When I read that Stephen Sondheim had put out a book of his collected lyrics with some comments, I was pretty excited, going immediately to the public library website to request it. I’ve been fascinated by him as a lyricist and composer for quite a few years, and expected that to be able to get some of the inside dope would be thrilling. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the title is Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. (And it has lots of rehearsal and backstage photos, too, and pictures of original playbills.)
From childhood I have been a lover of Broadway musicals, although never fortunate enough to see one on Broadway, and since I date from a time when songs from successful musicals were on the radio and at the top of the pop charts, I know most of the lyrics from most of the shows. The old shows, that is. Of course, I noticed the difference when Sondheim’s lyrics came along, starting with West Side Story. I watched the Tony Awards every year and wondered who was this guy whose approach was so different, particularly with Pacific Overtures.
Anyway, I found the book hard to put down. I had it in my hand at every available moment over the next few days, staying up late at night to finish reading about a particular show. He starts out by saying that he is only going to speak critically of the work of people who are dead, for a very good reason: he himself has been “disdained both by journalists and by many of my songwriting elders and contemporaries as well.” Fair enough. But that still allows for plenty of comment on past composers and lyricists, and his takes are very interesting and technical. He does not gossip; he characterizes, picks apart, and analyzes works from Harold Arlen to Cole Porter (to give only a few examples).
He goes into lots of detail about rhyming, about how the song lyric differs from verse, and how each song should contain within itself a small story. He looks very carefully at words and phrases, sensitive to nuance, comparing and contrasting, and I found myself looking more carefully at what I said and wrote as a result.
The reader also learns some of the most important principles Sondheim was taught by his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, and how he succeeded (and failed) in applying them. He is critical of his own work (for example, “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story ), pointing out the weak spots and what he now thinks he should have done. He refers to some successful lyrics, too, but never goes overboard in giving himself credit. The book is so complete that he includes every show he ever wrote for, except for student work, up to 1981, ending with Merrily We Roll Along.
Fortunately, Sondheim hints pretty strongly that another book will be coming, focusing on his later works, and I certainly will be looking out for it.
- AUDIO: Sondheim his own harshest critic (cbc.ca)
- Finishing the Hat: The Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim by Stephen Sondheim – review (guardian.co.uk)
- “Finishing the Hat”: Stephen Sondheim’s magnificent musical memoir (salon.com)
- A Broadway Great Reveals His Secrets (thedailybeast.com)