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FINISHING THE HAT

(Collected Lyrics (1954-1981)
with attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
By Stephen Sondheim
Knopf
445 pages, $46


            Written with a surprise on virtually every page, this thick, momentous collection by a composer/lyricist who is widely regarded as the greatest in his field in musical theatre lives up to its bombastic subtitle. Of coffee-table size, with triple columns in small print on most pages, it is not an easy read physically. Every lyric from his shows between 1954 to 1981—which is to say, spanning Saturday Night (a flop) and Merrily We Roll Along (more successful of late than it was on its debut)—is reproduced, along with many of his handwritten work pages and notes, though the dialogue interwoven into them is often omitted, for reasons of length. At over 400 pages of text (generously enhanced by black and white photographs), Sondheim cannot be accused of stinting on anything. He is, after all, a lyricist of minute detail, and his score for Sunday in the Park with George (a work that will be featured only in the sequel to this anthology) is composed in virtually pointillist fashion, with a careful accumulation and organization of variables, almost as if he were fashioning in music and lyric what Georges Seurat was doing in his painting. In fact, the title of this anthology is borrowed from a song in Sunday in the Park with George that articulates the wonder of creativity and the isolated loneliness of the artist who, ultimately, achieves a balance between the conflicting demands of life and art. Through small details, the artist achieves his vision, just as Sondheim in his music and lyrics reaches his totality through single words or notes of his obsessive creativity. “Studying the hat,/Entering the world of the hat,/Reaching through the world of the hat/Like a window.”

In the present collection, Sondheim calls this song the only “immediate expression of a personal internal experience” in his oeuvre. “Every other song comes from nothing more than my identification with the characters who sing them, not with my identification with myself.” He makes it clear that he is attracted to list songs and nervous breakdown songs (“Rose’s Turn,” “Getting Married Today,” “Epiphany,” “Franklin Shepherd, Inc.,” “Not a Day Goes By,” etc) because he is drawn to volatile characters who are the stuff of drama. “When they explode in song, it allows the songwriter to veer off unexpectedly in many directions, echoing the disorder in the character’s mind. Changes in pace and form, alternating between tight rhyming and free verse, percussive and lyrical music—in other words, surprise, the lifeblood of theater.” And, of course, an important fuel that drives such songs is irony. Sondheim can be accounted one of the major and master practitioners of irony in lyrics, especially in Company, Sweeney Todd, and Follies.

Irony in the hands of an expert can convey the sense of cold but clear vision, and even when he is commenting on other lyricists, Sondheim demonstrates the sharpness of his analytical mind. Good thing that his lyricist victims are dead, because they do not have to bear his acerbic criticism. Sondheim passes by living colleagues because “speaking ill of the dead seems to me the gentlemanly thing to do.” You can’t hurt a dead person’s reputation, whereas you could be hurtful and stifling to a living lyricist. Yes, but at least the living ones have an opportunity at rebuttal. Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue against most of his comments and grudges, because they are supported by a wealth of knowledge and illuminated by his shafts of brilliant technical insights.

In other words, malice is not his motive, even though many of his criticisms have deadly sting. And his targets are all large ones. Lorenz Hart is called “jaunty but careless.” Noel Coward is deemed to be too much in the Friml/Romberg tradition, and his ballads are “world-weary, yearning, stultified, employing the kind of flowery language that has little to do with the way people actually speak.” Acknowledging that, “technically, in both music and lyrics, no one is better than Porter and few are his equals,” Sondheim accuses the dazzler of lapsing into lazy glibness and camp that “can skid from giddy to vulgar in the space of an entendre.”  Alan J. Lerner (who is acknowledged for being “smooth and tasteful”) is debunked because his lyrics “flirt with sophistication but remain at heart polite, if not genteel; they lack energy and flavor and passion,” and even some of the most praised ones in My Fair Lady have imperfect rhymes and syntactical horrors, though Sondheim admits that he finds this particular musical to be “the most entertaining musical I’ve ever seen (exclusive of my own, of course).” And so it goes on, with barbs directed at virtually everybody—even Oscar Hammerstein II, his chief professional mentor, who taught him how to build a lyric like a playlet. Of course, it is also true that Sondheim is hard on his own lyrics, particularly for West Side Story (his Broadway debut) whose lyrics suffer from “a self-conscious effort to be what Lenny [Bernstein] deemed ‘poetic.’” Sondheim was a relative rookie on that production team, so he had to yield to both Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, the director and choreographer, though this was not necessarily a bad thing for he found collaborating with Bernstein to be “exhilarating” despite the many frustrations of being compelled to turn out “gorgeous lyrics of Romantic poetry for street kids in New York.”

