“You know you’re an institution when things are named after you,” wrote Time magazine critic Richard Corliss in 2010 in an article about Stephen Sondheim.
He went on to point out that there’s a Stephen Sondheim Award, presented annually by the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, and also a Broadway theatre, once called the Henry Miller, that was re-opened as the Stephen Sondheim Theatre earlier that year.
His work, too, has been kept alive — or at least his old work has: “If you didn’t catch a Sondheim show in its original incarnation, no matter; he’s has more resurrections than Freddy Krueger. In the past 21 years, Broadway has mounted nine Sondheim revivals (Gypsy three times, Company, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd twice, and Follies, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George and West Side Story once).”
In fact Corliss left out a tenth revival: Pacific Overtures also received a 2004 production; and there have also, as he does point out, “been three shows of the composer’s songs (Putting It Together, Mostly Sondheim and Celebrating Sondheim).”
So, as he goes on to say, “With all this renewed attention, it’s a shame Sondheim isn’t alive to enjoy it. Oh, wait, he’s still going strong! He hasn’t stopped working, in fact. But to the people who put up the money for new shows, he may as well be dead or retired.”
Of his three original musicals since Into the Woods opened in 1987, only Passion in 1994 made it to Broadway in its original production. Assassins, first seen off-Broadway, only made it there later in a revival; and Road Show is yet to be seen in New York beyond off-Broadway, though it has had productions in Chicago, Washington DC and last year at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory.
Corliss’s conclusion? “Rarely if ever has a living Broadway composer been honored so much for his past and so little for his present. He’s the musical theater’s ultimate example of an oldies act. Nobody wants to sponsor his latest, possibly most mature works. Only the classics, please.”
Sondheim’s musical fate - or the fates of his musicals on Broadway, at any rate - was tied up inextricably with the rise first of the British megamusical on Broadway, and the era ushered in by Cats and continued through Starlight Express, The Phantom of the Opera and the Anglo-French Les Miserables and Miss Saigon; and more latterly by the rise of the jukebox musical, led again by a British-originated show, Mamma Mia! and continued with entries like Jersey Boys.
Last Saturday Phantom, already Broadway’s longest-running musical of all time, marked another milestone: it played its 10,000th Broadway performance. As a front page New York Times feature pointed out, “It is the musical that has come to define modern Broadway by proving the purchasing power of women and tourists, the durability of repeat business and the lure of spectacle: ingredients for success embraced by producers of The Lion King, Wicked, Mamma Mia! and other smashes.”
In other words, it established a new template for success, now much imitated. The Phantom statistics are instructive: “More than 40 percent of Phantom patrons have seen it at least once before, and a majority of Phantom audiences in 2011 saw no other Broadway show that year. About 68 percent were women, and nearly 60 percent were tourists.” Knowing that kind of data, the producers (our very own Cameron Mackintosh and the Really Useful Company) and their general manager Alan Wasser is able to plan for the future, the latter of whom says, “We’re able to predict, for virtually each week of the year, what the demand for seats will be, what types of people will be coming and how to price the seats.”
Nowadays flexible pricing is standard on Broadway, rising and falling according to demand, but Phantom has achieved its longevity by minutely calibrating it. But it has also, as those earlier statistics reveal, shown the importance of repeat business: as Mackintosh tells the New York Times, “Any super-successful show depends on audiences’ coming back.”
If Sondheim has never achieved that kind of commercial run, Lloyd Webber’s enduring popular success with Phantom — originally premiered in 1986 — has also enslaved him: none of his half dozen major shows in the 25+ years since have come anywhere near to match it. The longest-running of the post-Phantom shows was the first, Aspects of Love, which ran for 1,325 performances after opening in the West End in 1989; but its subsequent Broadway incarnation in 1991 only mustered 377 performances, losing its entire $8m investment and making it (in the words of the New York Times at the time) “perhaps the greatest flop in Broadway history”. (There have been bigger ones since).
The late Bernard B Jacobs, then President of the Shubert Organisation that owned the theatre where Aspects of Love played (and is now himself posthumously an institution with a Broadway theatre named after him), told the New York Times, “I like to quote Oscar Hammerstein. He said, ‘The number of people who will not go to a show they do not want to see is unlimited.’ There has to be a perception out there that this is a show people want to see, and it’s clear that Aspects never achieved that perception.”
Those words are particularly resonant when placed beside those of one tourist canvassed by the New York Times last week for why they were seeing Phantom: “I wanted to pick a musical that was really well established, that everyone would like, and I’d heard it was something you can’t leave without seeing.” Familiarity and a brand-name has bred content.
But it’s intriguing, too, to set the example of Ivor Novello, a brand-name of British musicals from the 1930s and 1940s, beside those of Sondheim and now Lloyd Webber. Like Sondheim, Novello has had both a major prize (the Ivor Novello Awards for songwriting awarded each year by the Britsh Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors) and a theatre (re)named after him: the Novello, formerly the Strand, in the Aldwych. Not that everyone is pleased with the latter honour: David Hare recently told the Daily Mail, “Once Ivor Novello’s had a theatre named after him, the bar’s set pretty low, isn’t it?’
But not one of his musicals is in the popular repertoire anymore; they are all but dead. Last weekend, however, I finally saw his last one for myself, Gay’s the Word, that originally opened in 1951 and has never been professionally revived since until the ever-amazing Finborough squeezed a cast of 19 onto its tiny stage.
Even if my seat in the extreme side corner of the theatre, beside the musical director’s bench, meant that it often felt like I was watching this story of backstage life from the back of the stage myself, it was a pleasure to see it at all. But on the tuneful but corny evidence of what I did see, it wasn’t difficult to see how or why it has all but vanished from the repertoire. But I can’t help think, either, that a trick was missed in not putting this show on at Gay’s the Word Bookshop near Russell Square: it would not only have made it a site-specific piece, but also wouldn’t have had to look so far for its audience.