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Vol. 20, No. 4 Fall 2014

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Sample Article

Maternal hearts

Motherhood in shows by Sondheim
BY CHRISTOPHER WEIMER
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Sample Article

Maternal hearts

Motherhood in shows by Sondheim BY CHRISTOPHER WEIMER CLICK HERE

News & Notes

On the Cover: Here’s to the Ladies …

Waiting for the girls upstairs: Women in Sondheim’s shows

Studying women in Sondheim’s musicals at Princeton University

Are Sondheim’s shows feminist?

Shows offer a refreshingly realistic approach to female sexuality

Gypsy played a part in sparking the revival of burlesque

Mothers in Sondheim’s musicals

Profile: Angela Lansbury

Mary Rodgers has been a friend of Sondheim for 70 years

Elaine Stritch had her close-up in the documentary Shoot Me

Director Chiemi Karasawa had to keep up with Elaine Stritch

Features

Sliding into the slippery art of The Frogs‘ score

New Jersey high school dug into Anyone Can Whistle

Productions and Reviews

Louise (Pitre) sang out for Gypsy at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Sondheim fans had a double bill in Chicago with Road Show

Merrily We Roll Along in Austin revealed echoes of Company

An admirable Passion was an intimate experience for Chicagoans

New York Philharmonic’s Sweeney Todd was downright irreverent

Chicago’s Hypocrites took a playful journey into the woods Tennessee Rep offered a timeless Company

Unabashed fans dish theatre lore in two recent books

Take Me to the World: International Coverage

Devilish fun in the London debut of Satan Sings Mostly Sondheim

Amon Miyamoto staged an optimistic Merrily in Tokyo

Châtelet in Paris gave Into the Woods an expansive setting

London had a rare performance of Do I Hear a Waltz?

Cryptic Crossword “There’s Always a Woman”

Looking Ahead Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada


SAMPLE ARTICLE Maternal hearts Motherhood in shows by Sondheim BY CHRISTOPHER WEIMER

Motherhood, like art, isn’t easy in the theatre of Stephen Sondheim. Whether in Victorian London, imperial Japan or a far-off fairy-tale kingdom, maternity is potentially fraught with conflicts and contradictions. As even a brief survey of the musicals suggests, being a mother can prove a goal or an obstacle, it can fulfill or thwart, and it can succeed or fail.

Of course, not all of Sondheim’s women with children are primarily occupied with their motherhood. Domina in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, for instance, shows only passing concern with her son Hero’s remaining “cheerful, well fed and far from the opposite sex” during her absence; her main goal instead is to foil her husband’s efforts at infidelity with Philia. Sally’s problematic relationship with her adult sons in Follies is yet one more symptom of her obsession with Ben. The wives in Company appear to pay far more attention to their marriages — and to Robert’s lack of progress in that direction — than they pay to their unseen offspring. The audience never learns exactly how Robert’s seven nameless godchildren are distributed among his friends, most of whom take child-rearing for granted as an offstage part of marriage. On the other hand, Company at least suggests a potential for conflicting perspectives: While Kathy looks forward to motherhood as one of the “real things” she is leaving New York City to attain, darker maternal notes are struck by the thrice-wed Joanne, who tries to shame Larry for his uninhibited dancing by invoking his mother’s potential embarrassment at the spectacle — and who sardonically lists the “children you destroy together” among the things that keep a marriage intact.

Children offer evident obstacles to women’s goals in two of Sondheim’s politically themed collaborations with John Weidman. Sara Jane Moore in Assassins is so eager to escape her bourgeois life as a mother and “stupid housewife” that she hopes to earn counter-culture credentials by killing a president. She reveals her comic inability to effect that escape when she brings both her dog and her unmanageable 9-year-old son, Billy, to the intended assassination site, much to Squeaky Fromme’s disbelief. Not only does Moore accidentally shoot the family pet, but she also points the loaded gun at the screaming boy’s head in an unsuccessful attempt to end his tantrum; Fromme gives Billy the ice cream money he demands before we learn if Moore truly intends to pull the trigger.

Even less maternal than Moore is the Shogun’s Mother in Pacific Overtures. Faced with the prospect of the American ships bringing a letter from President Fillmore, she displays startling sang-froid in her decision to poison her son for the kingdom’s good: “I decided if there weren’t/Any Shogun to receive it ,/It would act as a deterrent/Since they’d have no place to leave it.”

Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett likewise belongs in this lethal category, though she acts more conflicted about her dilemma. Despite the comic incongruity of declarations such as “If ever there was a maternal heart, it’s mine,” her pity for the abused, forlorn Toby is real. Sweeney Todd initially suggests dispatching the boy along with Pirelli, but Mrs. Lovett prefers to “fob him off with some story.” She keeps Toby with her as the pie shop’s fortunes rise, and in Act II she is knitting him a muffler. Nevertheless, when Toby realizes that Todd killed Pirelli, Mrs. Lovett must choose between her obsessive love for the barber and her affection for the young man who treats her like a mother. She decides, although various actresses might choose to play this moment regretfully, to lock him in the bakehouse and wait for Todd to silence him permanently. (We can only wonder if, under other circumstances, any scruples would have later prevented Mrs. Lovett from serving the boy to her pie shop customers.)

Maternal commitment prevents Passion’s Clara from abandoning her family for the sake of romantic love — or, very possibly, it provides her with an excuse not to make the extreme sacrifices Giorgio asks of her. Describing her motherhood as one of the obligations around which they must “carve out a life” for themselves, she refuses Giorgio’s impulsive plea to run away with him because “I would lose my child.” Like Clara, Dot in Sunday in the Park with George cannot reconcile love with maternal imperatives. Throughout the first act, George repeatedly fails to meet or even acknowledge her emotional needs, despite the strength of their feelings for one another. Dot’s pregnancy creates a turning point in their troubled relationship, however, because it forces her to make decisions both for herself and her daughter. Motherhood, she tells George before sailing with Louis and Marie to America, must now matter most to her: “You have a mission,/A mission to see./Now I have one too, George.”

Rose in Gypsy would very likely demand loudly to join this latter cohort of self-sacrificing mothers. When Herbie finally leaves her, she lashes out: “You’re jealous, that’s what you are! Like every man I’ve ever known! Jealous — because my girls come first.” In Rose’s mind, she is a martyr to maternity, forfeiting love and comfort for June’s and Louise’s benefit. This is Rose’s greatest, most damaging self-deception, surpassing even her ridiculous insistence on vaudeville stardom for her daughters. Only after the catharsis of “Rose’s Turn” can she admit to herself as well as Louise, “I guess I did do it for me.”

Decades after Gypsy arrived on Broadway, the relationship between Road Show’s Mama Mizner and her sons recalled that of Rose and her daughters. Though not Road Show’s protagonist, Mama Mizner is another woman with a dream of success that she imposes on her children to their detriment. After Papa Mizner’s death, she persuades her sons to embark on a series of moneymaking schemes in which Addison invariably ends up suffering for Wilson’s recklessness. Neither will escape this pattern their mother creates for them, even after her death. Addison struggles earnestly to do what would make her proud of him, while Willie seeks out ever more outlandish exploits of the kind that so thrilled and excited her: “He’s having the time of his life,/Life filled to the brim./And I’ve had the time of my life,/Living through him.” Mama considers herself “a very lucky woman” to have two so very different sons; their luck is a different question.

Rose’s example also casts a shadow over Into the Woods, in which the Witch displays a familiar capacity for obsessive motherhood. Just as Rose treats and dresses June and Louise as girls long after they become young women, the Witch guards Rapunzel as a child in her secluded tower. The Witch believes, of course, that she does this for her foster daughter’s protection from the “dark and wild” world, but her anger at the Prince’s visits lays bare her true emotional motives: “I will not share you.” She even makes the futile sacrifice of her magic to regain her beauty, convincing herself that Rapunzel will then no longer want to escape her aged, ugly appearance.

The Witch, however, isn’t the only mother in those woods. This musical offers Sondheim’s most sustained and varied meditation on maternity: The Baker’s Wife longs for a child, Jack’s Mother tries to push her son into maturity and common sense, and Cinderella’s Mother even guides and helps her from beyond the grave. By the finale, though, the stage is peopled with orphans, and Cinderella begins “No One Is Alone” with the painful acknowledgment that “Mother cannot guide you./Now you’re on your own .” When the widowed Baker, unable to imagine raising his son alone, agrees to take Jack, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella into his home, it appears that maternity has given way to community.

Perhaps the most fortunate of all the mothers in Sondheim’s creations, however, is A Little Night Music’s Desirée. She escapes the conflicts and complications besetting so many of her counterparts. Her hope for “some sort of coherent existence after so many years of muddle” aims at embracing motherhood even as she tries to win back the man she has come to realize she truly loves. Indeed, Desirée directs all her stratagems toward bringing together her love for Fredrika and her love for Fredrik without sacrificing one to the other or either one to her career: “Darling, how would you feel if we had a home of our very own with me only acting when I felt like it — and a man who would make you a spectacular father?” Successfully pursuing this vision of coherence free of contradiction during that life-changing weekend in the country, she ultimately enjoys what might be the happiest ending given to any of the mothers in Sondheim’s shows: The night smiles on her. |TSR|

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