Does he admire any dead lyricist? Well, yes, especially Frank Loesser, master of the conversational lyric suited to specific characters; Irving Berlin of the impeccable technique; and Dorothy Fields whom he considers to be “the most underrated of the major lyricists, primarily because she collaborated with so many different composers.” Another is Richard Wilbur in Candide and a fifth is DuBose Heyward, whose Porgy and Bess is adjudged to be the perfect musical because its lyrics sound like heightened natural speech rather than self-advertised poetry. Sondheim evidently dislikes the idea of lyrics as poems because their intent and mode of operation are radically different from those of poetry: “Poetry is an art of concision, lyrics of expansion. Poems depend on packed images, on resonance and juxtaposition, on density…Poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do….Under spoken text, music is background, atmosphere and mood, and nothing more. In song, music is an equal partner.” Of course, what he means is an actual musical score; poetry is music of its own—though our postmodernists, language poets, concrete poets, et cetera evidently disagree. Sondheim’s assertions are open to discussion, and this is one of the alluring features of his book. Sondheim does not merely spout ironic witticisms; he bases his opinions on technical knowledge, and he realizes that his collection is a contradiction in terms because “Theater lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung, and sung as parts of a larger structure.”

His technical arguments and judgments will probably provoke debate and controversy, and this is admirable. When he dismisses academic theatre and “the fools masquerading as experts,” he is on firm ground, though his astringent opprobrium is partly generated by an extremely unpleasant experience with Robert Brustein over The Frogs at Yale. Only a fool would bypass Sondheim’s observations on lyric writing, and there are plenty of fools with learned lumber in their heads in our universities. He is also on firm ground in his strikes against critics. “The sad truth is that musicals are the only public art form reviewed mostly by ignoramuses…Musicals continue to be the only art form, popular or otherwise, that is publicly criticized by illiterates.” Is this merely pique because of his early lack of favour with these critics? Partly, yes, but he is generally correct in his view, judging from what I read in most newspapers, magazines, journals, and books in North America and even England. His personal stake in the issue is, of course, undeniable, and contrary to what some simpletons (amateur and professional) believe, Sondheim was not an overnight sensation as lyricist. Having failed with Saturday Night in 1954, he enjoyed his first Broadway success with West Side Story three years later, but his function on that show was to take direction, character, diction, tone, and style from Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, and Leonard Bernstein, and it was not until Gypsy that he came of age as lyricist. Many of his other Broadway efforts were failures at the box office and/or with critics:  Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz? (“the lowest rung” he could fall off), the first production of Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along. Most of his musicals have earned extreme reactions, good and bad, with the preponderance tending towards the negative. He offers into evidence Walter Kerr who accused him of lacking joy and spontaneity—despite his achievements with Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, that elicited extravagant accolades or contemptuous rage. He charges that John Lahr condemned it without seeing it. So, he claims not to read critics anymore or only rarely, except for those in the New York Times who directly affect box-office. “A man is best measured by the size of his enemies,” he stoutly states, and I am inclined to agree.

One of the most striking things about his book is not simply his sharp criticism of lyricists. It is also not his anecdotes about famous fellow composers, directors, and performers (although the entertainment value is huge, especially with forays into anecdotage about Arthur Laurents, Cole Porter, Jerome Robbins, Ethel Merman, and Hermione Gingold—to cite just a very few examples). The most remarkable thing is not even the revelations he offers of his writing habits, such as his preference for soft lead Blackwings on lined yellow legal pads, or his practice of lying down on a couch—when not sitting at a piano—which enables him to fall asleep when he encounters difficulties. No, the most striking thing about his book is his ability to make the very business of lyric writing seem like a craft that can become art. The book’s title, accordingly, becomes most apt, for Sondheim demonstrates in chapter after chapter how he exercises and perfects the three principles necessary for a lyric writer, though they were not immediately apparent to him when he started: Content Dictates Form; Less Is More; and God Is In The Details. Unlike academic critics (who are legion), he is not insufferably supercilious or dully pedantic. Unlike mass cult popularizers (who are also legion), he is not superficial or nugatory. His insights are brilliant; his style engaging. In fact, though it is certainly not a book that can be read right through without breaks to catch one’s breath or rest one’s eyes and mind, Finishing The Hat is easily the best book ever published on the art and craft of lyric writing—which also makes it one of the best theatre books ever published. I hope that its sequel will not be long in the making.  



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