SONDHEIM AS SHAKESPEARE
Created in honor of the one year anniversary of his death, I’d long wanted to do a Shakespeare/Sondheim canonical comparison but only just came up with this proposed list while taking a shower this morning. Of course, this is all in good fun, debates welcome, all criteria acceptable. For my list, the thinking is a balance of tone and subject material, but also structure, the place it occupies in the general esteem of either canon (with a bit of deference to Shakespeare), and the role it seems to have played in the artistic growth of the creator (with a bit of deference to Sondheim).
SATURDAY NIGHT = TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA
Uneven, kind of dull, but also charmingly precocious in places and full of promise. By all means, let’s do scenes in acting class!
WEST SIDE STORY = HENRY V
Unabashedly romantic period piece about lives caught in the crosshairs of two peoples at war with one another, ultimately hinging on one young person’s decision to either perpetuate or shift the paradigms of the past. Massive fan base that claims it is the best work ever written by the writer in question even though it clearly isn’t but man oh man are the Big Moments hard to find fault with and boy oh boy is it a show of Big Moments. Also a holiday/family favorite… for reasons not exactly obvious. Probably because it just drips nostalgia. Romantic leads that don’t speak the same first language.
GYPSY = ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
It’s all about Her and the show She puts on, everyone else is just kind of hanging around going, “Wow, she’s… a lot.” Best done when you have someone to play Her because She carries The Show.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM = COMEDY OF ERRORS
Silly, well-constructed, sort of vapid, best performed by college kids and community theaters. A classic.
ANYONE CAN WHISTLE = MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Interesting things being discussed, some excellent wordsmithing, and definitely ahead of its time, but also too big for its own britches, and can’t decide who it is actually about or for, while low key despising its own audience and making that disdain very evident.
DO I HEAR A WALTZ? = TIMON OF ATHENS
An interesting footnote that everyone is always trying to do a “good” production of, often not realizing it’s a perfectly “good” show just not a great one and that’s okay. Frequently left out of discussions about the works of the writers in question largely due to their perceived distaste for the work, rather than due to the merits of the work itself, and questions around authorship and collaborators. Focused on an unlikable lead who eventually becomes a profoundly sad and sympathetic character, if you have the right performer.
EVENING PRIMROSE = ROMEO AND JULIET
Some truly beautiful work smashed straight up against some clearly amateur fat that was still hanging around from the past. A transition piece for the writers in question that in retrospect is sort of an underdog classic. Thought of as A Romance when you only look at the good stuff, actually quite weird and morbid when you consider the whole thing.
COMPANY = MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
A fun, charming, flawed but we can ignore the flaws because it’s so fun Early Mature Comedy that is mostly carried by a handful of charismatic roles that make you think there’s more going on in the show than there actually is. Can basically be cast with anyone as long as they are attractive.
FOLLIES = KING LEAR
Enormous, ambitious, preposterous, opulent, and full of one knock out hit moment after another, to the point of almost being too much, and all linked by a plot device that if you look at it for too long starts to fall apart but why are you doing that, look over here instead, isn’t this part brilliant? Yes, it is. Also, no one can ever quite agree where to have the intermission. Or if there should even be an intermission. Unquestionably a masterpiece in spite or, or maybe even because of, a handful of cringe moments and obvious padding. Will cause people having a perfectly normal discussion to TURN INTO RABID ANIMALS IF THEIR OPINIONS DIFFER. Can only be done with the right old people, assuming they can still learn their roles.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC = TWELFTH NIGHT
Sophisticated as fuck, far better than what is usually considered the “comedic masterpiece” but far less easy to do. A true ensemble show which requires even smaller roles to be knocked out of the park, and a true Romance, for adults no less, with a perfect blend of light and dark understandings of Desire, Loss, Artifice, and Time. Decadent from top to bottom in its construction and style and yet somehow still kind of homey and accessible, like having hot cocoa with royalty. Probably the best thing the writers in question ever wrote, but you can’t say that and get taken seriously when you do because it’s “a comedy.”
THE FROGS = MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
Trying… so… hard… it hurts. Not even remotely as bad as people feel it is, but also nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is. Best produced by someone with something to prove, but the something could be anything because it won’t matter, the show will still fail.
