Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes

( 14 )

Overview

Stephen Sondheim has won seven Tonys, an Academy Award, seven Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors. His career has spanned more than half a century, his lyrics have become synonymous with musical theater and popular culture, and in Finishing the Hat—titled after perhaps his most autobiographical song, from Sunday in the Park with George—Sondheim has not only collected his lyrics for the first time, he is giving readers a rare personal look into his life as ...
See more details below
Hardcover
$32.14
BN.com price
(Save 28%)$45.00 List Price

Pick Up In Store

Reserve and pick up in 60 minutes at your local store

Other sellers (Hardcover)
  • All (71) from $4.29   
  • New (9) from $15.79   
  • Used (62) from $4.29   
Sending request ...

Overview

Stephen Sondheim has won seven Tonys, an Academy Award, seven Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors. His career has spanned more than half a century, his lyrics have become synonymous with musical theater and popular culture, and in Finishing the Hat—titled after perhaps his most autobiographical song, from Sunday in the Park with George—Sondheim has not only collected his lyrics for the first time, he is giving readers a rare personal look into his life as well as his remarkable productions.

Along with the lyrics for all of his musicals from 1954 to 1981—including West Side Story, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd—Sondheim treats us to never-before-published songs from each show, songs that were cut or discarded before seeing the light of day. He discusses his relationship with his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, and his collaborations with extraordinary talents such as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Ethel Merman, Richard Rodgers, Angela Lansbury, Harold Prince and a panoply of others. The anecdotes—filled with history, pointed observations and intimate details—transport us back to a time when theater was a major pillar of American culture. Best of all, Sondheim appraises his work and dissects his lyrics, as well as those of others, offering unparalleled insights into songwriting that will be studied by fans and aspiring songwriters for years to come.

Accompanying Sondheim’s sparkling writing are behind-the-scenes photographs from each production, along with handwritten music and lyrics from the songwriter’s personal collection.

Penetrating and surprising, poignant, funny and sometimes provocative, Finishing the Hat is not only an informative look at the art and craft of lyric writing, it is a history of the theater that belongs on the same literary shelf as Moss Hart’s Act One and Arthur Miller’s Timebends. It is also a book that will leave you humming the final bars of Merrily We Roll Along, while eagerly anticipating the next volume, which begins with the opening lines of Sunday in the Park with George.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Ten years ago, The New York Times was already lauding Stephen Sondheim as "the Broadway musical's last greatest artist." Since this talented lyricist made his Great White Way debut in 1957's West Side Story, he has garnered seven Tonys, seven Grammys, an Oscar, and a Pulitzer Prize. Finishing the Hat (which takes its title from a song from Sunday in the Park with George) does what no book before it has: It collects the lyrics for all Sondheim productions from 1957 to 1981. Thus, it contains all his songs for West Side Story, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd. Just as importantly, this extraordinary book offers rare, even unique glimpses into his career and his creative relationships with Oscar Hammerstein II, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Ethel Merman, Richard Rodgers, Angela Lansbury, and others.

From the Publisher

"Finishing the Hat is a show stopper! If you love Stephen Sondheim, hate him, or never even heard of him, you'll still have a great ride—so take it! This book is filled with humor, controversy, stories about talented and glamorous people and, above all, life. And his lyrics! Everything you've ever wanted to know—about anything—is in those lyrics." —Phyllis Newman
 
 “There is so much to be learned and appreciated from Finishing the Hat. It's filled with fascinating, entertaining, unique and compelling lessons from a man who encompasses the essence of what is truly great about American Musical Theatre.” —Michael Feinstein
 
“Just as Stephen Sondheim is, without dispute, THE master lyricist for the theater of our generation (not to mention his superb music!), he now has written THE book on the art and craft of lyric writing. It is a book that will enrich and entertain anyone with an interest in music and theater, either as a life’s work or a life’s pleasure. It is like no other writing on the subject. It is Sondheim.” —Alan & Marilyn Bergman
 
“Seeing my first Sondheim musical, Follies, I was like the farm girl brought to the Homes of Tomorrow exhibit; breathless, nose pressed to the glass. This book takes the glass away. It’s a thrill to experience these shows again with Steve as your guide. What a gift to the theatre this book is! For actors, it's a must. For lyricists, it a primer.” —Joanna Gleason
 
