The towering musical genius of the musical at end of the century was
Stephen Sondheim, whose mentor as a young man was Hammerstein.
Sondheim revealed his complete persona of both
creative composer and virtuoso lyricist with
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), a cunning musical
adaptation of the farces of Roman playwright Plautus, but he mainly
channelled his aesthetic vision into his later
"concept" musicals, that, typically complex and dark in nature, confronted
contemporary and universal issues, straddling the line between
William Shakespeare and Ingmar Bergman, and, in the process, neglected the
melodic aspect in favor of analytic depth:
Company (1970), the manifesto of his major theme (middle-class alienation),
Follies (1971), a meditation on nostalgy,
A Little Night Music (1973), a musical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of A Summer Night (1955), that, despite the intellectual setting, produced Sondheim's only hit song ever, Send In The Clowns,
the kabuki pastiche Pacific Overtures (1976), that includes scene conceived as stand-alone mini-musicals,
the operatic drama Sweeney Todd (1979),
Sunday in the Park with George (1984), a bold musical biography of French painter Georges Seurat,
Into the Woods (1987), almost a multi-textured literary exegesis of the fairy tale (famous characters of the world of fables such as Cinderella and Snow White live out their stories in the same forest at the same time),
and the bleak Passion (1994), that was almost the antithesis of the
Sondheim always seemed morbidly attracted by happiness like a man who can only envy it in others but never personally achieve it, and thus can only speculate on how it feels without actually feeling it.
Basically, Sondheim destroyed the moral certainties that Rodgers and Hammerstein had created.
Human life looked suddenly loose and undefined, awash in an ambivalent moral universe.
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