Sunday, June 06, 2004

Why Sondheim Can't Write a Love Song

Well, why can't he?

It's not news that Stephen Sondheim's body of work doesn't contain a lot of love songs. Even when he does a show with a love story -- even love stories that end happily, as they do in A Little Night Music -- you won't usually find a number where the lovers express their love in song. Instead he'll provide torch songs for the moment when love seems lost ("Send in the Clowns," "Losing My Mind") or songs about how love sucks ("Every Day a Little Death"). Even Passion has hardly anything that can be called a love song, though this may be because it has hardly anything that can be called a song.

This leads to a lot of speculation about why Sondheim doesn't write love songs. There are two standard explanations for this, the esthetic and the psychological. The esthetic explanation is that Sondheim is the guy who moved beyond all the banalities and lies of the traditional Broadway musical, and that includes the lies of the traditional Broadway love song. In other words, Sondheim won't have a character sing "There's a small hotel" because then that character would be lying: there isn't a small hotel! Nor a wishing well. It was all destroyed along with the American dream sometime around the Korean war.

The other explanation is that there's something in Sondheim's psyche that makes him unable to write a straightforward love song. Sammy Cahn, a specialist in superficial but successful pop lyrics, once said that Sondheim was "afraid to say I love you" in song, and others have offered the same explanation using more redundant words.

I'd like to offer an alternative explanation: the reason Sondheim doesn't write love songs is that he's not very good at writing them.

(Note: what I write below is mostly about Sondheim as a lyricist. His music has its problems too when it comes to love songs -- most notably that his constant repeating of musical phrases tends to make love sound indistinguishable from obsession.)

Sondheim's strengths are well-known; he's great at writing for character, putting complicated concepts into song ("Finishing the Hat" is not nearly as good as Cole Porter's "Never, Never Be an Artist," but it undoubtedly has more to say), and creating genuine musical theatre that moves the show along rather than stopping it. Give Sondheim a specific theatrical situation, like, say, two people singing about making corpses into meat pies, and he'll come through. But give Sondheim a spot for a love song, and he collapses into generalities and cliches. "Johanna" in Sweeney Todd is a collection of banal ballad-isms:

I was half convinced I'd waken,
Satisfied enough to dream you.
Happily I was mistaken,
Johanna.


"Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along, in both its versions (it appears in the show as both a straightforward love song and an anguished "don't leave me" love song), is a love song without a single distinctive image in it, a generalized Ballad 101:

Not a day goes by,
Not a single day,
But you're somewhere a part of my life
And it looks like you'll stay.


This tendency to generalization and cliche reaches its apogee (apex? something that starts with ap) in Passion, where a ballad called "Loving You" starts with a line that could have come out of an I'm-OK-you're-OK pamphlet:

Loving you is not a choice,
It's who I am.


Sondheim's problem with love songs is that they require the exact opposite of the kind of talent he has. Sondheim's talent is for specificity: taking a very specific character or situation and building a song around it. (When preparing to write "I'm Still Here" in Follies, he made notes about who this woman was, what her background was, what she'd done, who she'd known -- and put it all into the song.) A love song requires that the songwriter build a song around the most generalized situation imaginable: one person in love with another person or vice versa. Sondheim specializes in finding ways to say what no song has said before; the key to writing a good love song is finding a unique way to say what has been said a million times before.

The great writers of lyrics for love songs tend to be the ones with an offbeat, whimsical sensibility, the ones who approach familiar things from unusual angles. These include two lyricists whose work Sondheim has criticized: Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin. Both had a tendency to cuteness and self-conscious playfulness; both had trouble writing in character voices other than their own; both could be sloppy (though Hart's technical sloppiness, which Sondheim often complains about, didn't really become a problem until late in his life, after his drinking got worse). But both of them could turn these things to their advantage when it came time to write a love song, because they were the kind of lyricists who would ask themselves: what's a new, offbeat way to say "I love you?"

You can see this most easily in the titles of their love songs: not boilerplate like "Loving You" but specific-sounding titles that don't seem to have much to do with love. Taking Hart as an example, the titles of his love songs include "Have You Met Miss Jones," "I've Got Five Dollars," "Like Ordinary People," "Every Sunday afternoon," "I'll Tell the Man in the Street." One favorite trick of the great writers of love songs was the "concealed" love song, where you don't know it's about love until near the end. The Gershwins' "They All Laughed" starts as a list of famous people whose innovations were laughed at; then in the B section we find out what the song is really about: "They laughed at me wanting you." Rodgers and Hart's "I'm Afraid" is a list song about all the things the singer is afraid of, but reveals its true colours at the very end of the refrain:

I'm afraid of Fu Manchu,
And of tigers in the zoo,
But most of all
I'm afraid I'll fall
For a horrible thing like you.


Another trick in writing a love song is to load the song with unusual images or metaphors, to disguise the usual-ness of the subject matter. Hart, again, does the metaphor bit a lot, as in "Love Never Went to College" from "Too Many Girls":


Love never went to college,
Ignorant boy, that,
But think of the joy that he starts.
His work requires no knowledge,
So he can do it
By using intuitive arts.
He just says "You two kids,
Start falling in love.
I ain't got brains
But I reigns over all these parts."
Love never went to college,
Never had teaching,
And yet he keeps reaching our hearts.


