Paul Simon in The New York Times:
I saw “West Side Story” when I was 16 years old, and I have two vivid memories of the show. One, I didn’t believe for a minute that the dancers were anything like the teenage hoods I knew from the street corner, and secondly, I was completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the song “Maria.” It was a perfect love song. Sondheim was less enamored with the lyric he wrote for Bernstein. He describes it as having a kind of “overall wetness” — “a wetness, I regret to say, which persists throughout all the romantic lyrics in the show.” Sondheim’s rule, taught to him by his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, is that the book and composer are better served by lyrics that are “plainer and flatter.” It is the music that is meant to lift words to the level of poetry.
Sondheim’s regret about “Maria” reminded me of my own reluctance to add a third verse to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I thought of the song as a simple two-verse hymn, but our producer argued that the song wanted to be bigger and more dramatic. I reluctantly agreed and wrote the “Sail on silvergirl” verse there in the recording studio. I never felt it truly belonged. Audiences disagreed with both Sondheim and me. “Maria” is beloved, and “Sail on silvergirl” is the well-known and highly anticipated third verse of “Bridge.” Sometimes it’s good to be “wet.”
When I think of Stephen Sondheim songs, I think of his melody and lyrics as one. His career as a lyricist for other composers (Bernstein, Jule Styne and Richard Rodgers) is as distinct from his later work as night is to day, or conversely, day to night, since the quintessential Sondheim song is perceived to be somehow darker, lyrically more cerebral and colder than his earlier collaborative work. From “Sweeney Todd”:
There’s a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world
And its morals aren’t worth
What a pig could spit,
And it goes by the name of London.