“The book is a masterpiece. There never has been and never will be one like it. It is about the grain of sand that produces the pearl and is indeed as honest and simple as that pearl. If you pay attention to this book you could learn how to write a song, though not a great song. That is forever mysterious as genius will always be. The main lesson is that this particular genius is dead practical. All the hocus pocus attached to art has no meaning in the mind of Sondheim. You must read it to see what does matter to him and you will marvel and read it again. And then again.” —Mike Nichols
 
“Stephen Sondheim’s book can be read for pleasure, information, wisdom, humor or inspiration; all of the pleasures I received. Or because it tells a few secrets about how genius works.” —Stanley Donen

Library Journal
Musical theater lyricist and composer Sondheim (West Side Story; Sweeney Todd) has produced a delightful book melding lyrics, anecdotes, opinions, and whimsy that complements Mark Eden Horowitz's Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions. This volume is vintage Sondheim, in terms of lyrics (sometimes slightly altered from previous published versions), descriptions (Sondheim includes "The Notion" and a "General Comment" about each show), and assorted essays on musical theater luminaries. Sondheim is always entertaining when writing about both his own work and that of others. He pulls no punches: his statement, "Lorenz Hart is the laziest of the preeminent lyricists," is followed by a closely argued examination of Hart's lyrics. The book begins with several general sections ("Introduction" and "Rhyme and Its Reasons") and includes numerous photographs and an index of songs. Verdict Highly recommended. [Ebook; four-city tour; 75,000-copy first printing.]—Bruce R. Schueneman, Texas A&M Univ. Lib., Kingsville

(c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Ben Brantley
What's so great about Finishing the Hat, the new book on songwriting by Stephen Sondheim, is implicit in its title. This self-portrait of the artist as an obsessive lyricist is about a dynamic, unending process; it's about finishing, not having finished. And the mental energy this process emanates is enough to give a reader a satisfying case of brain burn…If you're a fan of [musicals], how can you not feel privileged to eavesdrop on [Sondheim's] dialogue with his own words?
—The New York Times
Paul Simon
Finishing the Hat…is essentially about process, the process of writing songs for theater. Performing acts of literary self-criticism can be a tricky business, akin to being one's own dentist, but Sondheim's analysis of his songs and those of others is both stinging and insightful. Nevertheless, he successfully avoids the traps of a self-inflated ego and, with one delicious exception…of savoring the pleasure of revenge upon an "unprofessional" outsider. After reading Finishing the Hat, I felt as if I had taken a master class in how to write a musical. A class given by the theater's finest living songwriter.
—The New York Times Book Review
The Barnes & Noble Review

For a sizable tribe of acolytes, there is much to worship, analyze, and debate in the self-effacing but nonetheless magnificent, altar-like structure that is Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat. In the same way that his sharply psychological and intellectually (as well as tonally) challenging musicals created a new archetype for the Broadway theatre, this consistently compelling book -- although burdened with an unfortunate spine-sprawling subhead that overly telegraphs his intent: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes -- attempts to define a new form for a musical memoir, one that weaves biography, commentary, and exegesis. It succeeds with radiant intelligence and usually cheerful intensity; Sondheim writes with expected clarity and objectivity, but with an unexpectedly open and humble mien. The authorial voice is not that of a man with a brownstone full of accolades, but that of a man who has something meaningful he wants to pass along after more than a half-century of close observation and diligent participation.

The title and operating conceit is taken from a song in Sunday in the Park With George, a paean to the joys and anguish of creativity. "Look I made a hat / Where there never was hat," sings George triumphantly at the end of the song, a glorious act of completion that at least temporarily shoves aside the personal wreckage manufactured along the way. No wonder that Sondheim has chosen for his title "the only song I've written which is an immediate expression of a personal internal experience."

Finishing the Hat is as emotionally layered as his best plays, and glints with the same searching intelligence. The book is alive with orchestrated bursts of instruction, gossip, reflection, honest self-assessment, and gimlet-eyed criticism of Porter, Gershwin, Hart, Coward, and the rest of our pantheon of lyricists -- all of it gracefully harmonized and sung with a strong 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 an audience's.

The author of these pages is impelled by a strong desire to tell his personal story -- or at least the public side of his personal story -- through the development of his art and his oeuvre. But he is equally motivated by the insistent tug of a responsibility, an urge to transfer the details of his craft, which he does with often brilliant explanatory precision (and in occasionally exculpatory detail, as he is wont to deconstruct and sometimes justify his own failures). He writes with the elegiac rush of the master of a rapidly dying art. Sondheim was, famously, mentored by Oscar Hammerstein (even though he often puts Oscar through the Oedipal wringer), and it often feels like he, lacking a parallel heir in his own life, hopes that somewhere out there is a young man or woman whom he can teach and touch without ever looking upon: a projection upon his readers of the student he once was. Sondheim is so in love with the wonderment of words, and how they hold hands with music and theatrical context, that he can't stop himself from sharing what he's learned: this is a memoir that's also a master class that's also a mission.

