Tag Archives: Sondheim

Is Sondheim Classical?

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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

4 Responses to Is Sondheim Classical?

  1. Meh. It feels like splitting hairs to me to try to make fine distinctions between what is “classical music” and what isn’t. The way the term is used is so fuzzy that it’s pointless to try to define its borders; as soon as we succeed in defining “classical music” in a way that makes it possible to make these fine distinctions, we are no longer using the word in the way that anyone really uses it.

    It seems to me that, as most people use the term, West Side Story is not classical music. It also seems to me that Symphonic Dances from West Side Story is classical music. But I’d bet that if you asked a thousand people, you wouldn’t get anything like unanimity on either of those points. The term is just too nebulous.

    Oh, well. If you want a language to be logical, you pretty much have to invent it yourself. Living languages sprawl.

    • Brian Rosen says:

      I agree that these distinctions for classification’s sake is a bit pointless, but the thought exercises that accompany such taxonomy can be enlightening. The larger point is that there is SOMETHING different between West Side Story and Sondheim’s work that, for me at least, allows the term “classical” to apply. It’s the figuring out what that something is that is, I hope, interesting and perhaps useful.

  2. I think it’s important for artists to think deeply about what they’re doing, and why. The category thing, not so much.

  3. Jirashimosu says:

    I think that classical is a matter of time rather than matter of style. Let’s give Sondheim’s work a 60 year space and we’ll see what happens.

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Tweaking a masterpiece: Assassins

Few, if any, musicals mine darker creative ore than Assassins. By humanizing a group of disenfranchised, semi-stable malcontents, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman tell a story of the American Nightmare, a haze of anger, frustration, and humiliation that can, apparently, only be relieved by killing the President of the United States. It’s long been inContinue ReadingContinue Reading

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Top 10 Moments of Sondheim Genius (part 2)

Gah!  I would have published this earlier, but I spent two evenings tearing my house apart trying to find a photograph of me and Sondheim taken when I was in the ensemble for the 2001 PBS production of Sweeney Todd in Concert. I’m a bit freaked out that I haven’t been able to find itContinue ReadingContinue Reading

11 Responses to Top 10 Moments of Sondheim Genius (part 2)

  1. gerald rosen says:

    I knew it!!

  2. Brian Rosen says:

    You did? Well, that makes one of us. I was actually reordering up until pretty late in the game.

  3. Gina says:

    Absolutely loved this. Read every word and even listened to the clips. (“Even” because I’ve heard the music many times and knew which bits you were referencing even before you went into detail.) There were only a few things on your list that I already noticed, so it was wonderful to find out about the others. No doubt it helps to play an instrument/be a composer yourself.

    Bookmarking your page because I have much appreciation for a good theatre-related blog. There aren’t not enough out there. I’m always tempted to make one, but I really don’t know as much as I’d like to, unfortunately.

  4. Brian Rosen says:


    That’s the main reason I started this one. At first I thought, “what the heck do I have to say that other, more qualified people haven’t already said.” But I realized that a) I haven’t found many folks writing about this stuff and b) this would be a good way to introduce my own friends to the stuff that I care about.

    Thanks for reading…

  5. EricMontreal says:

    Great list, especially appreciated having the clips, even though I knew the music by heart, there were still some great revelations. I hate to complain with the typical “where’s [my fave show]” but I admit I missed not having anything from Company, Pacific Overtures and Passion, particularly.

    “It’s easy to imagine that it was the producer’s fear that audiences wouldn’t realize that a second act existed that led to the narrator’s non-sequitor interjection “To be continued!” right before the last chord of the act.”

    And that’s exactly what was done–in the original San Diego workshop audiences were leaving after Act I. I believe the line was thrown in some weeks into the Broadway production, in fact.

  6. Elliott says:

    I agree with ErikMontreal; the lack of Pacific Overtures, Passion, and Company was slightly saddening, but this was still a great read. 😀 Well done!

  7. Sister says:

    I can’t believe the falling chandelier didn’t make the top 10.

  8. Adam says:

    This was wonderful…thank you for writing it!

  9. Brian Rosen says:

    Adam, thanks for reading it! It was a fun one to put together.

  10. Wow, what a great essay. I am so with you about the chord at the end of Sweeney’s Ephiphany. What an amazing thing to do. It reminds me somewhat of the out-of-key chords at the end of Don José’s Flower Song, the way that the music communicates that this guy has departed the world that most of us live in and has encamped himself very firmly on the planet of his own obsession.

    I did see the first Broadway production of Sunday in the Park, and saw it before the cast album had come out, too, so hardly anybody in the audience including me knew any of the music and words yet. There are some things about that show that irritated me, but boy, watching the first act finale unfold without realizing quite what was coming was incredibly powerful.

