Pausing on a Sunday: What Kind of Secular is the American Musical?

Kathryn Lofton

Scholarship on the American musical rarely discusses religion save as a spectacularized subject of certain Bible productions, of satire, or as an ethnic identifier (Jewish) for a large number of librettists.1

  • 1
     Henry Bial, Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015); Jake Johnson, Mormons, Musical Theater, and Belonging in America, Music in American Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019); Andrea Most, Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004).

The work of Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) allows a close look at the sound, feeling, and sexuality of the American musical’s secularism.1  Of particular focus is this song, central to Sunday in the Park with George (1984), which follows the assemblage of the Seurat painting,  A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884). Celebrations of Sondheim invariably use this song as the climactic choral assembly. (This performance, held at Carnegie Hall on June 10, 1992, is one of many such instances.) 

  • 1
     Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Stephen Sondheim,” Encyclopedia Britannica, April 7, 2022.

The musical in which this song appears includes archetypal depictions of the modern artist and his attendant gendered capacities and failures. The song appears as a resolution at the end of both acts. Sondheim would point out: its lyric is a single sentence; it is a description of a process; it includes a word, “forever,” that he observes makes him cry.1

  • 1
     Stephen Sondheim, Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 6; James Lapine, dir., Six by Sondheim, HBO Documentary, 2013.

About the Author

Kathryn Lofton is Lex Hixon Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies, Professor of History and Divinity, at Yale University, where she also serves currently as the dean of humanities.



    Author Kathryn Lofton
    Year 2022
    Volume Volume 6: Issue 3 Characterizing Material Economies of Religion in the Americas
    Copyright © Kathryn Lofton
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    Citation Guide

    1. Kathryn Lofton, "Pausing on a Sunday: What Kind of Secular is the American Musical?" Object Narrative, MAVCOR Journal 6, no. 3 (2022), doi: 10.22332/mav.obj.2022.20.

    Lofton, Kathryn. "Pausing on a Sunday: What Kind of Secular is the American Musical?" Object Narrative. MAVCOR Journal 6, no. 3 (2022), doi: 10.22332/mav.obj.2022.20.