Mordden's book is in three parts: (1) opening essays: "An Introduction to Sondheim's Life and Art" and "Sondheim's Mentors and the Concept Musical"; (2) brief chapters on each of Sondheim's shows in chronological order; and (3) chapters about Sondheim on film, books on Sondheim, and albums/CDs featuring Sondheim's music.
The opening essays are reasonably interesting, if meandering. There is little new here for aficionados, however, and it's difficult to imagine many newcomers or "average theatregoers" enjoying them. Of course, that might be a lack in my imagination rather than Mordden's writing.
The play-by-play analyses are odd. Rather than adding up to a guide, opinionated or not, they would be better described as "random stuff that Mordden finds interesting about Sondheim's shows." Some of the shows get only four pages, including Assassins and Into the Woods, which surely deserve more attention. Sometimes the discussions are plot-heavy; other times they wander hither and yon. The chapter on Passion devotes more space and energy to the source material than to the show itself.
The final chapters are, for me, the most interesting and useful. Mordden's examinations of Sondheim-related movies, books, and discs are often informative--for example, his thoughts on the various Follies rewrites, Ravel's influence on Sondheim, and the "must-have" books on Sondheim. (However, I find it bizarre that Moddren discusses the Barcelona cast recording of A Little Night Music but fails to mention the original Broadway cast or the revival cast versions.)
On Sondheim also features some photos--likely the weirdest array of pictures ever featured in a Sondheim book. These are the shows that are represented: Allergro, Hazel Flagg, Hello Dolly!, Maggie Flynn, Dear World, West Side Story, Gypsy, Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along (the Kaufman-Hart version, not the Sondheim-Furth version), and the 2014 New York Philharmonic Sweeney Todd. Here are the shows that are not: Saturday Night, Do I Hear a Waltz, Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, Assassins, Passion, The Frogs, and Road Show. Really? (I actually checked a second copy of On Sondheim to see if mine was missing some photos. The second copy had the same array.)
While reading On Sondheim, I kept asking myself, what's the difference between opinion and being plain wrong? For example:
Page 15: "Sondheim's shows have so often dealt in period tales (especially of the nineteenth century) that they defy trendy accommodations." (Moddren is referring to representations--or lack thereof--of gay characters.)
By my count, 2 and 3/4 of Sondheim's shows occur in the 19th century: Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George (1/2), and Assassins (which I consider to be, maybe, 1/4 in the 19th century, though really it takes place out of time).
Page 22: "In Sondheim's world, we define ourselves by our choices, so make them carefully!"
How many shows (or books or movies) are not about choices? Here's some that are, at random: The Sound of Music: Should I marry Captain Von Trapp or be a nun? Camelot: Arthur or Lancelot? Caroline, or Change: Do I take the coins? Fun Home: Do I come out? Do I stay in this marriage? Pride and Prejudice: Should I marry Darcy? Grey Gardens: Do I stay or go? Hamlet: To be or not to be? Gone With the Wind: Rhett or Ashley? Mordden could have, as usefully, written, "In Sondheim's world, musicals have music."
Page 44 (Gypsy): "Billed as "a musical fable" (presumably because it tells a true story with fanciful alterations)..."
As written in Bloomberg Business's obituary of June Havoc, "The show was subtitled 'a musical fable' after June Havoc objected to her portrayal." (On page vii, Moddren writes, "The bibliographical essay at the end of the book is not meant as a list of works consulted, because in many cases I didn't examine these books until I had finished this one." Perhaps that was a mistake.)
Page 48: "[Gypsy] says that your mother doesn't love you. She loves what she thinks you can do for her."
This strikes me as astonishingly wrong. Rose is not "your mother"; she's not a symbolic mother or a universal mother. Rose is a very specific woman, described by some as a monster, and certainly not meant to represent all mothers.
Page 49 (Forum): "possibly the funniest libretto of all time."
This is obviously a legit opinion, shared by many people. My two cents: A Little Night Music is funnier, smarter, and less smarmy.
Page 80 (Follies): After Buddy lends Ben his car and some money: "A few lines fix the two boys for us: Buddy takes life as it comes ('It's only money'), while Ben needs to arrange it ('Some day I'm going to have the biggest goddamn limousine')."
Opinion or misreading? Misreading. This is about Ben being poor and embarrassed.
Page 81 (Follies): Re "Could I Leave You?": "She answers her own question with a deeply helpless 'Guess!'--because she won't."
I guess this could be a legit opinion, but it hasn't been shared by any of the six or seven Phyllises I've seen, all of whom played it strong and angry.
Page 84 (Follies): Re "The Road You Didn't Take" from Follies: "Ben is rationalizing his opportunism."
Maaaybe? I think he's regretting his whole life.
Page 136 (Follies): "Sally's so shallow that her choice comes down to the color of her dress. 'I should have worn green,' she tells us. Yes, that's why you're unhappy. You forgot to wear green."
I'm pretty darn sure that Sally does not believe that wearing a green dress would solve her problems. Sally's choice is whether to stay alive, as is treated more or less overtly depending on the Follies version.
Page 136 (Sunday): "Women look for a man who recalls to them their view of their father when they were very young, as a source of love and power." (He's assuming that Dot's father was neglectful.)
Talk about shallow!
Page 155 (Sweeney): "...we imagine [Mrs. Lovett's establishment] as an unseemly hut..."
Do we? Who's we?
Page 68 (Company): I've been going in page order, but I wanted to leave the best (worst) for last. I found the following so shockingly wrong-headed that I triple-checked the French; asked friends what they thought about this interpretation; reread the sentences multiple times; and reread the lyrics. Here goes: Moddren calls "Ladies Who Lunch" a "titanic 'je ne regrette rien,'"
Joanne regrets everything! She even has a stanza specifically aimed at herself:
And here's to the girls who just watch--
Aren't they the best?
When they get depressed,
It's a bottle of Scotch,
Plus a little jest.
Another chance to disapprove,
Another brilliant zinger,
Another reason not to move,
Another vodka stinger.
I'll drink to that.
That "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!" is solid pain. But don't take my word for it. Here's Sondheim's: "It’s a song performed by a lady who’s putting herself down.I also had difficulty with Moddren's writing on a sentence-by-sentence level. He is a spirited and colorful writer, but he is a little too pleased with the sound of his own voice. Some examples:
Page 79 (Follies): "...'Who's That Woman?,' in which the movements of aged former showgirls are haunted ... by the ghosts of the kicky little tricks they use to be..."
Kicky little tricks? Does Moddren realize that he just called the entire young chorus line "sluts" or "teases"? I hope he was just so enchanted with his phrase that he didn't really think about the meaning.
Page 154 (Gypsy): From Moddren's discussion of Sondheim's reading of "You ain't gettin' eighty-eight cents from me, Rose!" on the original Broadway cast album: "[Sondheim lovably accented] not cents but me, as if implying that she might get eighty-eight cents from someone else, perhaps Adele Dazeem."
Adele Dazeem was John Travolta's mangling of Idina Menzel at the 2014 Oscars. Moddren's editor should have done him a favor and eliminated this outdated, pointless, silly reference.
Page 168 (Saturday Night recording): "...on stock prices, the show's maguffin: the characters care about it, but we don't..."
Definition of maguffin: "a device or plot element in a movie that is deliberately placed to catch the viewer's attention and/or drive the logic of the plot."
Page 174 (Company, NY Phil version): "...including Patti LuPone's Upper West Side Evita of a Joanne..."
What does that even mean?As I read On Sondheim, I kept wondering why the book exists. Who is it really for? What does it add to the world of musical theatre? Why did Oxford University Press publish it? I don't have the answers.