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What Are ‘Concept Musicals’ and Its Specifics?


Stephen Sondheim has been unique and instrumental in the development of the ‘concept musical’. It is important when analyzing Mr. Sondheim’s works to not confuse this idea with the more well-known use of the word as it relates to the ‘director’s concept’ of a play. (Banfield 4) The analysis and research in this paper will define the ‘concept musical, explore three of Sondheim’s ‘concept musicals’ and provide evidence to support the fact that Stephen Sondheim is the primary person in coining the true meaning of the term.

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What exactly is the ‘concept musical’? Simply defined, the ‘concept musical’ is a musical that places more importance on the show’s metaphor and statement as opposed to the traditional musical form that emphasizes the plot of the story, while taking its shape around the director’s concept of such plot and story. According to the book Art Ain’t Easy: The Achievement of Stephen Sondheim by Joanne Gordon, the ‘concept musical’ is described as follows:

Before Sondheim, the musical was built around its plot. The narrative structure focused primarily on a love relationship and provided a framework for all songs, dances, and dialogue. There was a basic pattern of exposition, complication and resolution pertained. The book structure of these musicals meant the story. (Banfield 6) The book structure for Sondheim on the other hand means the “idea” or “concept”. Music, lyrics, dance, dialogue, design, and direction fuse to support a focal thought.

A central conceit controls and shapes an entire production, for every aspect of the production is blended and subordinated to a single vision. The thematic thrust of the work is conveyed to the audience through a primary image or metaphor that dictates not only the content of the piece but also its presentation form. Form and content cannot really be separated here, for the one dictates and is dependent on the other. It is for this reason that each of Sondheim’s works is unique (pg 7)

A ‘concept musical’ clearly becomes distinguished multiple perspectives on any given subject at hand. Such as in the musical Company, which made history in deeming Sondheim as the creator of the ‘concept musical’.

Stephen Banfield, author of Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals explains that Sondheim has been known to comment on his own works by saying that the “form is dictated by content” (147), and by being free of the confines of a preexistent script, the form itself can take on a discussion of the topic by abandoning linear plot, and even downgrading at times to a series of vignettes followed by a song. The 1970 hit Company was the initial ‘concept musical’ effectively written and created. He later produced the show Sunday in the Park with George. (Banfield 150)


The musical “Company” demonstrated a unique approach to musical theatre in that focus was put on the avant-garde techniques used to defy unities of time, place, and action. The ‘company’ show is a replacement for the usual plot sequence in most plays. This ‘concept musical’ act exposes in its course a succession of vignettes showing the occasional cruel truths of affection and matrimony. The main actor frequently looks at the five couples plus another, who together, give an account of him and his matrimony. (Gottfried 378)

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This actor-propelled staging attracts fewer blows in its wild enactment of eternity and common matters of friendship, marriage vows, and the endurance to attain it. The drama has humor, well-developed phrases and is taxing, nevertheless beautifully with a harmonious tune. The tunes search the touching fabric that intense friendships deserve, together with a great assessment of the individual’s situation. The great crowding manner on Bobby as he is condemned and the fitting pitch of Doyle’s advance boosts the matter and transports it to the current moment. (Banfield 425)

The reality that characters are sounding the music apparatus is more or less elapsed; their interactions are seamless and ordinary. The songs that appear at the starting of both scenes are played with elegance and novelty, with the completion in a precise pitch. This is a dual task of thrill and fatigue on the part of the viewers. The music equipment is contemporary and right for the actors. The organization of the music band with enough backdrop harmony and movement by the actor is a huge commission and is vital to the accomplishment of the drama. (Gordon 252)The main actor is made straightforward aware of his detachment from the rest of the group of people.

He does not have many scripts which are unlikely for the principal actor in a harmony drama. He is a total being who changes from an inactive spectator of life to a gentleman ready to mingle with an important person. Using a discrete and compelling tremble in his chorus with lines he speaks out with passion. This has earned the ‘company’ piece numerous awards and recognitions in theater performances. Sondheim uses time and space in this production. (Secrest 271)

Sondheim continues to use his technique in other works. He worked together with other producers such as Mr. James Lapine who made the piece Follies. Given that Sondheim likes to construe instead of fully create a personality, he often requests his partner to exhaust the screenplay so that he might use it for his musical lines. This combination develops a musical with conversation into a flawless screenplay. Lapine packed settings for musical tunes in his writing with a lengthy flow of awareness solos which Sondheim anticipated to exploit for his music. Challenges emerged as Sondheim was bothered that his informal traditional use of dialect might clash with Lapine’s verses style. (Swayne 323)

James Lapine was trained as an image stylish thus was more focused on dramatization. Sondheim’s style was particularly created for listening and he thought that changing a word could destroy the whole line. This led to his minimal utilization of Lapine’s text in jotting his lines. Sondheim opted to jot in a focused systematic style while Lapine leaned towards a much improvisatory draw overlooking objects fast then returning to review. These differences in reactions coupled with common instincts on stage show were used to provide the elements for their unity in work. (Swayne 330)Before their commencement on a project, they held long brainstorming sessions thrashing out on idealistic angles, notions on the spoken act, unique effects, and more so, the sets. The product was a marvelous musical that is fashionable, novel, and with good lyrics.

The two producers had a stern effort to transact with melodious appearance. The words are a delight even as the melodies create trembles of apathy. The two could get into disagreements on what each one thought was a better way of presenting the work. If Sondheim’s concern in makeup and shape was opposed by Lapine, their receptivity balanced each other in one way or another. (Gottfried 401)Sunday in the Park with George is an invented tale founded on the works of perfectionist canvas artist George Seurat and his work of genius, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”.

