Broadway’s Black Sheep

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I grew up thinking I hated Broadway musicals, mostly because I hated the ones I’d heard bits and pieces of.

That “belting” style of singing turned me off, and the songs themselves seemed so broad and cheesy. The first time it occurred to me that I might actually like a musical if I saw one was a production in my high school of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. I had never seen the show, or the movie that was apparently made of it, but this high school production was completely charming and hilarious. Of course it never occurred to me to find out who wrote it.

I was in college when Sweeney Todd was recorded. Someone at my college radio station, whether by mistake or sheer brilliance, had stuck the record into the bin where new classical and opera releases went, so I checked it out. Well, I don’t know what kind of impact this unsavory, black little comedy made on Broadway, but I can tell you it was a thunderclap to my younger, Sweet Charity or A Chorus Line-hating self. This was Broadway? This had genuine wit, a sharp edge to the lyrics, and music that seemed somehow closer to Kurt Weill than to “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Who was this Stephen Sondheim? Then someone told me he’d written “Send In the Clowns,” a song I didn’t particularly care for, and later I found out that he’d also written A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.

So apparently, I was a bit of a Sondheim fan, whether I like it or not. And that got me thinking - maybe there could be more Broadway stuff I’d like. Well, by and large that has turned out not to be the case; there is something different, something very un-Broadway, about some (though not all) of Sondheim’s musicals. I can’t help thinking of him as Broadway’s “Outsider Artist.”