From the first page of the introduction, Sondheim shatters the pretension that lyrics are poetry, describing any "printed collection" of lyrics as a "dubious" proposition, because lyrics are lifelong partners with melody, and hence meant to be sung, not read. He believes that the most successful examples are those that speak simply and directly, and disdains those that are "awash with florid imagery." The former lyrics can soar poetically when "infused with music" while the latter collapse under the weight of their self-consciousness. To make the point, he uses two lyrics from Hammerstein, celebrating "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" for its profound, Frost-like plain-spokenness, and skewering a couplet from "All the Things You Are," arguing that Jerome Kern's beautiful music ironically "makes the extravagance of the words bathetic."

Sondheim also 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 theater would never die; I fear I was wrong." He categorizes it as a "fringe enthusiasm" and admits freely to the minimal cultural impact it now has. "The lyrics of contemporary popular song, of rock and rap and country, are the ones which reflect the immediacy of our world, much as theater songs did in the first half of the twentieth century. They are the sociologist's totems…."

He is both mournful and cutting in his ruminations on this theme, lampooning musical theater as falling into three categories of uselessness: there is "stolid, solemn uplift equipped with impressive lumbering spectacle" -- the name Andrew Lloyd Webber does not have to be spoken to be heard -- and there are "elaborate concerts of familiar pop songs threaded along a story line." The third cluster, a relatively new one, as Sondheim notes, is the "self-referential 'metamusical,' which makes fun of its betters by imitating their clichés while drawing attention to what it's doing, thus justifying its lack of originality without the risk of criticism."

With that dismissal Sondheim gets to the heart of the post-modern problem, its use of artifice to avoid emotional openness and hence critical perspective. It's one of a long list of throwaway gifts this book delivers, many in footnotes as a signifier of his trust in the reader's attentiveness.

Despite his skepticism about the value of memorializing lyrics in print, Sondheim excuses his own enterprise because his "largely conversational" lyrics "stand the chance of being an entertaining read." (This conversational quality is one of the highest lyrical values for him, which might shock some -- more likely, many -- who view his songs as dazzling intellectual gamesmanship, distant from the vernacular or the emotional.) But Sondheim insists that the larger reason for this voluminous effort is that he cherishes mastery, believing that "the explication of any craft, when articulated by a skilled practitioner, can be not only intriguing but also valuable, no matter what particularity the reader may be attracted to." So, he reveals, while he doesn't cook -- and possesses no interest in the arts of the stove -- he is a voracious reader of cooking columns, because the formal challenges of food preparation mirror those of songwriting: "Choices, decisions, and mistakes in every attempt to make something that wasn't there before are essentially the same, and exploring one set of them, I like to believe, may cast light on another."

A short, spirited defense of rhyming follows the introduction. "Rhyme and Its 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 near or slant rhyme) ­with "stifling traditionalism," and who associate "sloppy rhyming with emotional directness and the defiance of restrictions." He argues passionately for the role of discipline in lyric writing, and all art forms: "Craft is supposed to serve the feeling" he instructs. And he writes more eloquently than most literary critics on the nuances of composition: "There is something about the conscious use of form in any art that says to the customer, 'This is worth saying.' Without form, the idea, the intention, and most important, the effect, no matter how small in ambition, becomes flaccid."

We have "lazy ears" Sondheim diagnoses, because "pop music has encouraged [listeners] to welcome vagueness and fuzziness, to exalt the poetic yearnings of random images. There are wonderful lines in pop lyrics, but they tend to be isolated from what surrounds them." This belief in the necessity of situational relevance is pervasive; nothing is more important than truth in character and context. In one of his unbuttoned footnotes, Sondheim points out his own misuse of rhyming in his very first show, Saturday Night, illustrating how, in the song "One Wonderful Day," he commits the "sin" of "substituting rhyme for thought" in an accelerating, antiphonal exchange of adjectives between the characters Celeste and Bobby.

