“From here to eternity: Roads, paths and journeys with Stephen Sondheim” by Christopher Weimer
News & Notes
Serving a dark and a vengeful god: movie review excerpts
More opinions on the movie
His dark material: Tim Burton’s vision for Sweeney Todd
Adapting the music from stage to film: The sounds of Sweeney
Sunday in the Park with George…
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Twinkle, shimmer and buzz: Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell
Other Features and Interviews
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A film event: West Side Story in Todd-AO
From here to eternity: Roads, paths and journeys in shows by Stephen Sondheim
Studying Sondheim: Symposium in New Jersey
A new genre: Musical theatre art songs
Ben and me: Tom Wopat takes on Follies
Giving Iowa a try: Sondheim Center has gala opening
Reviews and Reactions
A moment with Steve Ross
Company in Chicago’s suburbs
Doyle’s Merrily at the Watermill
Anyone Can Whistle in concert in Toronto
Assassins in Adelaide
Into the Woods in Barcelona
Book Reviews: Biographies of Ethel Merman
Book Reviews: Background on the film of Sweeney Todd and the legend’s back-story
Soundtrack Review: Sweeney film soundtrack
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
“From here to eternity: Roads, paths and journeys with Stephen Sondheim”
by Christopher Weimer
Few poets or storytellers — and all lyricists, especially the great ones, are both — can resist the allure of roads and streets, of paths and trails. The image of the journey has been central to Western art since Homer described Ulysses’ tortuous return home from the Trojan War in The Odyssey and Dante’s pilgrim awakened at the beginning of the Divine Comedy “halfway along life’s road.” Cervantes’ aging Spanish gentleman began to truly live only when he took to the dusty highways of La Mancha as Don Quixote, while four centuries later, Robert Frost famously praised “the road less traveled by” in his 1920 poem and Bob Dylan asked “How many roads must a man walk down?” in one of the most iconic protest songs of the 1960s. Given the history and the resonance of this artistic tradition, it should hardly surprise us to encounter it in so many of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals. Journeys of all kinds abound in the Sond-heim canon. Mama Rose and her children spend Gypsy touring the vaudeville and burlesque circuits, Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper’s bankrupt town becomes a destination for religious pilgrims in Anyone Can Whistle and the tale of Sweeney Todd really began when Judge Turpin transported the innocent Benjamin Barker to Australia, beginning his journey to becoming Sweeney Todd. In West Side Story’s “Somewhere,” Tony and María long to escape the restrictive world of their neighborhood to a time and place of “peace and quiet and open air,” while Forum’s Pseudolus tempts Hero and Philia with a comic “Pretty Little Picture” of a similar flight from the obstacles to young love: “And off they sail/On the first high tide, /The boat and the bed and the boy and the bride/ …./ Have a little freedom on me!” More metaphorically, Dot in Sunday in the Park with George teaches her great-grandson to view artistic growth as a journey with an unknown destination:
Stop worrying where you’re going —
If you can know where you’re going,
Just keep moving on.
Rather than attempting to list all of the instances of travel and movement to be found in Sondheim’s musicals, I would like to focus on three specific categories that Sondheim has repeatedly used with his collaborators: quests, life and history as journeys.
Accounts of quests are among the oldest of all tales: heroic journeys undertaken in search of treasure, talismans or wisdom. In The Frogs and Into the Woods, Sondheim offers audiences quests derived from two very different sources. Frogs, anachronistically faithful to the spirit of Aristophanes’ 405 B.C. comedy, depicts the god Dionysos’ descent into Hades to bring George Bernard Shaw back to a modern world in great need of his words and ideas. Such journeys into the underworld were a staple of classical lore: Orpheus braved Hades to be reunited with his beloved Eurydice, Hercules descended into the underworld to perform one of his legendary labors and Ulysses ventured there for knowledge of the future. Indeed, it is precisely this tradition that Aristophanes parodied in his original play and that Sondheim, Burt Shevelove and Nathan Lane comically rewrote in their musical.
