Stephen Sondheim’s second volume of “Collected Lyrics with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany” titled “Look, I Made a Hat” has arrived just in time for either giving as a gift during the holiday season or sitting and reading during any time off a theatre lover has in a busy holiday month.
He begins, as he did the first volume, with a “Note to the Reader.” This one explains that this is, in fact, a second volume and that in the first, which was titled “Finishing the Hat,” he had laid down his views on such things as “rhyme, content, form, economy, detail, simplicity and other basics that I will be treating herein as assumed truths.” He suggests that “If you haven’t read it, it might be wise to do so before you read this one.”
The same might be said of my review of the first volume, for some of the observations on volume one apply equally to volume two. Here are the cogent points from it that apply equally to both volumes:
“To sit down and read it is akin to sitting down with Mr. Sondheim himself and having him tell you about his lyrics.”
“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.”
“Sondheim goes to great lengths between these covers to clearly explain just what he believes is wrong with those parts of his work that he feels are less than he’d like them to be. 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.”
These two volumes are essential for the well-furnished theatre shelf in anyone’s library. Volume one, covered the shows between his first effort to write for professional production, Saturday Night, and the flop that followed so many successes, Merrily We Roll Along. In between, you’ll find 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 and Sweeney Todd.
This new volume begins in the same mode, with chapters on each show in the same format giving an explanation of the notion behind the project, some general comments on the experience and what it meant in his career and all of the lyrics with occasional digressions to comment on one or another factor of a specific song or even just a line. The shows in volume two are are Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987), Assassins (1990), Passion (1994) and the often re-visited, re-worked and re-titled piece known first as Wise Guys (1998 & 1999), then as Bounce (2003) and finally as “Road Show (2008).
Having covered all of the shows that reached completion, Sondheim reaches back into projects that didn’t come to fruition as fully staged musicals with full scores by him but are, nonetheless, a significant part of his output. There are snippets from other musicals including the 1974 revival of Candide for which he provided some new lyrics and Sondheim on Sondheim, the 2010 revue for which he wrote that odd piece of self deprecating humor “God.”
There are songs he wrote for movies like 1990’s “Dick Tracy” (“More,” “Live Alone and Like It,” “Sooner or Later,” “What Can You Lose?” and “Back in Business”), television projects such as the 1966 half-hour musical “Evening Primrose,” and even songs for special occasions including a song he wrote for Lauren Bacall to sing to Leonard Bernstein at a gala 70th birthday bash.
If that isn’t enough to pry the purchase price ($45) from the hands of even the most parsimonious theater lover, Mr. Sondheim stops from time to time to deliver mini-essays on topics of interest to him and to us. He unburdens himself of some cogent – but one must admit balanced – criticism of theatre criticism. He has more than a few interesting observations on the usefulness of awards of which he has received many. He includes a thoroughly entertaining saga of his effort to write a love theme for Warren Beaty’s movie “Reds.” His comments in the digression on the importance of revivals to keep musical theater viable must be a treasure to one David Thaxton, an actor whose performance in Passion“was a revelation to Sondheim. To have “the master” write of your performance that it made an “eye opening difference” must be astonishing.
As was the case with the first volume, this one is illustrated with production photos, reproductions of both hand written drafts and typewritten lyrics with pencilled changes (one supposes each change was written by Sondheim with the Blackwings pencils he says are his favorite).
While all the asides, digressions, explanations and illustrations are delights, it is the lyrics themselves that are the treasure these volumes present. Sondheim’s lyrics are, as everyone who is familiar with them knows, extremely polished before they are ever released to public exposure. So too, is his prose in these two marvelous volumes, but it is the lyrics that are the source of greatest wonder.