The bulk of Finishing the Hat is devoted to thirteen plays, starting with the mid-1950s Saturday Night and ending with Merrily We Roll Along (1981). Included in the 27-year period are the plays that established Sondheim's reputation and marked his journey from the brilliant but restless young lyricist who largely worked respectfully within Broadway's constraints -- in West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Things 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 -- like Company, Follies, and Sweeney Todd -- which created a distinctive and celebrated universe of climate, character, and complexity.

Each chapter intriguingly displays exhibits of Sondheim's typed lyrics, often with handwritten emendations. And each follows the same structure -- a brief paragraph that describes the premise of the play (what Sondheim calls "The Notion"), followed by "General Comments" that range from remarks on the circumstances of the play's production -- including relevant gossip -- to exacting lyrical analyses, which often become occasions for wonderful mini-essays. Consideration of "Have an 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 makes good lists incrementally witty, even when it means condemning his own jazzy gamesmanship.

Of special interest are the critiques of legendary lyricists that are nested within every chapter. In his typically tight compositional fashion, there's always a connection between the play under discussion and the particular songwriter he appraises in counterpoint. For example, his examination of Noel Coward appears in the chapter on Follies, in which Sondheim recounts how he was looking for a stylistic referent for the song "One More Kiss," and eventually seized -- unflatteringly -- on Coward, because the Englishman's syntax was so distant from conversation, and because his lyrics were "overstated, sentimental and 'written' rather than experienced." Sondheim titles his lambasting of Coward "The Master of Blather," and offers a description of his patter songs -- "always at dispassionate breakneck speed, every word clipped as if it were topiary in order to give the impression of brilliance" -- that is every bit as uproariously accurate as anything Kenneth Tynan could write.

None of these essays on lyricists -- not the one that takes apart Lorenz Hart as "the laziest of the pre-eminent lyricists," nor the one that knocks Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics for not just lacking "personality," but also being absent any "energy and flavor and passion" -- are mean-spirited. When Sondheim writes that he has never "laughed at or been moved by a Lerner lyric the way I have by many of his lesser-known peers," he balances his assessment 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.

For all his innovation and experimentation, Sondheim is a disciplined formalist, with abiding principles. He writes that only three principles are necessary for a lyric writer, "all of them truisms." They are "Content Dictates 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 a lot of time explaining structural dramatic problems and how he arrived at lyrical solutions. He explains with note-perfect clarity why "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd' works as an opening line, both linguistically and musically. And from the same play, he provides a charming divagation about the importance of invented place names, and why "Kearney's Lane" is superior to Kearney's "street," "square," or "mews." Like Frank Lloyd Wright and other formal disciplinarians, Sondheim is a gifted minter of aphorisms:

"The only reason to write a show is for love -- just not too much of it."

"Poetry is an art of concision, lyrics of expansion."

"I don't think that farces can be transformed into musicals without damage -- at least, not good musicals."

Sondheim has often been accused of a chilly remoteness in his work -- which he acknowledges, professes surprise at, and attributes to how the brittle characters in Company clung to his ongoing reputation. This book's coolly analytical eye could, ironically, contribute to that perception. But that would do Sondheim a profound disservice; his ability to break a song down to its molecular level, to view it under the microscope of creative objectivity -- yes, there is such a thing -- gives him a truer understanding of the broken, beating heart that is assembled out of those elemental germ lines.

Sondheim has also lived through too much, and worked with too many towering personalities, to keep all those details to himself. So there are beguiling tidbits about his relationship with Leonard Bernstein -- complicated but profoundly respectful. Bernstein taught Sondheim how to "approach theater music more freely and less squarely" and to "ignore the math. Four bars may be expected, but do you really need them all?" As for Jerome Robbins, the fiery choreographic genius of West Side Story, well, he even intimidated Bernstein; in one incident Jerry's refusal to compromise sent Bernstein to the closest bar, where Sondheim empathetically followed him.

The tracery of Sondheim's own development through each successive play, the deepening of his art, his willingness to take the kind of gutsy artistic risks Bernstein taught him to, and his ability to focus his heightened self-awareness on every step of his impassioned career make this a rare and valuable portrait of the artist as a young and aging man.

In the final chapter, devoted to Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim writes that, other than "Finishing the Hat," the only other song drawn directly from his own experience is "Opening Doors" -- a show-business song about youth and possibility and compromise and disappointment. "We're banging on doors, / Shouting, "Here again! / We're risking it all on a dime" goes the final chorus. Sondheim writes that "this song describes what the struggle was like for me and my generation of Broadway songwriters. I'm sure it must often have seemed frustrating at the time, but in retrospect it strikes me as the most exhilarating period of my professional life." How very Sondheim: he ends this long, ovation-worthy book with a song 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, the one that includes the hat itself?

