Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
“I can get an idea for a musical…from getting politically roiled up about one or another thing.”
- Director/producer Harold Prince
“I couldn’t have been less interested in politics.”
- Composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim
Despite the above seemingly incompatible quotes, Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim somehow ended up forming one of Broadway’s most enduring collaborative legacies. Prince, who strived to challenge his audience’s political complacency, often clashed with Sondheim, whose primary consideration was individual characterization and narrative arc. Prince also chose other collaborators who were more interested in creating politically challenging works, contrary to Sondheim’s focus. When collaborating, Prince and Sondheim independently followed their own paths and intuitions, a mode of creation that I call antagonistic collaboration. Focusing on four musicals – Company (1970), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979) – I show how Prince and Sondheim’s antagonistic collaboration yielded politically and culturally complex works.
My project builds on and challenges prior scholarship by insisting that the Broadway musical is a collaborative art informed by its historical and sociological contexts. Scholars from several disciplines have examined the texts that Sondheim created, but the nature of these analyses has tended to use an auteur model that ignores the embodied performance and the specific historical contexts for which these shows were created. My project provides a necessary intervention by investigating the interplay between the creative, collaborative process of each musical production and the larger socio-political context of 1970s New York.
Each chapter offers a case study in antagonistic collaboration between Sondheim and another artist in the context of the cultural politics of the time. Chapter 1 explores Sondheim and Prince at work making Sweeney Todd. Sondheim’s music and lyrics zoomed in to Sweeney’s inner desire for revenge, as Prince’s staging and Eugene Lee’s set-design zoomed out to frame Sweeney as a victim of class oppression. Chapter 2 explores how Sondheim’s entirely aesthetic interest in Japan while writing Pacific Overtures worked independently from Prince and bookwriter John Weidman’s goal of critiquing American imperialism and pushing for Asian American representation on stage. Chapter 3 illustrates how Prince and co-director Michael Bennett turned Follies from a murder mystery into a show that intimately embodied discourses around sexism and aging, especially as related to the female body. Finally, Chapter 4 moves to the final collaborator, the audience, arguing that generational differences within the gay community led young people to read the main character of Company as gay against Sondheim’s and Prince’s authorial intent. Focusing only on Sondheim’s contributions to these important expressions of American culture misses the ways that Sondheim’s necessary collaborators explicitly put these shows in dialogue with the tumultuous politics of the 1970s, working against Sondheim’s attempts to avoid doing so.
Highlighting the collaborative process and expanding the definition of who counts as collaborators allows for previously marginalized voices to become central to understanding the original context and enduring content of these works. The status of the musical as a collaborative performance done at a specific time and place, rather than a definitive text set down on paper, affords a flexibility of meaning. A range of creative figures involved in a production have their own agency to shape meaning. Historians of the musical must take this distributed, often antagonistic agency into account when attempting to understand the past.
Chair and Committee
Patrick Burke, Paige McGinley, Christopher Stark, Steven Swayne,
Pribyl, Ashley Marian, "Sociocultural and Collaborative Antagonism in the Harold Prince-Stephen Sondheim Musicals (1970-1979)" (2019). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1846.