Unsuited though their Dionysos might seem to follow in his valiant predecessors’ footsteps, his purpose is nevertheless a serious and even a heroic one, as “I Love to Travel,” the god’s song with his slave Xanthius, ultimately makes clear. At first this deceptively lighthearted number amuses audiences with its rhymes as the buoyant Dionysos tries to encourage the reluctant Xanthius: “I love a change of venue,/A change of menu,/The feeling when you/Meet with something strange.” It is Xanthius’s reply, however, which demonstrates why travel matters: “Who needs to travel?/I say to leave the world alone./ It may unravel,/But it’s the mess we’ve always known.” The opposite of travel, Sondheim tells us, is apathy, and Xanthius’ comic resistance foreshadows the frogs’ more sinister opposition to any constructive form of action. A quest can save the troubled world, but only by conquering apathy can a journey to the underworld even begin — and only that journey can teach the god of theatre himself what even he did not understand when he first set out: that the world needs the compassionate humanity of Shakespeare’s wisdom more than it does the pitiless rigor of Shaw’s.
Just as The Frogs reworks classical descents into Hades, Into the Woods does the same with the magical quests so frequently undertaken in fairy tales. None of its characters’ journeys into the unnamed dark forest will prove easy or safe, as they themselves know from the outset:
Into the woods
But careful not
To lose the way.
Into the woods,
Who knows what may
Be lurking on the journey?
Ironically, only by losing their way and coming face to face with the dangers they had hoped to avoid will the surviving characters emerge from the woods stronger and with new self-knowledge. Perhaps the most explicit statement of this paradox is offered by Little Red Ridinghood’s song describing how the Wolf lured her aside from her errand and “swallowed me down,/Down a dark slimy path/Where lie secrets that I never want to know.” Yet, as a result of this horrific ordeal the girl can declare, “And I know things now,/Many valuable things,/That I hadn’t known before.” Moreover, only by journeying into the unknown can we discover how better to negotiate the woods on our inescapable subsequent forays: “But everything you learn there/will help when you return there.” As Dionysos learned from his descent to the underworld, the real reward at the end of a quest is wisdom.
A very different kind of journey provides the central images for Follies and Merrily We Roll Along, two portraits of unhappy middle-aged people looking back on their lives and regretting the choices they have made. Both shows pose fundamentally similar questions. How did the young Phyllis, Sally, Ben and Buddy become the sadder but not necessarily wiser couples whose long-suppressed feelings explode at Dimitri Weissman’s reunion in Follies? And how did Merrily’s Franklin Shepard, the idealistic valedictorian of Lake Forest’s Class of 1955, become the distinguished but disillusioned commencement speaker urging the graduates of 1980 to accept that “compromise is the bottom line”? As these students ask the middle -aged Frank, “How did you get there from here, Mr. Shepard?/How did you get to be you?” Sondheim develops this motif of life as a journey throughout Follies, most overtly in Ben’s “The Road You Didn’t Take.” As if in rebuke to Robert Frost’s preference for “the road less traveled by,” Ben sings of choosing not to be a poet or a lover in order to become “the famous Benjamin Stone”: “You take one road,/You try one door./There isn’t time for any more./One’s life consists of either/or.” Life, in other words, is more than a simple trip down one road; instead, everyone must select which routes they will travel as well as which they will bypass and try to forget: “You take your road,/The decades fly,/The yearnings fade, the longings die./You learn to bid them all good-bye.” A man can even convince himself that those forgone routes would not have been worthwhile — after all, they “go through rocky ground, don’t they?” But no matter which roads anyone chooses, as the song’s last anguished question makes clear, those choices are irreversible. Benjamin Stone followed the roads leading to fame and fortune, and now he and Sally can barely remember “the Ben I’ll never be.”
A decade later, Sondheim would use this same imagery in Merrily We Roll Along to show how the prodigiously talented Franklin Shepard nevertheless lost his closest friends and ended up so disheartened. The song that frames the show, Frank and Charley’s “The Hills of Tomorrow,” uses travel across a panoramic landscape as an explicit metaphor for the students’ lives to come. The hills in the distance are the future, and the graduates’ hearts are high; they sing, “as our journey starts.” The show’s recurrent title song, however, even in 1980 ambivalently describes the trip through the metaphoric countryside as an automobile ride over unknown roads of unpredictable quality: one group of graduates declares that there are “plenty of roads to try” even as another more warily says, “Stay on the track,” because “all you get is/One quick ride.” By the 1961 version of the song, the ambivalence is more pronounced:
Some roads are easy,
Some roads are breezy,
Some roads the ride gets out of control,
Grinds to a halt and ends in a hole.