--Adam Hanft

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679439073
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/26/2010
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 364,518
  • Product dimensions: 8.40 (w) x 11.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim has written award-winning music and lyrics for theater, film and television. He is also the coauthor of the film The Last of Sheila and the play Getting Away with Murder. Sondheim is on the council of the Dramatists Guild of America, having served as its president from 1973 to 1981. He lives in New York City.
Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

This book is a contradiction in terms. Theater lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung, and sung as parts of a larger structure: musical comedy, musical play, revue—“musical” will suffice. Furthermore, almost all of the lyrics in these pages were written not just to be sung but to be sung in particular musicals by individual characters in specific situations. A printed collection of them, bereft of their dramatic circumstances and the music which gives them life, is a dubious proposition. Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems. Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung. Some lyrics, awash with florid imagery, pre - sent themselves as poetry, but music only underscores (yes) the self-consciousness of the effort. In theatrical fact, it is usually the plainer and flatter lyric that soars poetically when infused with music. Oscar Hammerstein II’s

Oh, what a beautiful mornin’,

Oh, what a beautiful day.

I got a beautiful feelin’

Ev’rythin’s goin’ my way!

is much more evocative than this couplet from his “All the Things You Are”:

You are the promised kiss of springtime

That makes the lonely winter seem long.

The first, buoyed by Richard Rodgers’s airy music, sounds as profoundly simple (especially if you ignore the dialect) as something by Robert Frost. The second sounds even more overripe than it is in print, given Jerome Kern’s setting, which merely by being music—and beautiful music, unfortunately—makes the extravagance of the words bathetic.

Poetry is an art of concision, lyrics of expansion. Poems depend on packed images, on resonance and juxtaposition, on density. Every reader absorbs a poem at his own pace, inflecting it with his own rhythms, stresses and tone. The tempo is dictated less by what the poet intends than by the reader’s comprehension. All of us, as we read poetry (prose, too), slow down, speed up, even stop to reread when overwhelmed by the extravagance of the images or confused by the grammatical eccentricities. The poet may guide us with punctuation and layout and seduce us with the subtle abutment of words and sounds, but it is we who supply the musical treatment.

Poetry can be set to music gracefully, as Franz Schubert and a long line of others have proved, but the music benefits more from the poem which gives it structure than the poem does from the music, which often distorts not only the poet’s phrasing but also the language itself, clipping syllables short or extending them into nearunintelligibility. Music straitjackets a poem and prevents it from breathing on its own, whereas it liberates a lyric. Poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do.

Lyrics are not light verse, either. Light verse doesn’t demand music because it supplies its own. All those emphatic rhythms, ringing rhymes, repeated refrains: the poem sings as it’s being read. Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” percolates with unwritten music so strong that I would guess everybody reads it at the same trotting pace. In fact light verse, like “serious” poetry, is dimin ished by being set to music. Music either thuddingly underlines the dum-de-dum rhythms or willfully deforms them, trying to disguise the very singsong quality that gives the verse its character. This is why “The Pied Piper” has never been set well: take away the singsong and you destroy the poem, keep it in the music and you bore the listener mercilessly with rhythmic repetition. Music tends to hammer light verse into monotony or shatter its grace. It would seem easy to set Dorothy Parker’s famous “Comment” to music:

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,

A medley of extemporanea;

And love is a thing that can never go wrong;

And I am Marie of Roumania.

The trouble is that she’s already done it. The jauntiness of the rhythm perfectly balances the wry self-pity of the words. Music doesn’t understate, that’s not its job: its job is to emphasize and support the words or, as in opera, dominate them. Thus any accompaniment, whether light or lyrical, is likely either to turn Parker’s irony into a joke or to drown it in sentimentality. Light verse is complete unto itself. Lyrics by definition lack something; if they don’t, they’re probably not good lyrics.

