I could probably write an entire book about why I love Stephen Sondheim musicals. I’m not saying anything new by claiming that his shows are brilliant and complex and that I get something new from them every time I re-watch one. From Company, to Into the Woods, to Sunday in the Park With George, to A Little Night Music, I’d have no idea how to pick a favorite. But since I don’t have the time or space to write a book about Sondheim right now, and since you probably aren’t in the mood to read one, I’ll limit this post to 5 reason why I love Sondheim musicals.
1. The relationship between his music and lyrics is complex.
Sometimes Sondheim’s music gracefully and simply illustrates his lyrics. Just as often, however, there’s tension between his lyrics and music. Listen to “So Happy” from Into the Woods.
The title and lyrics of the song suggest that happiness and peace reign in the world of the characters, as each recounts how she got her happily ever after. But listen to the music that underpins the stories of happiness. Listening to the slightly ominous chords and instrumental lines, a listener immediately starts to question the self-awareness of the characters. The discordant harmony on the word happy on 1.04 is particularly jarring.
2. His characters are as neurotic as I secretly am.
Self-examination and questioning is not at all uncommon in musical numbers. But what is unusual is his depiction of a character’s wacky train of thought. Many self-examining people know that their minds are all over the place and often don’t neatly stick to one theme for the length of an entire song. In real life, we think about our beloved and then wonder if we accidentally left the water running in a span of a few seconds. Or maybe I’m just talking about myself. Watch the famous “Not Getting Married Today” number from Company, and feel free to skip to 1.05.
3. Sondheim has compassion for his nutty characters.
Sondheim might examine his fellow humans critically in order to write his crazy, very human characters, but he ultimately has compassion for them. There’s not a whole lot in the way of good and evil in his characters: “Witches can be right/Giants can be good.” Even the witch in Into the Woods who locks Rapunzel away is just a lonely woman trying to shield her child from the world.
4. His Musicals are more about the “moment” than about happy and sad endings.
In Into the Woods, the happy endings that looked promising at the beginning of Act 1 have fallen apart by the beginning of Act 2, but the moments in the woods linger. In Sunday in the Park with George, painter George Seurat’s relationship with Dot crumbles, but the moment in the park he creates in his painting endures.
5. He can write a killer melody.
If you’re listening to a catalog of Sondheim songs, “beautiful melody” probably isn’t the first description that will jump to mind. His repertoire has so many discordant pieces that when one of the songs has a simple, beautiful melody, it’s extra pleasing.