Finishing the Hat

By STEPHEN SONDHEIM

For a sizabletribe of acolytes, there is much to worship, analyze, and debate in theself-effacing but nonetheless magnificent, altar-like structure that is StephenSondheim’s Finishing the Hat. In the same way that his sharply psychologicaland intellectually (as well as tonally) challenging musicals created a newarchetype for the Broadway theatre, this consistently compelling book—althoughburdened with an unfortunate spine-sprawling subhead that overly telegraphs hisintent: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) withAttendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes—attemptsto define a new form for a musical memoir, one that weaves biography,commentary, and exegesis. It succeeds with radiant intelligence and usuallycheerful intensity; Sondheim writes with expected clarity and objectivity, but withan unexpectedly open and humble mien. The authorial voice is not that of a manwith a brownstone full of accolades, but that of a man who has somethingmeaningful he wants to pass along after more than a half-century of closeobservation and diligent participation.

Thetitle and operating conceit is taken from a song in Sunday in the Park With George, a paean to the joys and anguish of creativity. “LookI made a hat / Where there never was hat,” sings George triumphantly atthe end of the song, a glorious act of completion that at least temporarilyshoves aside the personal wreckage manufactured along the way. No wonder that Sondheimhas chosen for his title “the only song I’ve written which is an immediateexpression of a personal internal experience.”

Finishing the Hat is as emotionally layered as his best plays, andglints with the same searching intelligence. The book is alive withorchestrated bursts of instruction, gossip, reflection, honest self-assessment,and gimlet-eyed criticism of Porter, Gershwin, Hart, Coward, and the rest ofour pantheon of lyricists—all of it gracefully harmonized and sung with astrong voice that is free of pedanticism. It’s a superbly plotted work of art,with Sondheim controlling the reader’s experience just as he controls anaudience’s.

Theauthor of these pages is impelled by a strong desire to tell his personal story—orat least the public side of hispersonal story—through the development of his art and his oeuvre. But he isequally motivated by the insistent tug of a responsibility, an urge to transferthe details of his craft, which he does with often brilliant explanatoryprecision (and in occasionally exculpatory detail, as he is wont to deconstructand sometimes justify his own failures). He writes with the elegiac rush of themaster of a rapidly dying art. Sondheim was, famously, mentored by OscarHammerstein (even though he often puts Oscar through the Oedipal wringer), andit often feels like he, lacking a parallel heir in his own life, hopes thatsomewhere out there is a young man or woman whom he can teach and touch withoutever looking upon: a projection upon his readers of the student he once was. Sondheimis so in love with the wonderment of words, and how they hold hands with musicand theatrical context, that he can’t stop himself from sharing what he’slearned: this is a memoir that’s also a master class that’s also a mission.

Fromthe first page of the introduction, Sondheim shatters the pretension thatlyrics are poetry, describing any “printed collection” of lyrics as a”dubious” proposition, because lyrics are lifelong partners withmelody, and hence meant to be sung, not read. He believes that the mostsuccessful examples are those that speak simply and directly, and disdains thosethat are “awash with florid imagery.” The former lyrics can soarpoetically when “infused with music” while the latter collapse underthe weight of their self-consciousness. To make the point, he uses two lyricsfrom Hammerstein, celebrating “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” for its profound,Frost-like plain-spokenness, and skewering a couplet from “All the ThingsYou Are,” arguing that Jerome Kern’s beautiful music ironically “makesthe extravagance of the words bathetic.”

Sondheimalso uses the introduction to reflect on the current state of musical theater.The tidings are grim: “I used to think that the need for live theaterwould never die; I fear I was wrong.” He categorizes it as a “fringeenthusiasm” and admits freely to the minimal cultural impact it now has.”The lyrics of contemporary popular song, of rock and rap and country, arethe ones which reflect the immediacy of our world, much as theater songs did inthe first half of the twentieth century. They are the sociologist’s totems….”

Heis both mournful and cutting in his ruminations on this theme, lampooningmusical theater as falling into three categories of uselessness: there is “stolid,solemn uplift equipped with impressive lumbering spectacle”—the nameAndrew Lloyd Webber does not have to be spoken to be heard—and there are “elaborateconcerts of familiar pop songs threaded along a story line.” The thirdcluster, a relatively new one, as Sondheim notes, is the “self-referential’metamusical,’ which makes fun of its betters by imitating their clichés whiledrawing attention to what it’s doing, thus justifying its lack of originalitywithout the risk of criticism.”

Withthat dismissal Sondheim gets to the heart of the post-modern problem, its useof artifice to avoid emotional openness and hence critical perspective. It’s oneof a long list of throwaway gifts this book delivers, many in footnotes as asignifier of his trust in the reader’s attentiveness.

Despitehis skepticism about the value of memorializing lyrics in print, Sondheimexcuses his own enterprise because his “largely conversational” lyrics”stand the chance of being an entertaining read.” (This conversationalquality is one of the highest lyrical values for him, which might shock some—morelikely, many—who view his songs as dazzling intellectual gamesmanship, distantfrom the vernacular or the emotional.) But Sondheim insists that the largerreason for this voluminous effort is that he cherishes mastery, believing that “theexplication of any craft, when articulated by a skilled practitioner, can benot only intriguing but also valuable, no matter what particularity the readermay be attracted to.” So, he reveals, while he doesn’t cook—and possessesno interest in the arts of the stove—he is a voracious reader of cookingcolumns, because the formal challenges of food preparation mirror those ofsongwriting: “Choices, decisions, and mistakes in every attempt to makesomething that wasn’t there before are essentially the same, and exploring oneset of them, I like to believe, may cast light on another.”

Ashort, spirited defense of rhyming follows the introduction. “Rhyme andIts Reasons” is both a charming lecture, replete with samples and examples,as well as a broadside against those who equate true rhyme (as opposed to nearor slant rhyme) ­with “stifling traditionalism,”and who associate “sloppy rhyming with emotional directness and thedefiance of restrictions.” He argues passionately for the role ofdiscipline in lyric writing, and all art forms: “Craft is supposed to serve the feeling” he instructs. Andhe writes more eloquently than most literary critics on the nuances ofcomposition: “There is something about the conscious use of form in anyart that says to the customer, ‘This is worth saying.’ Without form, the idea,the intention, and most important, theeffect, no matter how small in ambition, becomes flaccid.”

Wehave “lazy ears” Sondheim diagnoses, because “pop music has encouraged[listeners] to welcome vagueness and fuzziness, to exalt the poetic yearningsof random images. There are wonderful lines in pop lyrics, but they tend to beisolated from what surrounds them.” This belief in the necessity of situationalrelevance is pervasive; nothing is more important than truth in character andcontext. In one of his unbuttoned footnotes, Sondheim points out his own misuseof rhyming in his very first show, SaturdayNight, illustrating how, in the song “One Wonderful Day,” hecommits the “sin” of “substituting rhyme for thought” in anaccelerating, antiphonal exchange of adjectives between the characters Celesteand Bobby.

Thebulk of Finishing the Hat is devotedto thirteen plays, starting with the mid-1950s Saturday Night and ending with MerrilyWe Roll Along (1981). Included in the 27-year period are the plays thatestablished Sondheim’s reputation and marked his journey from the brilliant butrestless young lyricist who largely worked respectfully within Broadway’sconstraints—in West Side Story, Gypsy, A FunnyThings Happened on the Way to the Forum, and the failed Do I Hear a Waltz?—to break-out works of words set to his own music—likeCompany, Follies, and SweeneyTodd—which created a distinctive and celebrateduniverse of climate, character, and complexity.

Eachchapter intriguingly displays exhibits of Sondheim’s typed lyrics, often withhandwritten emendations. And each follows the same structure—a brief paragraphthat describes the premise of the play (what Sondheim calls “The Notion”),followed by “General Comments” that range from remarks on the circumstancesof the play’s production—including relevant gossip—to exacting lyrical analyses,which often become occasions for wonderful mini-essays. Consideration of “Havean Egg Roll, Mr. Goldstone” (from Gypsy)provides a lovely excuse for a digression about “list songs,”referencing Cole Porter and Yip Harburg, with astute appreciation of what makesgood lists incrementally witty, even when it means condemning his own jazzygamesmanship.