When it comes to theater songs, the composer is in charge. Performers can color a lyric with phrasing and rubato (rhythmic fluidity), but it’s the melody which dictates the lyric’s rhythms and pauses and inflections, the accompaniment which sets the pace and tone. These specific choices control our emotional response, just as a movie director’s camera controls it by restricting our point of view, forcing us to look at the details he wants us to notice. For the songwriter, it’s a matter of what phrase, what word, he wants us to focus on; for the director, what face, what gesture. An actor singing “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ ” might want to emphasize “beautiful,” but Rodgers forces him to emphasize “mornin’ ” by setting the word on the strongest beat in the measure and the highest note in the melody. Song stylists— club singers, recording artists, jazz vocalists and the like—often take liberties with lyric phrasings and tempos, but the music restricts their choices. This is not always a good thing: The unlucky lady who has to sing “Seven to midnight I hear drums” from Rodgers and Hart’s “Ten Cents a Dance” is forced to sing “hear drums” no matter how she squirms. The same holds true for anyone singing “It Never Entered My Mind” in the same team’s Higher and Higher; she has to make “And order orange juice for one,” sound natural. The songwriter sets the emphasis, for good or for ill.

Another thing about music is that it isn’t explicit. Play a recording of Debussy’s La Mer for someone who hasn’t heard it and ask what it brings to mind. The reply will seldom be “The sea!,” although in Music Appreciation courses that’s what is taught. True enough, over the years certain orchestral sounds have come to be associated with specific emotions, especially in the movies (saxophones for sexiness, bassoons for clumsiness, flutes for happiness), just as certain instrumental themes resonate immediately from repeated exposure: Alfred Newman’s title music from Street Scene evokes New York, just as “Dixie” evokes the South and “La Marseillaise,” France. Still, music is abstract and its function in song is to fulfill what it accompanies; poems are fulfilled all by themselves. Under spoken text, music is background, atmosphere and mood and nothing more.

In song, music is an equal partner. Hammerstein, like all good lyricists, not only understood but counted on the power of music to glorify the understatement of his language, a collaborative surrender which poets who write for musical theater tend to underestimate or resist. Professional lyricists recognize music’s capacity not only to make a lyric vibrate, but also to smother it to death. If a lyric is too full of itself, as in “All the Things You Are,” music can make it muddy or grandiose. The lyrics of Maxwell
Anderson, Truman Capote, Anthony Burgess and Langston Hughes, to name some of the most prominent crossover poets, fall into this trap. Their lyrics convey the aura of a royal visit: they announce the presence of the writer. When the stories deal with exotic times or cultures, as in Burgess’s lyrics for Cyrano and Capote’s for House of Flowers, the self- consciousness can be acceptable, but when the characters are supposed to be speaking in the vernacular, as in Hughes’s Street Scene and Anderson’s Lost in the Stars, the lyrics become faintly but persistently ludicrous.

It’s the music that does them in. Poets tend to be poor lyricists because their verse has its own inner music and doesn’t make allowance for the real thing. The two great exceptions are DuBose Heyward’s lyrics in Porgy and Bess and Richard Wilbur’s in Candide. Their work bespeaks an understanding not only of how music operates with words, but of how words operate in drama. They know how to combine the density of poetry with the openness of lyrics and still not intrude their own selves into the characters. I hasten to add that intrusion is a problem for non- poet lyricists as well. To cite a favorite example of my own, from West Side Story: “It’s alarming / How charming / I feel,” sings Maria, a lower- class Puerto Rican girl who has been brought up on street argot and whose brother is a gang leader, but who suddenly sings the smoothly rhymed and coyly elegant phrases of a character from a Noël Coward operetta because the lyricist wants to show off his rhyming skills.

In opera, density is less of a problem because text occupies a back seat. Usually, the lyrics matter minimally except when necessary to carry the plot forward, and most operas have very little plot to carry— traditionally, the drama is supposed to be carried by the music. The lyrics by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman for The Rake’s Progress read gracefully and sing unintelligibly, not only because Stravinsky distorts them but because they’re too packed for the listener to comprehend in the time allotted for hearing them. If poetry is the art of saying a lot in a little, lyric- writing is the art of finding the right balance between saying too much and not enough. Bad lyrics can be either so packed that they become impenetrable or so loose that they’re uninteresting.

Most lyrics written in my generation and the generations before me do not make for good reading. Nostalgists for what is popularly termed the Golden Age of Musicals (1925–1960), who appreciate how good many of the songs were and ignore how terrible most of the shows were, might disagree; but even they, I hope, would have to admit that prior to the late 1930s lyrics tended to be generalized and gooey (“You Are Love”—Hammerstein), arch and gooey (“I’ll Follow My Secret Heart”—Coward), strenuously effortful (“Lover, when I’m near you / And I hear you / Speak my name, / Softly, in my ear you / Breathe a flame”—Hart), convoluted (“Into Heaven I’m hurled”—Ira Gershwin) or at best unadorned and repetitious (“I’ll be loving you always / With a love that’s true always”—Irving Berlin), all of them perfectly satisfactory for theater songs of the time, but uninteresting or wince making on the page.

