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Book Review

Finishing the Hat

Finishing the Hat

Collected Lyrics (1954-1981)

with Attendant Comments, Principles,
Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
Stephen Sondheim.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2010. 480 pages.
ISBN-10: 0679439072
ISBN-13: 978-0679439073
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Summary for the Busy Executive: When do we get the sequel?

I can't think of anyone more influential in the postwar American musical than Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. As a lyricist, Sondheim's scope, ambition, dramatic ability, and (though he'd object to this) poetic concision put him far ahead of any other theater songwriter currently on the boards. I say this having actually seen only eight Sondheim shows: West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Evening Primrose (I still can't quite believe my luck that I caught it), A Little Night Music, Sundays in the Park with George, and Into the Woods. The first two, of course, show us Sondheim the lyricist, rather than the composer. However, thanks to recording, I've heard just about every score he's done, and I like almost everything I've heard, including songs from scores I haven't heard in their entirety, like the title number from Anyone Can Whistle.

Sondheim in his rare interviews impresses you with his edge, his intelligence, and (no big surprise) his articulate way with words. A book by him on his craft has, to put it mildly, at least some value. Voi-, as they say, la. Even a book of just his lyrics would be pretty wonderful, and this one contains the lyrics from all of his Broadway work (which lets out Evening Primrose, written for television) from Saturday Night through Merrily We Roll Along. Of course, Sondheim has written spectacular theater scores since then, so we'll need another book.

Finishing the Hat, the title of a song from Sundays in the Park with George (ironically, not included here), has as its obvious model Ira Gershwin's classic Lyrics on Several Occasions – a collection of lyrics and the writer's commentary on them. From Sondheim, we get history and some gossip, but also analysis of what goes through his mind when he writes a lyric. We also get Sondheim's essays on several of his illustrious predecessors: Berlin, Gershwin, Coward, Hart, Harburg, Porter, Hammerstein, Loesser, Dorothy Fields, Alan Jay Lerner, and W. S. Gilbert. They're not always appreciative essays, either. Sondheim tells you what he thinks without the need for softening, since they're all dead. For some reason, this has become the most controversial part of the book. Sondheim doesn't care for W. S. Gilbert or the G & S operettas – an "unacquired taste," he calls it. I don't agree with him, but it's his book and his opinion, which is what I want to know. He does give you his reasons. He also faults those lyricists influenced by Gilbert, like Gershwin, Hart, and Harburg. They commit the sin of putting word-order, syllabic stress, and in some cases sense on the rack to wrest a rhyme. Thus, Gershwin's "'Neath the stars, / At bazaars, / Often I've had to caress men. / Five or ten / Dollars, then / I'd collect from all those yes-men" from "How Long Has This Been Going On?" Sondheim asks how many bazaars are held at night, "caress" rather than "kiss," and why "yes-men." Straightening out the gnarled syntax to normal conversational order, we'd get "'Neath the stars, at bazaars, I've often had to caress men. Then I'd collect five or ten dollars from all those yes-men." This, of course, points up the mis-stresses of the original: "OF-ten I'VE had TO ca-RESS MEN," and so on. Hart is just as bad, if not worse, according to Sondheim, because so many of his sins stem from laziness. He could, and did, turn out lyrics in minutes. The famous couplet from "My Funny Valentine," "Your looks are laughable, / Unphotographable," earns Sondheim's scorn.

Unless the object of the singer's affection is a vampire, surely what Hart means is "unphotogenic." Only vampires are unphotographable, but affectionate "-enic" rhymes are hard to come by.

I've heard really good poets criticize their own and each other's work in just this way, to this degree of pickiness (and even beyond). Again, Sondheim – no doubt thinking of people like Donne, Stevens, Auden, and Yeats – would likely blanch at the thought of mentioning song lyrics in the same breath as poetry. He points out that because of the addition of music, there's no room or time for real poetry in lyrics. The complexity of thought in a poem resists listener comprehension before the music hurries it on. Really, this is the same argument of Great Poetry Can't Make Great Songs – something easily disproven by composers at least since Schubert. Britten's Shakespeare, Auden, and Hardy, Vaughan Williams's Housman, Herbert, and Whitman aren't ipso facto bad songs or bad settings. I agree that it happens only rarely in popular music – usually a line here and there. "In time, the Rockies may tumble, / Gibraltar may crumble – / They're only made of clay." "I took a trip on a train, / And I thought about you." "Sit there and count your fingers. / What can you do?" "Ev'ry femme that flutters by me / Is a flame that must be fanned. / When I can't fondle the hand that I'm fond of, / I fondle the hand at hand." This doesn't even begin to account for examples from Sondheim himself. Simplicity or complexity of thought doesn't really matter. What seems to matter is clear presentation and the musical illumination of the words. Sondheim – quite rightly, I believe – deplores "poetic" lyrics, in the sense of drippy, purple, and gooey. I agree with his low assessment of his lyrics for West Side Story (except for "Officer Krupke" and Anita's tirade in "A Boy Like That"). However, Bernstein wanted that, and Sondheim was enough of a professional to oblige. Lyrics aim at a balance of clarity and concision of thought. In this regard, I think Sondheim has yet to surpass Pacific Overtures, but on the other hand, comparisons of one high-quality work to another probably don't mean much. Hell, I loved Assassins, almost universally panned.

