Andrew Lloyd Webber vs. Stephen Sondheim

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:56 pm

For reasons that will remain undisclosed for now, I’ve been listening to a lot of musicals on my iPod at work lately. Most of this music, of course, comes from my wife, since she studied musical theatre in high school and owns lots of soundtracks. A few that are on there now are Phantom (not Phantom of the Opera, but a different musical on the same story), The King and I, and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which is awesome. In addition to those, I also have Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Music, The Magic, which is a three-CD set of some of his “greatest hits;” and Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. (If you’ve never seen the Into the Woods DVD, recorded from the stage production starring Bernadette Peters as the Witch, you owe it to yourself.)

It’s been interesting to compare Webber’s music to Sondheim’s in Into the Woods. Webber’s songs are basically pop music adapted to the theatre: simple, catchy hooks and melodies, pop-style chord progressions and relatively tame rhythms with pop-style syncopations, with pop-Broadway orchestrations. Sondheim’s music, though, is closer to opera (or at least to classical) than to pop music. The melodies often contain difficult jumps that aren’t typical for vocal music and are more fragmented and motivic than long and flowing. The chord structures are often very complex. And the rhythms are constantly changing and shifting, difficult to pin down to a pattern or single time signature, and more closely follow the pattern of speech than typical musical patterns. I was surprised and impressed when my lovely wife and I watched Into the Woods a few months ago; the performances were good in themselves, but they were terrific considering how difficult the music was.

There’s nothing wrong with Webber’s music, of course; it’s pop-music candy for the ears. But for a substantial meat-and-potatoes meal, Sondheim delivers something unique and masterful that’s quite inspiring to an aspiring composer such as myself.



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    Roberta Harbison on 03.15.2010

    But whose music is more accessible to the general public? Do you write for yourself or an audience?

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    Mark Harbison on 03.16.2010

    Have you ever seen “Evita?”

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    ajharbison on 03.16.2010

    Thanks for the comments! I heard a comment from the composer Stephen Paulus once that was enlightening for me in terms of how accessible your music should be: he said that you have to balance what you want to present as a composer with what you want to hear as a listener–in other words, would you want to listen to your own music? I’ve tried to compose by that principle ever since. But I would say that Sondheim’s music is still accessible to the general public, even if it is more complex–it’s more interesting and nuanced and therefore more rewarding, even if it takes a little more effort to understand.

    I haven’t seen Evita, but there are a few songs from it on the Webber CD. I didn’t find them different from his usual style. Have you seen it?

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    Mark Harbison on 03.16.2010

    Yeah. I watched it a few weeks ago and was really impressed . . . I’m realizing that the reason I brought it up might actually be irrelevant, but I’ll go for it anyway and you can just not respond if you don’t think it’s important.

    I was impressed with Evita because despite the fact that it was normal Andrew Lloyd Webber, it’s also one of the most powerful musicals I’ve ever seen. I credit this to Webber because it’s one of those that’s all music and no dialogue (which, incidentally, usually annoys me). But the way that he weaves the music together, with specific themes (both musically and lyrically) returning later, even in the middle of other songs, gives the entire work a unity and an emotional potency because you’re constantly recalling everything that’s happened before. Webber forces you to keep the whole story in mind, and it’s nearly impossible to focus solely on one song.

    Contrasted with this is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, where Webber deliberately avoids any connection between the songs and very carefully writes each song in a completely different style. The result here is that it feels very fragmented and kind of random, but again, that’s the point.

    So my question is, is it possible that Sondheim is better at writing songs, and Webber at musicals? I wouldn’t listen to most songs from Evita or Joseph by themselves, but as a whole work they’re both impressive. Making the different songs work together seems to be Webber’s strength.

    As a disclaimer, I haven’t seen Into the Woods, although I have seen Sweeny Todd.

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    ajharbison on 03.16.2010

    I will have to see Evita and let you know what I think. I haven’t seen Joseph either. I don’t think I would necessarily say, though, that that means Webber is better than Sondheim at writing musicals. Sweeney Todd, for example, has at least twenty distinct leitmotifs that appear throughout the score, and is also mostly sung rather than spoken (see the Wikipedia page here). Sondheim is pretty much a genius any way you look at him. But I will definitely have to check out Evita.

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    Mark Harbison on 03.16.2010

    I suppose not, that may have been an overstatement. I just meant to suggest that perhaps Webber’s genius lies not in the composition of music in individual songs, but in the construction of the whole. In a musical like Evita, it’s hard to take most of the songs out of context and really appreciate them.

    It’s also possible that Webber is less concerned with musical brilliance and more concerned with basic emotional response. That’s not to say that Sondheim’s music doesn’t provide a catalyst for emotion, but there might be a difference in goal. Although, again, I’m not sure how much this matters to you.

    You should put the movie Evita on your Netflix queue. It’s oddly starring Antonio Banderas and Madonna, but it’s really good.

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