Though Stephen Sondheim remains an unassailable genius who raised musical theater to new levels of maturity, the influence of his melody-poor, operetta-rich style on contemporary Broadway musicals has been pernicious. Watch any recent Tony Awards broadcast, or any installment of PBS' popular documentary series Broadway's Lost Treasures, and compare the boffo big numbers of the post-Rodgers & Hammerstein era to the free-form, character-driven arias of the last decade. Aside from refreshing eccentricities like Avenue Q, modern musicals don't offer too many songs that people will be singing after the shows close.
But though there's little hope that musicals will go pop again, at least a few promising Sondheim disciples are building on his work rather than using it as a crutch. Richard Rodgers' grandson Adam Guettel made a stunning musical debut in 1996 with the smart, passionate, and densely American Floyd Collins, and his almost-as-masterful The Light In The Piazza is already a cult hit. The original cast album is sung by Kelli O'Hara, playing a simple-minded beauty, Victoria Clark as her overprotective mother, and Matthew Morrison as the Italian gentlemen who falls in love with O'Hara during her vacation in Venice. It's one of the more fluid cast albums in recent memory, with complex, operatic songs that carry the show's romantic mood with no additional text required. In his liner notes, critic Frank Rich says that the score contains "no Americana," but though many of the songs—Morrison's especially—have an old-world flavor, there's an Aaron Copland-like sweep to songs like "The Beauty Is," in which O'Hara compares the simplicity of North Carolina to the daunting sophistication of Europe. The song is a fair description of The Light In The Piazza as well, because compared to Guettel's vision for Broadway, the rest of the street may as well be in Winston-Salem.