What Does Generation Z Know About Stephen Sondheim?

“I love Company!” This was not a sentence I expected to hear this term. Not a phrase I expected to hear from an undergraduate at a seminar on American musical. In the class I teach at Portland State University, I was expecting #Hamilfans, enthusiasts. Ratatouille: TikTok Musicalchildren who love Dear Evan Hansen– appreciation for everything that has been appreciated throughout my students’ lives. Vintage Stephen Sondheim stans, but I hadn’t guessed.

It’s not because people don’t like Company, Sondheim’s 1970 injection that turns marriage, the traditional ending of musical comedy, into an open question. A gender-swapped play was revived on Broadway this year, with the recording session of the famous original cast a documentary parody and a tendency to hide their numbers in recent films. Company resonating far beyond the narrow slice of Manhattan appearing on the show, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that a 20-year-old Oregonian, especially someone who’s chosen a class in musicals, was fascinated.

it wasn’t just Company, despite. Sondheim’s name seemed like a miraculous elixir to students for whom Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken had little validity. “I saw that the music for the opening credits was written by Stephen Sondheim, so I was excited,” one classmate wrote in a post on our discussion board. Sweeney Todd, which another student ranked as one of his “favorite musicals of all time.” The class enjoyed discussing the legendary composer’s words. West Side Story and Gypsyand they teleported when I mentioned into the forest. Duration A little night music and Pacific Advice were favorites of the senior citizens who supervised the course, Sunday in the Park with George familiar to young students who had watched the last movie Tick, Tick … Boomthat playwright Jonathan Larson envisions a weekend dinner brunch as a tribute to “Sunday”, Sondheim’s artistic composition hymn.

What I found when we started discussing these shows was to draw attention to an aspect of Sondheim that I didn’t see in the many eulogies that came after his death in 91 last year. My students could appreciate his skill as a musical playwright, his innovations, his creative acumen as a craftsman, and his longing harmonic lines. But what really attracted them—or perhaps what they were attracted to—was his preoccupation with people excluded from the dominant society, his critical view of those in positions of power, and his exploration of musical forms that voiced outsider perspectives.

Sondheim, together with his screenwriting collaborators, relentlessly challenged the institutions that stabilized the form of musical theater: the satisfaction of marriage. Company), radiance of stardom (stained madness), the benefits of American imperialism (reversed) Pacific Advice), the justice of the social order (cannibalized Sweeney Todd), idealism of youth (reverse We Roll With Joy), art making achievement (pinned Sunday in the Park with George), the assurance of tales with happy endings (ripped out of place) into the forest), the founding myths of American self-creation (curled up assassins). And he did this with music that always explored, always oscillated in harmony, resisting harmony, painful and longing, almost never ending. For a genre whose modern version is established (in oklahoma) on the equivalence between marriage and nation-building (“We start as a farmer with a brand new wife – / Soon I’ll be living in a brand new state!” The title song applauds), opening a door to the musical in Sondheim’s imagination. The space that can include everyone that the American promise has left out, into its misfits.

This field is essential for today’s college students, many of whom have had to work throughout their education and are still accumulating huge debts and recovering from the mental and physical health effects of the pandemic. To take Sweeney Toddwhere my students voted for their best shows at the end of the semester. They quickly picked up on Sondheim’s mastery of key motifs and disturbing repetitions, his disturbing mix of comedy and horror, his highly intelligent rhymes as he seduced the corpses of Mrs. Lovett’s murderous barber clients into making meat pies. (“The Tailor?” “Paler.” “Butler?” “Subtler.”) But what those writing about the musical valued was hearing the romantic waltz form in that cannibal duet, “A Little Priest,” cut from a musical instrument. The marriage plan eventually turns into a declaration of class revenge where “the above will serve the lower.”

The students acknowledged Sweeney’s insanity, which was reflected in the rapidly changing note – “the songs just made you feel like you were going crazy when you listened to them”, he wrote – but also saw his violence as an understandable, if not inexcusable, effect of the severe trauma: he then attacked his wife and killed his daughter. The kidnapper was deported to Australia by a judge. No wonder Sweeney serenaded his future partner, Mrs. Lovett, with gleaming razors (“These are my friends!”). (“I’m your friend too, Mr. Todd,” he suggests implicitly.) “Mrs. Lovett is kind of like ‘Senpai, notice me,'” said one student. For aspirational love, I don’t know the anime meme, it’s equally appropriate I thought he was mocking the “send cake, notice me” appearing.

The genre my students preferred was camp scare. When it comes time to make their selection for the last remaining vacancies in the curriculum, the most votes Rocky Horror Image Show. They easily explained their choice: Fear was a mode to celebrate strangers, to form community with people excluded from mainstream society. Students can also choose to write their own musical for their final project and create various narratives of queer participation: gay Arab Muslim men accepted in New York’s ballroom culture; small-town trans youth who blend in with other queer people in their rural areas. My students said that what these characters are looking for is “found family”, relationships of solidarity beyond the borders of the world they were born in. This is also what Sondheim finally offers. into the forest: Little Red and Jack lost their parents; The Baker and Cinderella lost their partners. Yet together, they form a favored family. “No one is alone,” as Cinderella sings to comfort Little Red.

Of course, not all of my students shared the same tastes or identities. Another unit was nominated Mamma Mia (although they did file a lawsuit for it as a feminist show that still rejects their marriage plans, sort of). A talented composer in the class lamented the trend towards rock musicals and missed the days of George Gershwin. However, what stood out, and what I thought was not well-respected by Generation Z, was a combination of deep concern for social justice and equally profound curiosity and openness. When a student notices this GypsyThe title of Sondheim’s second hit was an ethnic slur for Roma and owned by a white stripper on the show, that wasn’t the end of the controversy. Students not interested in canceling Gypsywhatever that means in a classroom. Instead, others got the point by asking how exoticism and eroticism are often paired in musical-theatre history, how race and sexuality work in the musical’s narrative of social mobility, and how Mama Rose and Gypsy Rose Lee embody different models of gender performance. dir-dir Gypsy exciting, problematic, exploitative, sex-positive, celebration of individualism, overt critique of destiny, a love letter to show business and smashing the quest to be a star? Why not? Complexity is the hallmark of Sondheim, and my students embraced it.

However, they do not show composure in the face of complexity. comparison of their performance Sweeney ToddIn the 2007 Tim Burton movie starring Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp and her song “A Little Priest” in the 2014 concert staging featuring Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel, a student article states that “in addition to the bizarre nature of the orchestral performance, Mrs. In his presentation, he proposes an opportunistic worldview in which reparations for justice and social mobility are a series of happy coincidences. On the contrary, the bleak and sinister tone of Burton’s film adaptation alludes to a fatalistic worldview that asserts that radical change is inevitable in the face of social and economic injustice.”

I thought of my students’ other favorite song of the term: “Cell Block Tango,” Chicago (music by still active John Kander, born three years before Sondheim). Each of the “six merry killers of Cook County Jail” gives reasons for killing their abusive partners. The chorus of the number was “He was there”. When these students look at the history of the American musical, they see not only a record of a playful trick, but also a diagnosis of social ills that they so creatively tried to solve.

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