Ofspecial interest are the critiques of legendary lyricists that are nestedwithin every chapter. In his typically tight compositional fashion, there’salways a connection between the play under discussion and the particularsongwriter he appraises in counterpoint. For example, his examination of NoelCoward appears in the chapter on Follies,in which Sondheim recounts how he was looking for a stylistic referent for thesong “One More Kiss,” and eventually seized—unflatteringly—on Coward,because the Englishman’s syntax was so distant from conversation, and becausehis lyrics were “overstated, sentimental and ‘written’ rather thanexperienced.” Sondheim titles his lambasting of Coward “The Master ofBlather,” and offers a description of his patter songs—”always atdispassionate breakneck speed, every word clipped as if it were topiary inorder to give the impression of brilliance”—that is every bit as uproariouslyaccurate as anything Kenneth Tynan could write.

Noneof these essays on lyricists—not the one that takes apart Lorenz Hart as “thelaziest of the pre-eminent lyricists,” nor the one that knocks Alan JayLerner’s lyrics for not just lacking “personality,” but also beingabsent any “energy and flavor and passion”—are mean-spirited. WhenSondheim writes that he has never “laughed at or been moved by a Lernerlyric the way I have by many of his lesser-known peers,” he balances hisassessment by describing My Fair Lady as “the most entertaining musical I’ve ever seen(exclusive of my own, of course),” even if he means “entertaining”to be a very specific and limited form of praise.

Forall his innovation and experimentation, Sondheim is a disciplined formalist,with abiding principles. He writes that only three principles are necessary fora lyric writer, “all of them truisms.” They are “ContentDictates Form,” “Less is More,” and “God Is in the Details.”He describes the Six Sins of Lyric Writing, with examples from his own work—including”sonic ambiguity” and “architectural laziness.” He spends alot of time explaining structural dramatic problems and how he arrived atlyrical solutions. He explains with note-perfect clarity why “Attend the taleof Sweeney Todd’ works as an opening line, both linguistically and musically. Andfrom the same play, he provides a charming divagation about the importance ofinvented place names, and why “Kearney’s Lane” is superior to Kearney’s”street,” “square,” or “mews.” Like Frank Lloyd Wrightand other formal disciplinarians, Sondheim is a gifted minter of aphorisms:

“The only reason to write a show is for love—justnot too much of it.”

“Poetry is an art of concision, lyrics ofexpansion.”

“I don’t think that farces can be transformedinto musicals without damage—at least, not good musicals.”

Sondheimhas often been accused of a chilly remoteness in his work—which heacknowledges, professes surprise at, and attributes to how the brittlecharacters in Company clung to hisongoing reputation. This book’s coolly analytical eye could, ironically,contribute to that perception. But that would do Sondheim a profounddisservice; his ability to break a song down to its molecular level, to view itunder the microscope of creative objectivity—yes, there is such a thing—giveshim a truer understanding of the broken, beating heart that is assembled out ofthose elemental germ lines.

Sondheimhas also lived through too much, and worked with too many toweringpersonalities, to keep all those details to himself. So there are beguilingtidbits about his relationship with Leonard Bernstein—complicated butprofoundly respectful. Bernstein taught Sondheim how to “approach theatermusic more freely and less squarely” and to “ignore the math. Fourbars may be expected, but do you really need them all?” As for JeromeRobbins, the fiery choreographic genius of WestSide Story, well, he even intimidated Bernstein; in one incident Jerry’srefusal to compromise sent Bernstein to the closest bar, where Sondheimempathetically followed him.

 

Thetracery of Sondheim’s own development through each successive play, thedeepening of his art, his willingness to take the kind of gutsy artistic risksBernstein taught him to, and his ability to focus his heightened self-awarenesson every step of his impassioned career make this a rare and valuable portraitof the artist as a young and aging man.

Inthe final chapter, devoted to Merrily WeRoll Along, Sondheim writes that, other than “Finishingthe Hat,” the only other song drawn directly from his own experience is “OpeningDoors”—a show-business song about youth and possibility and compromise anddisappointment. “We’re banging on doors, / Shouting, “Here again! / We’rerisking it all on a dime” goes the final chorus. Sondheim writes that “thissong describes what the struggle was like for me and my generation of Broadwaysongwriters. I’m sure it must often have seemed frustrating at the time, but inretrospect it strikes me as the most exhilarating period of my professionallife.” How very Sondheim: he ends this long, ovation-worthy book with asong that starts at the beginning. Before there was a hat.

But,in truth, it’s far from the end. The last words of Finishing the Hat are: “And then I met James Lapine.”What lover of musical theater isn’t already queuing up for the second volume, theone that includes the hat itself?