Sondheim can't do this kind of thing very well (all right, I guess he'd jump at the chance to write that "A horrible thing like you" line) because writing a good love song depends on a willingness to approach things from an unusual angle, and Sondheim doesn't do angles; he tackles things head-on: what is the situation, who is the character, what will express this situation and character in song. That's not to say that he's unsubtle (as someone once said on a newsgroup, Sondheim has a character sing "Here's to the ladies who lunch," not "I'm a bitter old cynic"), just that he focuses on specific things, specific situations. His images are of things that are physically there (George is finishing a painting of a hat, so he sings "Finishing the hat"), his metaphors are those that people might plausibly use in conversation ("The road you didn't take"). All this works fine when you have a unique character and situation to work with. But with a love song, you have nothing specific, or almost nothing; you're left with the necessity to find a way to say what has been said before. In that kind of situation, a talent like Sondheim's -- rational, measured, kind of literal -- is at sea, while an off-the-wall talent like Hart or Gershwin or Harburg or even Bob Merrill will be right at home.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Love songs aren't just lyrics. They're harmony. And no one does it better than Stephen.

Anonymous said...

You're an idiot. I've never read such a load of rubbish in my life. If you're such an expert on how love should be written into a song then show us one of your compositions on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Are you gay? Sodom and Gommorrah was destroyed because of their evil perversions.

Anonymous said...

If "loving you" from passion it's not a love song, what the hell is a love song for you?

Nelson said...

This rumination starts by defining what a love song should be. Then judges Sondheim by the writer's rather narrow definition of what a love song is supposed to be.

Why not just say that he does not consider Sondheim's love songs good? Then it's simply a matter of opinion and it does not take away the fact that Sondheim is really capable of writing a love song. I would agree with the writer though that Sondheim's love songs are too specific to the characters/situation they were originally written for to be usable in pop music or in embellishing your expressions to your loved one. But then, isn't this why Sondheim's a genius?

Nelson said...

This rumination starts by defining what a love song should be. Then judges Sondheim by the writer's rather narrow definition of what a love song is supposed to be.

Why not just say that he does not consider Sondheim's love songs good? Then it's simply a matter of opinion and it does not take away the fact that Sondheim is really capable of writing a love song. I would agree with the writer though that Sondheim's love songs are too specific to the characters/situation they were originally written for to be usable in pop music or in embellishing your expressions to your loved one. But then, isn't this why Sondheim's a genius?

Anonymous said...

I tried to understand your point of view but...I strongly disagree. What's a love song for you ? you are the one that I want , you are the one I want uh uh uh HOney ?

Anonymous said...

What an absolute load of crap!!!
"Loving You" epitomises what love is! I cant think of a love song that is more of a love song than this! Everything from the melody, the harmony and the lyric. I would be bowled over is someone were to look into my eyes and say "loving you is not a choice, it's who I am....it gives me purpose, gives me voice, to say to the world......THIS WHY I LIIIIIIIIIIVE!" And then to embrace me and go on to say " You are why I live. Loving you is why I do the things I do." then to kiss me, hold me, look into my eyes and finish with "I will live, and I will die for you."
If this is not a love song my dear friend, then you must be void of any warmth, feeling, or emotion, and if the music doesn't touch you, then you must be a corpse sitting in the theatre.....
Go back and listen to it again....and really listen....
x

Anonymous said...

Sondheim's "music" is just awful. He is no genius. I've heard better music written by school kids.

Anonymous said...

You make some truly interesting points, but fall perhaps too readily into standard-issue caricature of Sondheim as a dark cynic, "all mind, no heart".

The glib assertion that "Never, Never Be An Artist" is a "better" song than "Finishing The Hat" flags itself as essentially unserious, notwithstanding the astute observation that the latter "has more to say". They're apples and oranges, at least until you come up with some compelling criterion by which to make such a comparison; "songs about artists, ranked by personal preference" won't cut it.

There are far better (or worse) examples of hackneyed phrasemaking to be plucked from "Johanna" than the lines you've chosen -- which, while hardly dazzling in their originality, are at least more gracefully and intelligently constructed than the average love lyric. What about "I am in the dark beside you, buried sweetly in your yellow hair" (surely even a callow sailor could muster "golden," or SOMETHING less clunky than "yellow hair")? Or even the three-word refrain, "I feel you, Johanna," which for sheer banality trumps almost any other love lyric I can think of?

Lastly, you might not want to begin an appraisal of Sondheim's lyrics with an admission of your own uncertainty about the exact meanings of "apogee" and "apex" -- it needlessly invites doubt about your fitness to criticize a wordsmith as rarefied as SS.

Still, despite my nitpicking, a good read overall. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I only know the version of "loving you" Holly Cole is singing on her album "Romantically Helpless". It's absolutely great.
Although her interpretation differs, the lyrics are the same as Sondheims.

k9gardner said...

I was at a performance by Eric Michael Gillette last night, and he did a number of Sondheim songs. One of them, "Loving you," was the only song of the night that brought a tear to my eye. That sentiment, "not by choice, it's who I am," works for some of us logical-minded people I guess. I thought it was an amazing way of putting it actually.

Still, if you understand that Sondheim's strength is "putting complicated concepts into song and creating genuine musical theatre that moves the show along rather than stopping it," you shouldn't mind too much that he isn't so good at "show stopper" love songs. Right?