According to the critical consensus of Gotham’s theater reviewers, the greatest talent of the musical theater is 1) Stephen Sondheim, 2) Mel Brooks, 3) Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, 4) Abba.
If you guessed Sondheim, you are wrong, according to critical consensus. No original musical or revival written by the esteemed lyricist-composer has received the across-the-board raves awarded “The Producers” or “Hairspray.” “Mamma Mia!” may be pushing the point, but then, what Sondheim tuner ever got the money notices (“You’ll enjoy yourself!”) that were showered on that show?
For all Sondheim’s Tonys and lifetime achievement awards, the critics clearly have a problem with him. And it just doesn’t stop. Check out the latest round of mixed reviews, in this case, for the current Broadway revival of “Pacific Overtures.”
Nearly three decades later, I thought Sondheim’s show, written with John Weidman, had found its place in the musical theater pantheon. Wrong. When I read the reviews, it was like Jan. 12, 1976, all over again.
Back in the 1970s, I made a habit of going to Broadway musicals in previews, then returning later to see the ones I liked again. It wasn’t an easy avocation sitting through “Dude,” “Doctor Jazz,” “Rockabye Hamlet,” “King of Hearts,” “Platinum,” “Angel,” “A Broadway Musical,” “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” “Rex,” “Working” and — the absolute nadir of my theatergoing life — “Got Tu Go Disco” (it played nine previews and eight perfs). But this penance served me well. Today, when someone says, “This is the worst season ever,” I can reply, “No, it isn’t.”
But there was Sondheim. In retrospect, it might seem like tuner nirvana to have witnessed the original productions of “Company,” “Follies,” “Pacific Overtures,” “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd” (all directed by Harold Prince), but the sweet reality of performance always included the bitter aftertaste of the reviews. “Pacific Overtures” was so magnificent I could not enjoy either “A Chorus Line” or “Chicago” that season. “Sweeney Todd” made me not regret having been born a century too late to have seen firstrun Verdi at La Scala.
But after seeing those two musicals in previews, you had to endure the reviews, which too often read “ambitious but failed” or “ambitious but unsatisfying” in so many words.
I recently phoned the reviewers who wrote those words — the few who are still alive and writing. What did they have to say for themselves now?
First up was John Simon. In his 1976 New Leader review of “Pacific Overtures,” he wrote, “For tripe and pretentiousness combined, you can go to a contemporary musical, ‘Pacific Overtures’….” His recent New York review of the revival was infinitely more upbeat.
On the phone, Simon is contrite. “It is better than, perhaps, I first thought,” he says. “Some things can be immediately appreciated and others have to be digested more slowly, which is true of more lasting works. Very few of those can be grasped right away.”
The Village Voice’s Michael Feingold followed his original mixed-to-downbeat review of “Pacific Overtures” with last week’s mixed-to-upbeat one. The critic said his opinions about Sondheim have “clarified rather than changed” over the years. “I’ve always had problem with the works, because the works have problems in them that you can’t shake off,” he said.
Among them: “The general human value of the material tends to end up in second place to the specific problems inherent in the material.
” ‘A Little Night Music’ and ‘Sweeney Todd’ get produced the most because they have the strongest narratives. The others have become curios, which occasionally get produced in nonprofit theater.”
“Pacific Overtures” is the first Sondheim musical Howard Kissell reviewed, for Women’s Wear Daily. His was one of the show’s few raves. Now writing for the Daily News, he recalls, “It remains one of the most extraordinary pieces I’ve ever seen. The other is ‘Sweeney Todd.’ ”
Kissell is not surprised that the Sondheim debate has not abated. “How much effort does ‘Hairspray’ require?” he asks. “Sondheim does require effort, and over the years the audiences, as well as the critics, are less and less willing to do that.”
In its pre-Frank Rich days, the New York Times offered no comfort for Sondheim aficionados. Richard Eder, now retired as a legit critic, wrote a respectful but mixed review of “Sweeney Todd.” His predecessor, Clive Barnes, nixed “Company” and “Follies,” but thought somewhat better of “Pacific Overtures.” In between, he actually liked “A Little Night Music.”
“None of Sondheim’s works has received that completely unconditional love that some shows have,” Barnes says. “The thing one has to respect about Sondheim: Even critics who have a long record (of liking) Sondheim, they don’t all like, or dislike, the same shows. There is no predictability.”
Today, Barnes greatly admires the “Pacific Overtures” score, but a check of his original Times review finds him somewhat less charitable: “Leonard Bernstein quite often seems to be trysting with Madame Butterfly in the orchestra pit,” he wrote then.
Not available for comment was the ultimate Sondheim naysayer, Walter Kerr, who thumbs-downed everything from “Company” to “Sweeney Todd.” Sondheim brought out the persnickety worst in Kerr. In his Times reviews, Kerr faulted “Pacific Overtures” for not picking sides between the Japanese and the Americans. “A Little Night Music” had too many scenes for its own good. And “Sweeney Todd” broke the cardinal rule of musical theater when its hero sings (“Pretty Women”) rather than seizing the moment to kill his nemesis.
In case anyone forgot Kerr, more than one critic felt it necessary to quote from his 1976 “Pacific Overtures” review in order to dismiss the current Broadway revival.