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Stephen Sondheim is America’s greatest living theatrical songwriter—but he’s not popular, and never has been. Part of the problem is that his songs are too lyrically and harmonically complex to suit the tastes of the average listener, in addition to which they tend to lack a clear-cut emotional profile. The look-both-ways-before-crossing ambivalence of a lyric like “Sorry/Grateful” (“You’re always wondering what might have been/Then she walks in”) is worlds away from the whole-hearted view of romantic love that has traditionally been the stuff of pop-music success.
Just as important, though, is the fact that Mr. Sondheim is and has always been a theatrical composer, not a creator of free-standing songs. His own songs exist to drive the plots and deepen the characterizations of the shows for which they are written, so much so that their meanings are often not fully clear when they’re performed outside the dramatic contexts of those shows….
Taken together, these aspects of Mr. Sondheim’s work go a long way toward explaining why so few recitals of his songs have been recorded by top-tier pop and jazz performers. Judy Collins’ “A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim,” Jackie & Roy’s “A Stephen Sondheim Collection,” Cleo Laine’s “Cleo Sings Sondheim” and “Mandy Patinkin Sings Sondheim” come to mind, but after that, the choices grow thin on the ground. That’s why the release this month of Melissa Errico’s “Sondheim Sublime” (Ghostlight) is big news to those, myself among them, for whom his work has long spoken with the force of revelation. Not to put too fine a point on it, “Sondheim Sublime” is the best all-Sondheim album ever recorded, a program of 15 songs in which radiantly warm singing and sensitive, intelligent interpretation are tightly and inseparably entwined. Even if you’ve never felt at ease with Mr. Sondheim’s cool embrace of ambivalence, this CD, accompanied with like sensitivity by Tedd Firth, will show you what you’ve been missing….
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Read the whole thing here.
Melissa Errico sings Stephen Sondheim’s “Children and Art” (from Sunday in the Park with George at Feinstein’s/54 Below: