Finishing the Hat – Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim
Everyone who recognizes the title of this book will want to read it … and Stephen Sondheim adds a subtitle just to explain it to the rest. “Finishing the Hat” is, of course, the title of the one song that Sondheim says is drawn from his personal experience as opposed to expressing the thoughts of the character for which it was written. It is his expression of the creative impulse that drives the artist. To make sure his intent for the book isn’t misinterpreted, he adds the lengthy subtitle “Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes.” Now, what musical theatre fan wouldn’t want 449 pages of that?
It only covers the shows from the first 27 years of his, thus-far, 55 year career. Therefore, it has the lyrics from only Saturday Night, West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, The Frogs, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along.
Only? What a collection!
That does mean that we can look forward to a future volume to cover Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Passion, Assassins and Bounce/Road Show as well as individual songs written for other stage, film and television projects.
This is not simply a collection of lyrics, however. While the lyrics are all here — and that is a great boon to theatre fans — the addition of his comments, stories and observations make this much more than a mere compilation. A sense of personal pride, involvement and self-revealing wit pervades the volume from the beginning. His “Note to the Reader” includes the disclaimer that “there are some minor discrepancies between the lyrics printed herein and those printed in other sources because, apart from the occasional misprint, I sometimes change my mind about word choices after first, or even second, publication. The ones in this book can be considered definitive. Until I change my mind.”
Note that he’s directly addressing the reader in that statement. It is the tone he uses throughout the book. To sit down and read it is akin to sitting down with Mr. Sondheim himself and having him tell you about his lyrics.
He starts out with a detailed but easily comprehended “lecture” on “Rhyme and Its Reasons,” which gives those of us who didn’t major in classic literary structures the tools to understand what is to come. It is only three pages long, but it is invaluable and it is a pleasure to read. No put down here. Just a reasonable, clear explanation of why “lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems.”
Sondheim goes to great lengths between these covers to explain clearly just what he believes is wrong with those parts of his work that he feels are less than he’d like them to be. He goes to almost the same lengths to give credit to his collaborators for the contributions they made. (Of West Side Story’s lyrics, he says that Leonard Bernstein “came up with ‘Krup you!’ which may be the best lyric line in the show.”) His comments on collaborators extends beyond just those colleagues who wrote the books for the musicals for which he wrote both lyrics and music and the composers of those shows for which he wrote only lyrics. He also discusses those artists who directed or produced the works and a few of the performers who sang the songs. Jason Alexander can take the praise for his work in Merrily We Roll Along to the bank, while Robert Brustein, who as head of the Yale Rep oversaw the original production of The Frogs, may well hope no one reads pages 286-287.
While false modesty is absent from most of Sondheim’s comments, it would have been nice to find more places where he crows a bit about where he lived up to his own high standards. Instead, he often simply comments that this, that, or the other thing worked because of this, that, or the other factor – without staking a personal claim. Still, there is this note to the lyric “The Road You Didn’t Take” from Follies: “the last two lines make me glow with self-satisfaction.”
Sondheim digresses from time to time to give the reader a thumbnail sketch of his fellow occupants of the theatre song writing hall of gods and demi-gods and he makes clear which he feels are which. These include Yip Harburg, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin (“the most brilliant technicians of the Golden Age”) Frank Loesser (“able to perform the rare trick of sounding modestly conversational and brilliantly dextrous at the same time”) and, of course, his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II. Of Hammerstein’s lyrics he says “when they are at their best they are more than heartfelt and passionate, they are monumental.”
He’s pretty hard on Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin and Noël Coward (“the laziest of the pre-eminent lyricists”) but explains his position clearly and without any sense of rancor. Fans of each can take issue at will. He delves occasionally into those who composed music but didn’t write lyrics – of Harold Arlen he says his music “is always a thrill to hear and a pleasure to steal.” This, of course, was in a discussion of Follies which Sondheim calls “an orgy of pastiche.” The song “I’m Still Here” is an acknowledged homage to Arlen.
Of Jerome Kern, his admiration becomes clear when, in his discussion of song forms, including verse and chorus or refrain, Sondheim says “Jerome Kern used the lovely old-fashioned word ‘burthen’ instead of ‘refrain,’ which is why I publish my songs under the aegis of Burthen Music.”
He adds details to some already well known stories. An example is his story from the pre-Broadway tryout of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Washington’s National Theatre, with its famous case of show doctoring by Jerome Robbins. He reports that for one matinee before the change in the opening which worked wonders, “we played to barely more than 50 people in a 1,600-seat house.”
The lyrics in this volume are a source of great wonder and Sondheim places them in context so that their frequent strengths and rare weaknesses can be fully appreciated.