Careful the Spell You Cast: Disillusionment and Maturity in the Musical Theatre of Stephen Sondheim.

Francis, Benjamin. 2019. Careful the Spell You Cast: Disillusionment and Maturity in the Musical Theatre of Stephen Sondheim.. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

This thesis deals with Stephen Sondheim's work from a dramaturgical perspective. It argues that a major theme in Sondheim's work is the journey through disillusionment towards maturity. The thesis will use the word 'maturity' to mean the acceptance of the uncertainty of life, and the refusal to give in to cynicism or despair. This attitude is explicitly expressed in the songs 'Now You Know' from Merrily We Roll Along, 'Move On' from Sunday in the Park with George and 'Finale: Children Will Listen' from Into the Woods.

In 'Now You Know' Mary sings the lines: 'It's called letting go your illusions,/And don't confuse them with dreams' (Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat, Virgin Books 2010: 397). This thesis will argue that this process of separating illusions from dreams can be found in most Sondheim shows. Illusions are wrong dreams, such as Sally's obsessive love for Ben in Follies, Sweeney Todd's yearning for his idealised Lucy which blinds him to the woman she has become in Sweeney Todd or Cinderella's desire for the Prince in Into the Woods, and must be discarded in order for the character to find their real dream.

In the early shows the characters simply learn to endure the failure of their dreams and carry on (Gypsy, Follies) or take responsibility for themselves and die (Sweeney Todd). Later, in the shows written with John Weidman the characters are trapped in a state of disillusionment brought about by the failure of national ideals (Pacific Overtures, Assassins, Road Show) whereas in the shows written with James Lapine, they discover positive goods: art in Sunday in the Park with George, family and community in Into the Woods, and romantic love in Passion. This shows that in Sondheim's work disillusionment is sometimes a necessary experience, which leads to maturity.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


Stephen Sondheim, Sondheim, musical theatre, Follies, Sweeney Todd, musicals, Into the Woods, disillusion, maturity

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Theatre and Performance (TAP)


30 November 2019

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

02 Feb 2021 13:36

Last Modified:

09 Jun 2021 19:14


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