The aesthetic principle governing the occurrence of song in the organic book musical is analogous to that governing the use of poetry in drama. Just as poetry, according to T. S. Eliot, is appropriate in the drama only when prose is no longer capable of containing and conveying the emotion, so, too, one can justifiably break into song only when dialogue can no longer adequately express feeling or, in Sondheim's own words, "the climaxes of emotion and action erupt into music because they can't go further without it." 3
This eruption is perhaps nowhere better evident in the musicals with which Sondheim has been associated than at the end of Gypsy (1959, with book by Arthur Laurents and music by Jule Styne), which Sondheim callsand I concur-"one of the two or three best shows ever written . . . the last good one in the Rodgers and Hammerstein form." 4 In "Rose's Turn," the boundary between the sung and the said becomes virtually indistinguishable as Mama Rose, while admitting that she pushed her daughters into show business so that they could achieve in reality what she had dreamed of accomplishing for herself, desperately pleads for her own belated chance at stardom. Her knowledge that the talent, drive, and ego essential for success really did exist-and still are there-must now be emotionally supported and nurtured by her daughter, Gypsy Rose, in what Sondheim views as an imperative reversal of roles: "You outgrow your parents and then eventually they become your responsibility . . . they become your children." 5
Developments in the nonmusical drama in the 1940s and 1950s in the direction of nonrepresentational, nonillusionistic staging helped alter audience expectations about the musical theater as well, and their demand for the integrated book musical began to wane, opening the way for an acceptance of freer forms. So, by the 1960s, we have Jones and Schmidt's The Fantasticks and Celebration, Littlewood's Oh, What a Lovely War!, Leigh, Darion, and Wasserman's Man of La Mancha, and, especially, Kander, Ebb, and Masteroff's Cabaret, all of which, in their own way, are technically the equivalents of Wilder's Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, Williams' The Glass Menagerie and Miller's Death of a Salesman. All turn a seeming liability into a definite asset, deliberately emphasizing that we are in a theater, glorying in the theatrical form as form. Readily accepting nonrealistic devices of staging and structure in even our serious drama, we now no longer demand that every song lyric develop the plot line or enhance character motivation. Song can become commentative (or editorial, if you like), illustrative, connective, a
"Chrysanthemum Tea," are entirely sung. There are even times when we have lyric-as-poem, as in "Poems," with its haiku-like and tanka-like forms, or the enchanting "Someone in a Tree," which, built on the Berkeleyan notion that nothing exists but what is seen or observed, stresses the importance of the least individual, or of the lesser phenomenon over the greater:
Except for a minor thread, Pacific Overtures lacks what most musicals consider indispensable, a love interest-which may partially account for its limited popularity. (Indeed, even when there is a love plot in his shows, Sondheim until Passion ordinarily tends to eschew the love duet that has become a staple of the musical comedy form.) But the probable reason for its failure with audiences-and Weidman's book is more at fault here-quite likely resides in the inability to keep interest from waning in act 2, which is essentially no more than a series of separate scenes illustrating the thesis that capitalism and industrialization bring dehumanization in their wake, that the hallowed idea of progress has its sour notes as a culture and its beauty are destroyed, that the distorted values which we introduced to Japan have ironically come back to haunt us. The pupil has learned the master's lesson only too well and now beats the West at its own game. At the end, time is telescoped and we are suddenly thrust into the present when, in the song "Next," we see the influence, particularly in things economic, that Japan today exerts over the rest of the world.