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LOOK, I MADE A HAT

By Stephen Sondheim

Knopf

453 pages, $50

ISBN: 978-0-307-59341-2


            A valuable successor to Finishing the Hat, in which Stephen Sondheim gave us access into his professional life as a lyricist, Look, I Made a Hat follows many of the patterns of the earlier volume. Both books have elephantine subtitles. This one is subtitled “Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany.” The “Amplifications” and “Dogmas” are new additions, and though he still manages to articulate several grudges and complaints, the second volume is more relaxed, more sober, and more objective, perhaps. Not that Sondheim has forgotten how to sting with a poisoned needle, but now he sounds a little embarrassed over the “irritations” his earlier comments caused other lyricists. He also acknowledges a lack of attention to “musical aspects of songwriting,” but he offers a defence: “the technique of composition is impossible to be precise and articulate about without using jargon…understanding what a perfect cadence is requires knowing something about harmony and the diatonic scale. Music is a foreign language which everyone knows but only musicians speak.” Amen, I say, as one who has written detailed production studies of five classic Broadway musicals, for which I have been taken to task for exceedingly thin musicology. But Sondheim is correct; let the academicians write their dry, pedantic tomes for one another. Musical theatre is art in the service of passion, and while the craft is measurable, the art is less so—certainly less precisely than an academic would like.

            The second instalment of his lyrics (from 1981-2011) includes the complete librettos of such major works as Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, and Passion, as well as lesser known and less successful works for stage, movies, and television. The book preserves his three stated principles of lyric writing from the first volume: Less is More; Content Dictates Form; and God is in the Details. But it also tells us more about how he has struggled to find his voice: “I started to develop an attitude in Saturday Night, a laconic lyrical style in Gypsy and a structurally experimental musical one in Anyone Can Whistle. They all came together in full-throated fruition in Company.” A succinct summary of an artistic journey across a wide terrain—which speaks to Sondheim’s versatility and endless aesthetic inquiry. He is not, in fact, in love with all that he creates—at least not in the same way or the same degree from show to show.

            Volume Two begins where Volume One left off—Sondheim in “a morass of despair after the joyful public slaughter of Merrily We Roll Along” but followed happily by his meeting James Lapine. This fortuitous encounter is but one more significant moment among a sequence of unexpected moments that have kept his life surprising and changing in direction. Sondheim lists some of the others: his parents’ divorce; his friendship with Oscar Hammerstein II; studying Latin in high school (useful for understanding and mastering “fascinating intricacies of the English language”); taking music with Robert Barrow at Williams College; and running into Arthur Laurents and thereby receiving an opportunity to write lyrics for West Side Story. Sondheim doesn’t specifically state it, but it is by now a foregone conclusion that another significant moment must have been his first collaboration with Harold Prince. He does, of course, acknowledge Prince, especially when he discusses Lapine because he sees important similarities between the two men: both are Broadway babies (though Lapine is a full generation younger than Prince), both think like directors, and both have pre-eminent visual impulses. Sondheim claims that theatrically and temperamentally, he is more like Lapine than Prince, though he also qualifies this claim by acknowledging that he is often accused of writing “cold” scores that are intellectually acute but emotionally dispassionate and not necessarily “user-friendly.”

            Sondheim admits to sentimentality (he confesses to being able to cry at “a notion, a word, a chord, a melodic idea, an accompaniment figure”), and he also recognizes that he has been “both a critic’s darling and a critic’s target.” He adds that over the years “the darling aspect has gotten stronger, but the target aspect remains.” But this is not a pattern unique to him; it seems to follow many another creative artist, and given the enormous range of his subjects (history, politics, art, marriage, divorce, love, crime) and styles (Orientalism reminiscent of opera; vaudeville; Grand Guignol; revue; parable), there is bound to be disagreement about the scope and value of his achievements.

            Look, I Made a Hat makes no attempt to bring us closer to the private Sondheim; nor should it necessarily do that. Like its immediate predecessor, it is a craft memoir rather than a craftsman’s memoir—a distinction that is clarified by its wealth of analyses. Although Sondheim is freewheeling in his comments, harangues, and digressions, he is primarily focussed on annotations on his own lyrics, with technical advice, discussions of stage history, and the state of the industry today. He is doctrinaire, almost as a matter of temperament, but he is always interesting—whether discussing the value of clean, exact rhymes (as opposed to slant rhymes or off-rhymes) or justifying a specific word in its singular or plural forms. And he never sounds like a boring pedant. He is able to be utterly compelling and convincing as he shows, chapter by chapter, how a particular musical of his developed its propulsive narrative. Even when the musical in question is far from perfect or even first-rate in its final form (as with Wise Guys that became Bounce, then Road Show), he makes this compendious anthology seem fresh and invigorating.



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