Dissertation Index

Author: Blustein, Nathan B

Title: Through Arrangements of Shadows: Experiences of Reprise in Stephen Sondheim’s Leitmotivic Musicals

Institution: Indiana University

Begun: February 2016

Completed: August 2020


Reprises in American musical theatre performance promise the dramatic experience of progress by recalling entanglements of music, lyrics, and stage action. Although reprises generically require large-scale repetition of both vocal melody and instrumental accompaniment, they resemble other kinds of recall when the seams and layers between reprising music and new music grow hazy. In four musicals with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, opening successively on Broadway from 1979 to 1987, musical recall radiates from virtually every song and number through leitmotivic reminiscence: marked melodies, rhythmic patterns, and sonorities evoke distinct characters and sensations. Yet Sondheim also draws on the tuneful familiarity of specific songs, and their circumstances, for dramatic effect. In this dissertation I consider “reprising” as an under-explored experiential convention of musical theatre. I offer that comparing reprising passages to one another within each of Sondheim’s leitmotivic musicals stretches, broadens, and challenges apparent musical oppositions at the surface, intensifying and unsettling theatrical elements as a result.

In Sweeney Todd (1979, book by Hugh Wheeler, direction by Harold Prince), I critique claims of musical coherence and disunity to follow consequential shifts in character relationships through song. In Merrily We Roll Along (1981, book by George Furth, direction by Prince), I consider the roles of onstage audiences and participators in solo and ensemble numbers to trace a forward narrative through a show that moves backwards in time. In Sunday in the Park with George (1984, book and direction by James Lapine), I explore harmonic function at the boundaries of musical scenes to animate the struggles of each protagonist to establish persona and agency. Finally, in Into the Woods (1987, book and direction by Lapine), I foreground expectations of musical closure during moments of tonal and harmonic ambiguity to present storytelling as an active, moral, and risky choice.

Keywords: Broadway musicals, Stephen Sondheim, Reprise, Leitmotif, Harold Prince, James Lapine


1. Prologue
2. Reprise Types in SWEENEY TODD
3. Solo-to-Ensemble Reverse Reprise in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
5. Communal Reprise and Crumbling Signposts in INTO THE WOODS
6. Finale Ultimo


Nathan Beary Blustein
Theatre/Musical Theatre Program
Department of Performing Arts
American University
Contact information: blustein.org

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