PACIFIC OVERTURES = OTHELLO
So so so so so good, and yet rarely performed because you need exactly the right performers and it’s UNCOMFORTABLE for audiences in a way they don’t like to be made UNCOMFORTABLE, and thus REALLY UNCOMFORTABLE for the people trying to put on a production of it. Hinges on a non-sexual male relationship that is weirdly… hot. Arguably one of the best things written by the writers in question but hard to bring up because debates quickly turn ugly and personal, thus partly making it evident why this is such an important work that should be examined more.
SWENNEY TODD = MACBETH
Bloody, funny, genuinely scary in places, and wrestling with Big Themes via a pulp aesthetic. Lots of action, lots of fun smaller characters surrounding a dynamic duo that pretty much every actor and actress wants to play at least one of, at some point in their life, and both roles which can withstand both gender swaps and drag renderings. The popular masterpiece, as in it is both critically a darling but often has fans beyond the usual circles. Since revivals of it have steadily increased as time has passed, transitioning it from a cult show to a canonical pillar, it may be the only work by the writers in question to have any real familiarity with the general audience.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG = PERICLES PRINCE OF TYRE
There’s a good show in there… somewhere. And by gum, every director you know is convinced they can “fix it.” Spoiler: They Will Not.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE = THE WINTER’S TALE
An astonishing near miss of a masterpiece that is gorgeous and unbeatable in its parts, not always successful as a whole, unless you do a really careful, thoughtful production of it, that makes choices beyond the ones the creators intended. Engenders vigorous debate and critique, as a result, rendering it culturally important even if it’s rarely commercially successful. A late period meditation that is profoundly emotional, intellectually contemplative, and not always entertaining, especially for folks who can’t connect with it. Has really vital and famous stage directions. Or, in the case of WINTER’S TALE, one.
INTO THE WOODS = A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
Pretty much everyone’s favorite, even if they don’t think it is “the best”, like an agreed upon guilty pleasure we can all enjoy. Unless you hate it, in which case you will go to no end to pick it apart. Good luck with that. Manages to stand up no matter what crazy directorial concept you impose on it. Is hampered by a brilliant but overly drawn out ending and maybe one too many leading roles. Like, whose show is this? Does it matter? And is it a cynical one or a hopeful one? Why can’t it decide? Is the point that you’re supposed to decide? That seems like a lot of work. Why can’t it just be fun? This is frustrating. Still, you just can’t seem to say no when it gets produced again and again. Lends itself well to being quoted entirely out of context, and certainly the show most likely to be chosen for a Bed and Breakfast theme and/or your local high school’s Spring Show. Lots of references to moonlight and to trees.
DICK TRACY = CYMBELINE
It’s all about the female lead, who gets all the best speeches/songs, even though she’s technically a supporting role and not the named protagonist of the piece. Contains one gorgeous little mournful ballad, which is maybe one of the best things the writers in question ever wrote, and which people often don’t realize is from this strange, but kind of cool, but also sort of dour, little oddity in the canon.
ASSASSINS = TITUS ANDRONICHUS
Love it or hate it, it all hinges on your sense of humor, and which production you see first.
PASSION = HAMLET
A complex, layered, titanic show disguised as a small, intimate story, focused on a leading role that is equal parts terrible and compelling, lovable and repulsive, and debatably mentally unwell, surrounded by secondary characters who must be played perfectly if the show is to work, but with nowhere near as much material, but all the material they have is wildly demanding. Hermeneutic, profound, hard to crack and endlessly challenging to audiences and artists alike, it’s a piece unto itself, genre re-defining, and you fail it more often than it fails you, but you’re going to have an opinion either way. Slowly gained ground over its more popular, crowd-pleasing competitors to become, if not the best remembered or loved piece, the aesthetic legacy of the writers in question.
ROAD SHOW = HENRY VI
Covers a really long span of time and a wide variety of almost interesting characters who largely never develop a third dimension. Feels like a good idea that loses steam way before it ends and the writers in question agree but by that point there were people expecting them to finish it so… here you go.