The Australian Broadcasting Company recently released a list of the “Top 100 Classical Pieces of the 20th Century.” As with any list, there is much fodder for discussion, debate and derision (judging from this list, Stravinsky apparently stopped composing after 1913). Blogger, pianist, and educator Elissa Milne was particularly disturbed by the complete omission of Sondheim’s work, particularly considering the inclusion of Bernstein’s West Side Story in the top 20.
Now I love Sondheim’s work with a fiery passion. My first exposure to Sweeney Todd in middle school forever altered my understanding of musical theater and its possibilities. The most viewed posts on this blog are in depth analysis of his works. Stephen Sondheim is no slouch. However, I find that his exclusion from this list of classical works, even in light of West Side Story‘s inclusion, makes perfect sense. There is something inherently more classical about West Side Story than any of Sondheim’s work.
In my admittedly unconvincing responses to Elissa’s tweets, character challenged as they were, I pointed out that West Side Story is more suited for the concert hall with symphonic suites and adaptations, and that there are nothing like the ballets of West Side Story in Sondheim’s work (with the exception of the “Cookie Chase” in Anyone Can Whistle, which seems, like of much that piece, rather self conscious). But these are more symptoms than causes. The real reasons that Sondheim’s works are inherently unclassical is also their primary strengths. I would characterize these strengths as a combination of specificity and inviolability.
The beauty of Sondheim’s music and lyrics are that they are Continue Reading