I’ve written so much about Stephen Sondheim over the years that I can’t do better on his eightieth birthday than to quote myself. Here’s part of an essay I wrote about him for Commentary in 2003:
Unlike most of the American songwriters who preceded him, he had extensive classical training–he studied with the avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt–and was strongly influenced by the harmonic usages of the French impressionists. As a result, his songs are typically based on undulating chordal figurations over which he superimposes melodies painstakingly built up out of short, angular motivic fragments. Listeners familiar with the music of Debussy and Ravel (or with modern jazz) will hear nothing abstruse or elusive in this approach, but anyone whose knowledge of music is limited to the ballads of such Broadway composers as Berlin or Richard Rodgers, with their long, seemingly self-generated melodic lines, will likely find Sondheim’s songs to be insufficiently tuneful.
No less individual are his lyrics–and the sentiments they express. Though Sondheim’s virtuosity is not without precedent (few of his elaborate rhymes would sound out of place in a lyric by Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter), Sondheim’s ambivalence toward love is all but unique in American songwriting. Ambivalence, he has said, is his “favorite thing to write about, because it’s the way I feel, and I think the way most people feel.” Perhaps, but it is also arguably the main reason why his work has never become popular. Even Lorenz Hart, that most disillusioned of American lyricists, left no doubt of his fervent, even desperate longing for the state about which he wrote with such self-lacerating wit. Not so Sondheim, whose best songs are more often than not written from the point of view of an inhibited, alienated man unable to open himself up to the prospect of romantic love….
Sondheim’s perspective on love, which is as distinctively “modern” as is his musical language, constitutes a near-complete break with the romantic optimism of the American musical-comedy tradition….
So distinctive an approach will never be everyone’s cup of tea, and to this day theatrical producers continue to grapple with the problem of how to present Sondheim’s musicals in a way that is commercially viable. At one time I felt that he had made a potentially fatal mistake by choosing to write musicals instead of operas (though Sweeney Todd, his masterpiece, comes as close to being an opera as doesn’t matter). I still think it likely that the appeal of his work will always be narrowly limited.
Yet Sondheim is without doubt the most gifted songwriter to work on Broadway in the second half of the twentieth century, and I admire him as much as any creative artist who has been active in my lifetime. His best songs, among which I number “Another Hundred People,” “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Every Day a Little Death,” “Finishing the Hat,” “Good Thing Going,” “I Remember,” “Loving You,” “The Miller’s Son,” “Not a Day Goes By,” “Take Me to the World,” and the life-enhancing “Comedy Tonight,” are a permanent part of the soundtrack of my life. May he live long and prosper greatly!