Stephen Sondheim, hailed by many as a genius, has had a long and illustrious career in Broadway musical theatre spanning five decades. During those fifty-some years, Sondheim has essentially reinvented the Broadway musical. The Sondheim canon shows three distinct ways Sondheim has contributed to musical theatre.
First of all, the difficulty of Stephen Sondheim's music has raised the standard of musical theatre. Actors simply cannot stand onstage and sing as they used to in the days of Gershwin and Cole Porter. Due to the unusual rhythms, intervals, and harmonies in Sondheim's music, actors must work when they perform in a Sondheim musical or learn a Sondheim song. This has raised the caliber of quality in musical theatre.
Second, the vast array of subjects Sondheim has written about has broadened the horizons of musical theatre. Sondheim's subjects range from passionate love (Passion, 1994), to the nature of marriage (Company, 1970) to fairy tales (Into the Woods, 1987) to the difficulty of making art in a competitive, economic-centered world (Sunday in the Park with George, 1984) to insanity and perception of it (Anyone Can Whistle, 1964).
The remarkable dexterity with which Sondheim handles his subjects, and the deep complexity of the characters portrayed through the music and lyrics, is an inspiration to composers everywhere.
Lastly, many of Sondheim's musicals do not follow a traditional storyline with a plot. Many of his musicals disregard plot entirely, and rely on vignettes and individual character's stories to relate the subject matter. Merrily We Roll Along (1981) actually goes backward in time - each of its scenes takes place in an earlier year than the one preceding. Assassins (1990) features the assassins or would-be assassins of the Presidents of the United States, and does not even pretend to go in chronological order. In...