I’m a big fan of musical theater–not every musical ever made, of course, but the art form in general. I find it to be a really interesting, often powerful way to present a story or idea. My tastes are fairly snobbish, though, and I find myself repeatedly drawn to the musicals that focus on story and character and ideas, rather than the big spectacles my friend used to call “Tired Businessman” shows–stuff like Phantom of the Opera or The Little Mermaid that exists primarily to show off costumes, sets, and pretty girls, entertaining an audience without really bothering to engage them on a deeper level. It should come as no surprise, then, that my favorite creator of musical theater is Stephen Sondheim.
Sondheim has the distinction of being an artistic creator that EVERYONE wants to invest in, despite the fact that almost none of his shows have actually made money. At the time I looked into the financial side, about ten years ago, he had only written two profitable shows: A Little Night Music and Into the Woods. I suspect that Sweeney Todd has since joined that group thanks to the movie deal, but I’m only guessing. His other shows have all been financial failures, but wild critical darlings that small groups of people absolutely love. Everyone wants to be part of a Sondheim show because they are always brilliant, daring, and completely unique. Screw the money, this is about art.
I love all of Sondheim’s work, but my two favorites stand high above the others. First is Sunday in the Park with George, a fascinating story about pointillist painter Georges Seurat, most famous for the painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” The story weaves in and out of time and space, telling some scenes in the real world, some from inside of a painting or a person’s mind, and setting one act in the past and one in the present, three generations later. The primary topics are the creation of art, the power of an artist to shape reality, and the impossible balance between art and life. It’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen, and surprisingly emotional. It’s also the only musicals to ever win a Pulitzer. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
My other favorite is Company, one of Sondheim’s earliest works, about a single man in New York having a birthday part with all of his married friends. Through songs, dialogue, and flashbacks, they paint an absolutely fascinating picture of human relationships: what do you gain by sharing your life with someone? What do you lose? I discovered this show when I was in high school, and as I’ve grown, found and lost girlfriends, gotten married, had children, experienced more of life, I’ve found that the show has grown with me, speaking to me in completely different ways at each stage of my life, telling me different things–even though the show itself, of course, has never changed. My ability to perceive it has changed, and in some cases reversed, and I find that Company continues to surprise me with its insight about the various stages of life and relationships. Again, as with Sunday in the Park, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Actually, it occurs to me that the recent revival of Company probably kicked it up into the profitable category, so maybe that’s the way to make money on Sondheim–let a show gestate for thirty years and then re-release it to a much wider fanbase.
One of the things I most admire about Sondheim is his constant stretching–he’s never dealt with the same subject, or even the same style, twice. He did a show that was presented backward; he did a noh-style drama about Commodore Perry and gunboat diplomacy; he did a show about American ideals by focusing on our long history of presidential assassins. Each of these is completely brilliant and completely different from anything else. And that, dear reader, is why I’m thinking about him today. I do not claim to share Sondheim’s brilliance, but I realized this weekend that I share his insistence on non-conformity; perhaps because I admire him so much, I’m following a similar trend with my books that he follows with his musicals, doing whatever interests me the most and almost pig-headedly refusing to hit the same note twice. Before I was published my books included an epic fantasy, a horror comedy, and a historical superhero; my first published series was a supernatural thriller with a teen protagonist, after which I wrote a psychological study about an adult, after which I wrote an epic science fiction about cloning and corporate satire. My ideas for future books include a dark fantasy, a steampunk, and a drama about a man who eats memories. There are similarities here and there, but no consistent genre–no easy hook for someone (say, a bookseller or a reader) to hang me on and say “this is what Dan Wells is about, and I/you/somebody should read him because you like this kind of stuff.” Someone who writes epic fantasy will always have an audience–the same audience, growing from book to book–because they always give that audience what they’re looking for. I suppose there’s something to be said for letting your hook be “unique brilliance,” but if Sondheim couldn’t even make that profitable I doubt I’ll be able to pull it off.
How much of art is art, and how much is business? Is there a conflict between consistency and creativity? Should there be? At what point does “following your muse” become more about determination than personal expression? How much room is there, within the strictures of your artistic drive, for steering it down commercially supportable pathways?
In other words, can you be true to yourself while still being true to your audience? I think that might be the oldest question in the history of art.