However, there's one other quality to song lyrics that Sondheim doesn't talk much about – the music in the combinations of the words themselves – probably because that's something not really a matter of a reductive mechanical technique. Sondheim can rail all he wants against Hart's "My romance / Doesn't need a castle rising in Spain / Or the chance / Of a constantly surprising refrain." Sure, refrains (the root of which is Old French for "repeat") aren't constantly surprising, at least in most popular song (although one can certainly find examples in "art songs"). Indeed, that's one of the things that makes them refrains. But other than Sondheim, who cares? They sound beautifully in the air. Furthermore, Sondheim has himself written lyrics with gorgeous word-music. Again, I'd single out several numbers from Pacific Overtures, "Anyone Can Whistle," "I Remember Sky" (from Evening Primrose), "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" from Sweeney Todd, and "Comedy Tonight" from Funny Thing, and those just from the top of my head. "Send in the Clowns" was, to Sondheim's surprise, a huge hit, and it's a lovely piece. But it's no more beautiful than "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along.

I love G & S. Also, Gershwin's and Hart's syntactical inversions and mis-stresses rarely bother me. For me, the colloquial diction takes the curse off, as if they're gently tweaking the older poetic conventions. After all, both were perfectly capable of avoiding these "sins." Again, I don't mind disagreeing with Sondheim about the figures in the Pantheon, because I recognize that first, it's a matter of opinion and all the reasoning in the world is feeble against an object of love, and second, that he and I look at lyrics from two different standpoints – that of a consummate craftsman vs. that of a mere consumer. An artist, I believe – even one working in commercial venues – writes the way he has to and with the point of view that's part of him. It's hard enough to do this stuff without somebody telling you that you're doing it wrong. Not only that, but like most first-rate writers, Sondheim is harder on himself than any critic, and more pointed as well. He may not have known exactly what he wanted to do when he began, but he certainly sharpened the outlines of his goals as he went along. With the benefit of hindsight, we can note the following.

First, although not really a playwright, Sondheim is primarily a dramatic writer. After all, he writes scenas and ensemble numbers better than almost anybody. However, he points out that he needs a playwright to supply ideas, characters, and a point of view. Nevertheless, just listening to a Sondheim score is like attending a play. As long as you know the basic plot – and Sondheim considerately supplies short notes throughout the book (he doesn't need long ones) on each song's context in the play – you can follow the dramatic arc from song to song. He collaborates: he brings something to his partnership with the book-writer and entwines his individual point of view with that of his colleagues. That's why listening to a cast album can be so satisfying. Second, he is drawn to psychological complexity, often apparently beyond the capacity of the newsprint drama critics to comprehend. For example, Merrily We Roll Along, a tale told from finish to start, makes extensive use of reprise. Since it begins in adult catastrophe and ends in youthful hope, the tone of each reprise and thus of the show itself become more and more optimistic, thus superficially satisfying the audience need for musicals to end on an "up." However, because we've known from the beginning how the characters age into misery, the "Climb Every Mountain" finale drips tragic irony. In short, Sondheim and his collaborators don't wrap things up neatly. For an ideal audience, the show vibrates from the dramatic arc, plucked between beginning and end, long after everybody's left the theater.

There are wonderful tidbits as well as great anecdotes about such luminaries as Hermione Gingold, Glynis Johns, Alexis Smith, Ethel Merman, Peter Shaffer, and many others. It surprised me to learn that Sondheim considers himself the lyrical heir of Loesser and Fields, rather than Hart, Harburg, or Hammerstein (Hammerstein still gets plenty of credit for sharpening Sondheim's dramatic and theatrical bent). He reserves his highest praise for Dubose Heyward and Porgy and Bess as the pinnacle of words to the American musical theater (to me, not an obvious choice, but tremendously penetrating in hindsight). There's a lot here. As I say, just the lyrics all by themselves provide lots of reasons for re-reading. Yet Sondheim's remarks and stories are more than lagniappe. This isn't a how-to book or, strictly speaking, a why-I-do-it book. Like Sondheim's shows, it keeps your brain humming and whistling long after everything is over.

Copyright © 2011 by Steve Schwartz.