The curious thing is that it was Hart, Berlin, Cole Porter and their contemporaries who ushered in a colloquial revolution; they instilled the way we actually speak into the formalized artifice of theater songwriting. But it was Hammerstein, experimenting with the dramatic equivalent of this in Show Boat (1927), who made the first serious attempt to focus on unique feelings of individual characters in specific situations through the lens of a realistic, although period, vernacular— and all in a show which dealt with taboo subjects such as racial prejudice and miscegenation. The attempt was important, even if the results, by today’s standards, were fairly generic. Ironically, Show Boat was so startlingly different for its time that, despite its success, it didn’t have much immediate effect on other writers. They were too comfortable with traditional musical comedy to think in terms of creating songs to fit characters because there were no characters in musical comedy, only personalities. It wasn’t until Oklahoma! (1943) that Hammerstein’s influence flowered.

The one great pre-Oklahoma! exception, of course, was Porgy and Bess. DuBose Heyward’s lyrics and George Gershwin’s music completely individualized characters for the first time in Broadway musical history. If the show had been presented in an opera house, perhaps it mightn’t now seem to have been such an extraordinary event. In its time, as a commercially presented musical,
few noticed how subtly and elegantly written the piece was, least of all the critics, who generally panned it. This was because the characters were so much more powerful than their predecessors (including the shallow, romanticized figures in Show Boat) and because Heyward didn’t come out of a songwriter’s tradition but out of a poetplaywright’s, much like Lorenzo Da Ponte, who was
Mozart’s librettist, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who was Strauss’s. Unlike Anderson, Capote and the other poetplaywrights who wrote musicals, Heyward under stood the difference between character and characteristics; the lyrics sounded like heightened natural speech rather than self-advertised “poetry.”

With Oklahoma!, though, Hammerstein fired the shot heard round the musical-theater world. The show was such a gigantic financial triumph that other writers not only noticed, they took notes. They scrambled to get on board, and before long “musical comedy” morphed into “musical play,” a development that has turned out to be a mixed blessing. Even today, a lot of people (including critics) deplore the loss of what they see as the lighthearted silliness of the old musicals. For songwriters and playwrights, however, involving an audience in a story with singing characters who are more than skin deep is much more interesting work. Rodgers and Hammerstein spoiled musical theater for the rest of us sloggers in the field— or saved it, depending on your point of view.

Even the lyrics in the enlightened post- Oklahoma! era, however, tend in print to seem simple and threadbare, homiletic or tortuously clever. A number of lyrics by Cole Porter and E. Y. Harburg come to life on the page because of their formal brilliance; a few others, particularly those of Frank Loesser and Dorothy Fields, read easily because of their unforced conversational energy. Still, most have nowhere near as much effect as when they’re accompanied by their indispensable musical partner and performed by singers who know what they’re doing. The vast majority lie dead on the page until sung, at which point they spring instantaneously to life (some of them, anyway).

Why a book of lyrics, then? Especially theater lyrics, which are a fringe enthusiasm at best, considering their tiny impact on what is currently coming out of people’s earphones or the bar down the block or the car blasting by. The lyrics of contemporary popular song, of rock and rap and country, are the ones which reflect the immediacy of our world, much as theater songs did in the first half of the twentieth century. They are the sociologist’s totems, and studies of them have resulted in an inundation of essays and books, not to mention college courses. Live theater itself is at most an ancillary part of American culture these days. Ever since the advent of movies and television, theatergoing has increasingly become either a dutiful activity for a dwindling, aging audience or an occasional festive night out, the purchase of hard-to-get tickets being its greatest pleasure. Broadway theater, formerly the fount of new American plays, has for many years been focused predominantly on musicals, chiefly two kinds: stolid solemn uplift equipped with impressive lumbering spectacle, and elaborate concerts of familiar pop songs threaded along a story line, a genre familiarly known as the “jukebox musical,” which the critic Stephen Holden has characterized as “karaoke hell.” (As I write this, a third kind has recently overrun the theater like kudzu: the self-referential “metamusical,” which makes fun of its betters by imitating their clichés while drawing attention to what it’s doing, thus justifying its lack of originality without the risk of criticism.) Off-Broadway and regional musicals are numerous and often adventurous, but even they are only part of a cottage industry with fewer new cottages and more refurbished ones every season.