  11. Charisma says:

    Wow, that was a wonderful read. It really exposed some nuances I hadn’t noticed at all before. I’ve just recently been getting into Sondheim, saw Sweeny Todd, Into The Woods and A Little Night Music (some live dvd’s and recordings), and I must say that Mrs. Lovett’s rendition of “Nothing’s gonna harm you…” back to Toby gave me shivers and was musically maybe the most impactful part of the show for me. I noticed the major dissonances in the two other parts you mentioned, though not in such exacting detail, and I hate the versions I heard where they removed that from the epiphany and make it meld ~ it’s so wrong for the play.

    I didn’t notice what was going on in the explanation that it’s okay to kill the giant and not the steward, though I must say the song always seemed to highlight for me how alone the giantess is, and how alone the witch is. I didn’t even notice those connecting “discovery” notes, nor the continuation of the waltz meter in A Little Night Music. I’m going to come back and read the other parts once I’ve watched those musicals. Maybe you could do a sort of sequel to this highlighting one favorite musical + theatrical moment in each of Sondheim’s plays (other than the one’s included in the top ten)? Thanks for the detail!

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Top 10 Moments of Sondheim Genius

In honor of the eightieth birthday of the greatest musical theater writer/composer to ever live, I’ve gone ahead and curated the 10 most brilliant moments in a body of work that is chock full of genius.  For purposes of this list, I’ve tried to identify specific moments, as opposed to stretches of time or entireContinue ReadingContinue Reading

7 Responses to Top 10 Moments of Sondheim Genius

  1. gerald rosen says:

    One of my favorite all-time lyrics from Sweeney Todd; “with or without his privates.”

  2. Brian Rosen says:

    Ahh…that gives me an idea for my next list, Top Ten Funniest Moments in Sondheim. That should be easier to write.

  3. Dave Moschler says:

    Brian, thanks for sharing this very well-written list and all the great recordings of each selection! I have to admit I was extremely disheartened not to see “Opening Doors” (or anything) from Merrily We Roll Along on the list (or “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures). Did Sweeney Todd and Into The Woods really deserve to occupy half of the list (and on that note is no. 7 a moment of genius)?

    I think you hit the nail on the head for Assassins though . . . always thought one of the most powerful moments of the show when Booth drops the N-bomb as well as the march from El Capitan rewritten. Thanks again for the post!

  4. Brian Rosen says:

    Dave, ya caught me. Merrily and Pacific Overtures are the two Sondheim shows I’ve never seen produced, so I can’t really speak to them. As for no. 7, I wrestled with that, but I decided to specifically single out those last measures of Moment’s In the Woods as “the” moment of genius in that whole discovery song concept. I think it’s the only time that Red’s theme comes back unaltered.

  5. Jeffrey says:

    How wonderful to read this post via a link posted on All that Chat. Great to get your insights.

    And the Act I closer for Sunday? It was my first Broadway show. With the characters stepping into their final positions, the painting scrim dropping with the actors aligned perfectly behind it, and the music swelling, I literally starting heaving tears. It’s one of the most brilliant piece of theatre ever.

  6. Brian Rosen says:

    Jeffrey, totally with ya there. I never got to see it on broadway, but even just reviewing the video while writing this post, I started tearing up. Ooops…did I just say that out loud?

  7. Noel Katz says:

    I very much enjoyed your analysis, and it brings to mind a similar explication of musical devices my wife did long before I met her: hearing about it was the first time marriage entered my mind.

    I’ll pick a bone with the Into the Woods songs of discovery. Yes, they’re connected by similar accompaniments, but, for me, this is something that made me go, in the theatre, “Haven’t we heard this one already?” A character telling the audience what he’s learned (from a familiar fairy tale, no less) is not my idea of effective entertainment. Ideally, we feel for the characters, so when they go through a dramatic arc, we feel what they feel, discover what they discover. Jack, Little Red and Cinderella announce to us that they’ve learned something profound, and Here It Is. But what they’ve learned isn’t profound or surprising enough, and it annoys me that an otherwise swiftly-told plot is being stopped for an ersatz revelation.

    In weaker Sondheim shows, I find myself not caring about the characters. The mob that claims to have saved Roosevelt are all very frenetic, but I was wholly unmoved, unclear as to what the show as a whole was saying about Americans. Or, I guess, the .0001% of us who shoot at politicians. How could you expect Booth NOT to drop the n-word? We already knew, from the history books, of his vile view.

    But I come here to praise: the torch song Losing My Mind takes familiar elements – the structure of Gershwin’s The Man I Love, the melodic motif of Rodgers’ He Was Too Good To Me – sets them to an ever augmenting chord structure, while the lyric talks about stasis. That’s crazy. Crazy good.

    When I think of the myriad paeans to my hometown, Sondheim’s Another Hundred People rises near the top. The busy synth paints the pace of the city, and each key change involving the singer sustaining an enharmonic, is a delightful surprise. Similarly, I get ecstatic about the harmonies under the lines “And the life moving on” in Move On.

    I love me a good quodlibet, and Sondheim wrote a couple of delights for the young ghosts in Follies. First came Who Could Be Blue?/Little White House, the tune of which is better known from its reuse in Stavisky. This was replaced by Love Will See Us Through/You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow, a deliciously cheerful output for Sondheim’s natural cynicism about marriages.

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