Some roads you stall before you can roll …
Just as in Follies, the choice of roads determines the route a person’s life will follow. Like Benjamin Stone at the Follies reunion, the older Franklin Shepard looks back at the roads he took and the roads he should have chosen — the choice, as Robert Frost noted, that “has made all the difference.”
While Follies and Merrily We Roll Along depict individuals’ lives primarily as their personal journeys, Pacific Overtures and Assassins — both written with John Weidman — broaden the metaphor to encompass Japanese and American history as national journeys. The first of these, Pacific Overtures, counterpoints the fisherman Manjiro’s and the samurai Kayama’s journeys of identity. But more important, it frames both men’s stories within Japan’s historical journey from its literally insular past to its modern internationalized present. Pacific Overtures’ opening number, “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea,” contrasts the activity of Western nations with the ritualized stasis of feudal Japan. The lyrics repeatedly foreground images of foreign movement and expansion in verse after verse of this song:
Wheels are turning somewhere,
Trains are being run,
Machines are rumbling somewhere,
Ways are being found,
Ideas are growing somewhere,
Trails are being blazed,
Somewhere out there, not here.
Western notions of history and civilization are defined — and rejected — here in terms of opening new routes to unknown places and devising new mechanisms for traveling there, definitions that the Japanese will be forced to acknowledge when the American warships cross the Pacific in 1853 and anchor in their harbors. It is no accident that among the inventions the American admiral offers Lord Abe in “Please Hello!” is “a machine/You can rent/Called a train.” By the time the show arrives at its closing number, “Next,” these foreign concepts of history and civilization will be embraced by the Emperor. “We will build railroads, foundries, telegraphs and steamships,” he vows, and the chorus exhorts, “Roads are turning,/Journey with them.” The musical’s final words utterly reject the stillness once so prized in Japan: “Make the motions,/Keep it moving —/Next!/Next!/Next!” History itself has been redefined.
In Assassins, American history’s dark underside is likewise depicted as a journey, beginning with the Proprietor’s greeting when John Wilkes Booth makes his first entrance: “Hey, gang, / Look who’s here./There’s our/Pioneer.” Here Sondheim (who once chose “pioneer” when asked to name his favorite word ) deliberately jars the audience by describing Abraham Lincoln’s killer as a groundbreaker and a trailblazer. During the next scene, the Balladeer will curse Booth in a further development of this image: “Damn you, Johnny!/You paved the way/For other madmen/To make us pay.” Assassins thus represents the actor’s crime as the opening of a historical road that others — the “hopeless ones” who hear “another national anthem” — followed and extended into the next century. During the musical’s climactic scene in the Texas School Book Depository, this image returns when Booth urges Lee Harvey Oswald to kill President Kennedy:
OSWALD: I didn’t come here to shoot the President.
BOOTH: He didn’t come here to get shot.
According to Booth, Oswald and Kennedy have both unknowingly journeyed to this historic moment, one that will bring back Oswald’s predecessors and make his successors possible — uniting all the American assassins in a collective journey along the road that Booth himself pioneered. Again, a nation’s history has been redefined. Finally, elements from many of these earlier shows can be glimpsed in Sondheim’s 2003 version of Bounce. This work, the composer’s third collaboration with Weidman, begins with the notorious Mizner brothers’ deaths and their posthumous reunion in limbo, a prologue in which the musical’s title song immediately establishes the brothers’ shared lifelong determination to keep moving forward at all costs: “Find a new road —/Forge a new trail —/Bounce.” Flashbacks then depict the younger Addison and Wilson’s adventures, inspired by their father’s deathbed advice: “Find the new frontiers …/Be the pioneers … /Learn to bounce.” This is precisely what the brothers attempt to do in their travels from the Yukon to Boca Raton, repeatedly taking chances in the hope of striking it rich — always with initial success followed by the collapse of their schemes.
In Bounce’s final scene, set again in limbo, another new road — the road to eternity — quite literally appears before Addison and Wilson, neither of whom can resist this “greatest opportunity of all”: “We’re still pioneers,/Like before —/A lot of frontiers/To explore.” It seems fitting that Sondheim’s most recent contribution to the musical theatre should conclude not with its characters at the end of their road, but instead about to embark on an entirely new journey.
CHRISTOPHER WEIMER is a professor at Oklahoma State University, where he teaches courses in literature, western humanities and Spanish.
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