Gods of the theater, smile on us : elements of the Greek chorus in the musicals of Stephen Sondheim, as influenced by Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro.

Date of Award


Document Type



Caspersen School of Graduate Studies

Degree Name

Doctor of Letters


There is little doubt that, in the latter half of the 20th century, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim expanded the language of musical theater. Mentored by librettist, lyricist and producer, Oscar Hammerstein II, who almost single-handedly created the accepted structure of traditional American musicals, Sondheim created works that propelled the evolution of musical theater from a popular escapist entertainment to a challenging and intellectual art form, while also constructing those works within the framework of time-honored theatrical conventions. Sondheim has endowed his musicals with intelligence and a sense of truth rarely associated with popular Broadway productions. What seems to interest him most is a direct communication with an audience, without the filter and distance associated with other forms. His shows create a mythology around desolation, favor abstraction over narrative and, as such, would seem to exist in contradiction to Sondheim's training at the foot of Hammerstein. His job as a rehearsal assistant on the Rodgers and Hammerstein production Allegro had a profound influence on Sondheim's work and the meta-theatrical nature of his shows can be directly traced to the structure and form of Allegro. References to the show's style and the use of a Greek chorus, to comment on the action and communicate complex characters and ideas to the audience, can be found throughout the Sondheim canon. Sometimes taking the form of a full singing and dancing ensemble, rooted in the customary musical theater notion of a chorus, or presented as a small group or an individual character, the Sondheim Greek chorus not only connects Sondheim's works to the conventions of both classical and musical theater history, but also provide a platform for the expansion and contraction of time and space on Sondheim's musical stage. As a result, Sondheim's works reflect their own conventions and the conventions of the musical theater form, even while disregarding them, and become commentaries on the aesthetics of both the integrated and non-integrated musical.