Sondheim incorporates lyrics and conversation with many tunes that appeal to the viewers. Using his novelty, he provides a competent and expressive play that cannot be compared with other producers. (Secrest 296) It opens with a number showing Dot’s aggravation at becoming a diva and devotee of such an unusual painter. In his use of tint and radiance, Sondheim is clever to skillfully imitate the rub of an artist’s painting instrument in harmony. The use of metaphors by Sondheim shows his early thought of ‘concept musical’.

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The stage act has driving harmonic planning that develops into an arousing culmination in harmony and drama. “It is Hot Up Here” is the harmony sung by the actors locked within the artistry, showing their annoyance at what they were turned into by the painter. “Putting It Together” on the other hand is used over and over to depict the towing the different facets of a demonstration or creative attempt jointly. Nevertheless, in the center of the staging, and with the conversation, it is an ironic and piercing explanation of the additional forfeits demanded from contemporary professionals. (Banfield 438)

In both works, Sondheim uses his wit to come up with music to fit the characters. The characters sing tunes that have lyrics relating to their role in the play. This is observed all through the stage acts in both works. A look at the findings intensely will show that the task was not easy. The work required total dedication and sacrifice by the producers. Sondheim had a passion for his work as he tirelessly directed his shows with a focus on success. Although he was trained in music, he partnered with Lapine who was a graphic designer. This combination of two diverse but complementary talents produced great works in theater. The difference in approach required that both Sondheim and Lapine embrace each other and work to develop the art. (Gottfried 440)

As observed, the research can deduce that Sondheim is a true pioneer in ‘concept musical’ as his works have been received well. It was his addiction to the play written by Lapine that gave the work the musical touch. An observation is made on how the two ironed out their disparities in the thought of how the music is to be produced and arrive at a compromise that worked well for their work. (Banfield 440) In ‘concept musical’ both harmony and drama are necessary for the full completion as it is defined. The company which was his first attempt has won many recognitions and shows in theaters across Europe, Asia in Japan, and other overseas countries.

This appreciation gives the impression that Stephen Sondheim is truly a master of the trade. Follies and Sunday in the Park with George also show great collaborative efforts. Ultimately, therefore, it confirms the research thesis that; Stephen Sondheim has been unique and instrumental in the development of the ‘concept musical’.

Therefore, it is vital that when studying Mr. Stephen Sondheim’s musical productions, caution must be practical not to abuse this notion with the common use of the remark as it relays to the ‘producer’s concept’ of a stage performance. (Secrest 323) Findings for the research were derived from secondary data. Library research on the subject was carried out with a bias towards the works of Stephen Sondheim. Books, journals, and online reviews were used to collect information on the works. The information was used in comparison so as to derive a comprehensive analysis of the contributions of Sondheim. (Banfield 449)

Data were retrieved from the sources and an evaluation was carried out to examine the best description of the required material. A prerequisite was placed to research at least three authors on a particular area of research to avoid inaccuracy in findings. Analysis of the data was done using an elimination process. Information that could not be supported by other authored works was left out of the final analysis. It was decided that the research will use three of Stephen Sondheim’s works.

The company, Follies, and Sunday in the Park with George concept musicals were decided for analysis to verify if the research thesis will stand. An observation on how the use of modern methods while flouting era, position and deed was carried out. Close scrutiny of the use of the concepts of concept musical was done. (Swayne 321)

A comparative study needs to be carried out on the various artists working on concept musicals. It will be seen that the pioneering work of Sondheim has been used extensively. The ‘concept musical’ style of music has been used in different settings to mean diverse things. There should be a well-documented definition of the model and this calls for stakeholders in the music industry to give direction. It is a novel way of playing music and should not be let degenerate due to misappropriate use of the term in all works. (Banfield 452)

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Playing music together with an act is considered laborious and requires skill and passion. The work of ‘concept musical’ is relatively confusing as it is in the fusion that the perception applies. To create a flawless mix of the musical tune and an act such that they blend and tell a story is demanding. It has been attempted by many artists with mixed outcomes. The ingenuity that is insisted upon requires the artist to be well equipped with a background in harmony and drama.

Collaborative efforts can also produce good results. This was evidently shown by Sondheim and Lapine in their combination of skills. Care must be observed that the joint forces blend and no discordance is created. This will require the persons to do their duty and polish on their various traits. The books used have given ample information on Sondheim’s work on ‘concept musical’.

Sondheim had a good introduction to music as he had a piano in his childhood days. He learned the harmony of music that helped him in his later years as a producer. Since he had no previous experience in drama, he collaborated with other artists to create his works. He worked with Lapine and this consultative effort resulted in hits such as Follies among other great pieces. ‘Concept musical’ is a form of a musical play that involves both categories of art being played in unison.

There has to be harmony and a seamless flow to the combination to avoid discord that will result in noise and not music. If one is a separate skill, dependency on the other so as to play shows that the music is not a concept musical. Finally, it should be noted that Sondheim contributed immensely to the ‘concept musical’ form of art. On the other, the remaining should stand-alone showing firmness in the production.

Works Cited

Banfield, Sondheims, Sondheim’s Broadway Musicials.The Michigan American Musical Series: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Gordon, Joanne, Art isn’t easy: the achievement of Stephen Sondheim. University of Michigan: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.

Swayne, Steve, How Sondheim Found His Sound. America’s Musical Life: University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Gottfried, Martin. Sondheim, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1993 ISBN 0810938448.

Secrest, Meryle.Stephen Sondheim: A Life, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998, ISBN 0679448179.

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StudyCorgi. "What Are ‘Concept Musicals’ and Its Specifics?" November 5, 2021.


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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'What Are ‘Concept Musicals’ and Its Specifics'. 5 November.

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