Saturday, 27 March 2010

Sayers, Sondheim and Assassins

Stephen Sondheim could be described as the Dorothy L Sayers of the musical theatre - which is meant as a compliment. Ironically, he confessed on "Composer of the Week" last week (still available on "Listen Again" for a few days) that, after the commercial failure of "Merrily we Roll Along" that he considered devoting the rest of his life to writing mystery stories. The TV movie "The Last of Sheila" shows just how good he was at it.

Sayers deliberately set out to extend the reach of detective fiction, mainly to make it more literate (which many aficionados regard as patronising), but also introducing such serious themes as xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Musicals had already had been given more challenging storylines from Richard Rodgers and Sondheim's mentor, Oscar Hammerstein III, but Sondheim went further in cutting through the musical rhetoric and making more complex lyrics. He also deals in subjects which R&H would never have considered.

Among these is a pageant of assassins and would-be assassins of American presidents. "Assassins" contains some of his most tuneful numbers (though this may partly be because of the element of pastiche). However, he had some trouble putting it on because there was patriotic resistance to showing the head of state of the US being assassinated or threatened. It was the time of the Iraq war, and there was a Republican in the White House. Since patriotism is mainly associated with the "right", it seems from this news item that the time for this musical has come.

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