The Winner Doesn’t Take It All

Steven Sondheim and Donald Trump have one thing in common. If you every want an inflammatory statement to muse upon, you need to look no further. When talking at the National Theatre yesterday he managed to slam musical theatre producers – saying that they only produce shows that follow a certain format – and also insult American audiences – saying that they don’t listen – in the one speech. But is he right?

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Steven Sondheim has created some of the most well-known shows from American Musical Theatre. From West Side Story to Gypsy and Into the Woods to Sweeney Todd, he has had a hand in them all creating incredibly moving and memorable works. But a recent speech for the National Theatre has provided him an opportunity to comment on the ‘financially fragile’ nature of commercial theatre which restricts the kind of musicals that are being produced.

Arguing that producers are only after their next dollar and jump on the bandwagon of popular opinion, he pulls out jukebox musicals as a particular example. Once they began to sprout great success with Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys, many other producers followed suit. Instead, he would prefer that producers backed a whole range of musicals creating a veritable ‘supermarket of musical theatre’ to choose from and providing new writers with a voice on the professional stage.

Don’t get me wrong, he has a point. Sometimes the industry can be too commercially motivated. And it can be incredibly difficult to break into as a new writer or performer. But that doesn’t mean it is at the expense of artistic growth. Many producers have backed some of the most innovative shows the theatre has ever seen in the last couple of years. Rap-infused Hamilton. Next to Normal which confronts the story of mental illness. Once. Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Fun Home.

All these shows would take your run-of-the-mill audience member out of their comfort zone and, while great for serial theatre attendees, probably would turn a certain conservative or family audience away from returning.

Reading about these comments reminded me of a great perspective which I heard recently in an interview with Broadway orchestrator and arranger Michael Starobin. He mused that the best thing about the industry was the constant battle between commerce and art. The commercial side keeps the artistic side in check ensuring that work is produced which can demand high ticket prices and ultimately support the industry. The artistic side keeps the industry away from mirroring the operatic or classical music world which relies on rerunning popular classics.

Without one or the other, musical theatre would either become the populist opera world or an inaccessible art gallery. So while Steven Sondheim would ideally like art to prevail, the best thing for the industry is that these two powerful forces continue to clash and create the vibrant, creative (yet still accessible) art form which entertains millions and millions of people across the world every year!

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