Fair Lady as “an Instagram of the show’s analysis of class”). A quick poll of acquaintances who have read other Mordden uncovers that this is a common quirk of his writing about musicals, and the percentage of those who hate it is fairly close to those who adore it.
This book is loosely divided into three sections: first providing some context for who Sondheim is and what the state of musical comedy was like before he began writing, then offering short essays on each of Sondheim’s full-length musicals, and finally three chapters on Sondheim on film, in print, and on record. The first section looks at Sondheim’s life, his career as a whole, and his relationship with mentors. Mordden’s claims about Sondheim’s worldview are exactly the kind of opinions one might hope to find in a book such as this: boldly stated and just original enough to provoke further conversation. His examination of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Allegro and the film Hangover Square, both often cited as early influences on Sondheim, is thoughtful and well argued.
The majority of the book is devoted to chapters about each of Sondheim’s musicals, and here the rewards are somewhat less consistent. These essays range from four to eleven pages long, and while one can understand why the early, simplistic Saturday Night might merit less discussion than Company, it’s disappointing to seeInto the Woods and Assassins treated with similar brevity—particularly after calling Woods “perhaps the richest work of Sondheim’s third period.” These chapters are less formal essays than stream of consciousness musings, and many of them simply stop rather than conclude. Still, as I read the book, there were few that didn’t make at least one assertion that whet my appetite to listen to or see the show again. It would not be hard to imagine a theatrical book club getting together for a weekly discussion using each of these chapters as a starting point.
The final segment of the book, focusing on films, books, and recordings, is the only that truly fulfills the promise of “an opinionated guide.” Rather than simply catalog Sondheim’s output in each of the categories, Mordden instead highlights the standouts with thoughtful commentary on why one might want to watch, read, or listen to each entry. Perhaps his best gift to the reader is his inclusion of books focusing on Sondheim’s collaborators and mentors as well as recordings of music that influenced Sondheim’s own compositions. Again, it’s frustrating that he spends four pages on Allegro while almost entirely passing over A Little Night Music because he previously wrote about those recordings in an entirely different book. But if you’ve made it to the final chapter (in which this happens), you’ve already come to expect this sort of behavior.
In attempting to offer a book that might appeal to readers with any (or no) degree of familiarity with Sondheim’s work, Mordden ended up with a product that should hardly be anyone’s only book on Sondheim, but he’s the first to admit that. It is, however, not a bad first book about Sondheim for those first starting to learn more. And even those who know Sondheim inside and out should find the book interesting enough to make you want to pull that recording of The Frogs off your shelf one more time. Which recording? Thankfully, Mordden has an opinion on that. (Even if I might disagree with it.)