Careful The Spell You Cast: How Stephen Sondheim Extended the Range of the American Musical

Stephen Sondheim was not a cynic; he was a romantic. That in a nutshell is the thesis Ben Francis puts forth in Careful the Spell You Cast: How Stephen Sondheim Extended the Range of the American Musical (Methuen Drama, 184 pages), a compact critical analysis of Sondheim’s musicals, organized in nine chapters, each one titled after a major mentor or collaborator, from Oscar Hammerstein to James Lapine.

Francis argues that Sondheim’s musicals are based on a “rich and intriguing” paradox: The characters in them become disenchanted, consistently fail or betray each other. “Yet counterbalancing his seeming pessimism Sondheim maintains an idealistic viewpoint in his shows, in the aspirational Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition.”

Would Sondheim himself have agreed? The author communicated directly with the composer twice. After Sondheim gave a lecture at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in the U.K in 2010,  Francis raised his hand, said he was writing a PhD thesis on Sondheim’s work, and asked him if his musicals were about how characters deal with disillusion.

Sondheim answered: “Have you considered mineralogy?”

Rather than becoming disillusioned, Francis communicated with Sondheim again four years later, via Skype, asking him if his shows were about characters going on despite disillusioning experiences. “He said that that was part of ‘to use an overused word the “journey” of the characters’ in most stories.”

Those two exchanges are the closest to interviews in “Careful The Spell You Cast,” which largely reads like an ambitious term paper for a graduate course in literature, providing close analysis of important passages; comparisons, analogies and allusions to a wide range of imaginative works (not just musicals, but also films, novels, plays and poetry); and erudite observations about each of Sondheim’s stage shows (except for the one just announced for September, 2023 at The Shed in New York City,  based on two films by Luis Bunuel, which Sondheim had been working on for years when he died in 2021 at age 91; the show is now entitled “Here We Are.”) 

Here is a more or less typical paragraph sampling the author’s approach, taken from the George Furth chapter, focusing on “Company,” one of the two musicals Sondheim wrote with Furth. (Robert and Amy are characters in the musical; the Hammerstein song is from “South Pacific”; critic Richard Dyer’s quote is from his book “Pastiche,” Follies is another Sondheim musical.):

“…Robert has no predestined partner. He has three girlfriends – April, Marta and Kathy – but none of them is right for him. For Hammerstein, marriage meant certainty, as in ‘Some Enchanted Evening’: ‘And somehow you know, / You know even then’ (Hammerstein, 1949: 17). Whereas, in the song ‘Wait’, Robert wonders: ‘Would I know her even if I met her? / Have I missed her? Did I let her go?’ (Sondheim, 2010: 179). Sondheim has the same belief as Hammerstein in commitment, but not the same certainty. Amy sings of the word ‘Forever’ that it is ‘maybe the most horrifying word I’ve ever heard’ (Sondheim, 2010: 181). What Richard Dyer says about a song from Follies, ‘You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow’, also applies here: ‘Perhaps the longed-for forever of love songs is commonly tinged with dread at the thought’ (2007, 86). Perhaps, but only tinged.”

 If sometimes dizzying and dense, Francis’ analytical approach is on balance fresh and informative, with some memorable observations: Francis is particularly good at examining the “Gypsy” character Mama Rose and her songs, in all of which, he points out, she is manipulating somebody. 

Such apercus are accompanied by orienting overviews; extensive quotes from Sondheim’s writing and the work of other critics; and brief explanations of Sondheim’s relationship with each mentor/collaborator. The biographical content is most elaborated in the chapter on Hammerstein, where we learn that Sondheim’s first contact with Hammerstein was at the age of nine, when he saw “Very Warm for May,” the lyricist’s show with composer Jerome Kern. At 15, he became a family friend, and learned at the master’s knee. At 17, he was a gofer on Hammerstein’s “Allegro.”

Part of the pleasure of the book is the way the author assumes an accumulation of knowledge from chapter to chapter on the reader’s part, making comparisons and establishing patterns,

To pick two examples from the last chapter:

“The formation of the family unit is a central trope in Sondheim’s work. It can be seen in West Side Story (‘You got brothers around, / You’re a family man’ from ‘The Jet Song’), ‘Together, Wherever We Go’ from Gypsy, ‘Not While I’m Around’ from Sweeney Todd, ‘Children and Art’ from Sunday in the Park with George,‘Our Little Home’ from Into the Woods and ‘Family’ in Assassins, a rare example of a family making a situation worse, where the ‘family’ of assassins tempt Oswald into killing the president. It is in fact family (often an improvised family such as an acting troupe or a group of neighbours and friends) that help Sondheim’s characters face the disillusion that often overtakes them.”

A simpler example: 

“Just as Follies took the musical comedy revue apart and reassembled it, so Into the Woods (1987) does the same for the fairy tale, and for the same reason: both genres can build unrealistic expectations of trouble-free lives. Neither show is simply a piece of literary criticism, but rather they both deal with the gap between the dreams created by the genre, and the reality of life.”

The book’s title comes from the song from Into the Woods “Children Will Listen,”

Careful the spell you cast,
Not just on children
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see,
And turn against you.

 But this is a point Francis makes throughout the book. It is not cynical of Sondheim to expose this gap between dreams and reality, Francis argues again and again; it’s only when the characters accept reality that they have a chance at finding some realistic satisfaction in life.

One need not agree with the author’s central thesis to find his book worthwhile. (You needn’t be a cynic, for example, to wonder why he’s implicitly giving credit to Sondheim for setting the tone for all the musicals for which he wrote the music and/or the lyrics, but didn’t create the characters, devise the plot, nor construct the dialogue.)  “Careful The Spell You Cast” can work as a primer or a refresher or a teaser for each of Sondheim’s individual musicals, and a prompt to think about musical theater in general and Sondheim’s contribution to it. 

List of chapters and the Sondheim shows that are primarily discussed in them

Oscar Hammerstein: This serves as something of an introductory chapter (although there is also an introduction in the book), comparing a raft of Hammerstein and Sondheim shows.
Arthur Laurents: West Side Story, Gypsy, Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz?
Hal Prince: More of an overview of their collaboration than a focus on any individual show.
Burt Shevelove: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Frogs
James Goldman: Evening Primrose, Follies
George Furth: Company, Merrily We Roll Along and Getting Away with Murder (a play)
Hugh Wheeler: A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd
John Weidman: Pacific Overtures, Assassins and Road Show
James Lapine: Sunday in the Park with George, Into The Woods, Passion

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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