Happily, schools still persist in putting on plays. Performing live theater still seems to be fun for young people. Nevertheless, rock concerts are their theater of choice, and even that territory is succumbing in popularity to more passive forms: movies, television and the Internet. I used to think that the need for live theater would never die; I fear I was wrong.

So once again, why collect these lyrics and make this book? Because a publisher asked me to; because it offered me the opportunity to append these comments on a craft I know a great deal about; because most of the lyrics are conversational and therefore stand the chance of being an entertaining read; but mostly because I think the explication of any craft, when articulated by an experienced practitioner, can be not only intriguing but also valuable, no matter what particularity the reader may be attracted to. For example, I don’t cook, nor do I want to, but I read cooking columns with intense and explicit interest. The technical details echo those which challenge a songwriter: timing, balance, form, surface versus substance, and all the rest of it. They resonate for me even though I have no desire to braise, parboil or sauté. Similarly, I hope, the specific techniques of lyricwriting will enlighten the cook who reads these pages. Choices, decisions and mistakes in every attempt to make something that wasn’t there before are essentially the same, and exploring one set of them, I like to believe, may cast light on another. Since most of the lyrics which follow belong in the mouths of particular characters in particular situations, characters who are only partly knowable without the context of the dialogue and actions in their stories, I’ve included synopses to introduce each show and each song. These are shadows, however, not substance. With few exceptions, every lyric in this collection is prompted by the beginning, middle or end of a culmination of incidents before it, incidents of which the reader is likely to be unaware. For example, “In Buddy’s Eyes” (from Follies) loses much of its tone and all of its subtext when disconnected from the placid surface of its music and the scenes and dialogue which have preceded it. How can we know what Sally means or what she’s trying not to say, without knowing Sally? It’s as if we were asked to know Hamlet from his soliloquies alone, for what are solo songs but musicalized soliloquies, encapsulated moments even when addressed to other characters? Lyrics without the scenes from which they sprout, at least the ones in this book, are just as incomplete as lyrics without music.

Some songs, of course, are small scenes in themselves. I’ve been asked many times why I don’t write the books for my own musicals, since I treat lyrics as short plays whenever I can. The key word in that sentence is “short.” I’m by nature a playwright, but without the necessary basic skill: the ability to tell a story that holds an audience’s attention for more than a few minutes. Writing plays is, in my view, the most difficult of the literary arts. A play has to be as packed and formally controlled as a sonnet, but roomy enough to let the actors and the stagecraft in. Packed but loose, like a good lyric. Poets rarely have to deal with plot; novelists never have to deal with actors. A playwright has to deal with both and still make the result immediate enough to grip an audience for, on the average, two and a half hours. (That usually includes an intermission, where he loses them for fifteen minutes and has to woo them back.) I like to think I can hold their interest with short forms: playlets which are called songs. The longest I’ve written is the opening number of Into the Woods, a mere twelve- minute sequence, and that includes a good deal of dialogue. I’m in awe of good playwrights, even when I don’t like the plays, and ever since the day I started working with my first professional collaborator and learned what went into the craft of playwriting, I have never tried to do it alone.

Actually, I’ve wanted to set these observations in print for years. I like to pontificate as much as anyone who thinks he knows what he’s talking about, but I’ve done it only when being interviewed or when arguing with other songwriters. My reluctance to write them down, apart from the universal writer’s reluctance to write anything down, is two-pronged. To begin with, lyrics are such a small and specialized art form that they hardly seem worth lengthy public comment. Moreover, why not let them speak (sing) for themselves? Examining songs like the ones in these pages in light of how swiftly stencils change in popular art is not only a stroll down Memory Lane, it smacks of archeology. The counterargument in both cases is the same: any art, no matter how small, is a form of teaching, and for me teaching is a sacred profession. My intellectual life, and to some extent my personal one as well, was guided and changed by teachers: Lucille Pollock, a Latin teacher in ninth grade; Robert Barrow, professor of music at Williams College; and Milton Babbitt, with whom I studied composition after graduating from college. Not to mention my immediate mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, and every other collaborator I’ve worked with. Reading about how someone else practices a craft, no matter how individual or arcane— designing roller coasters, managing hedge funds, harvesting salt— if it’s detailed, clear and the writer is passionate about his pursuit, can be not just mesmerizing but enlightening. It is the best kind of teaching. In my case, writing lyrics for the theater is such a craft and I would like to pass my knowledge of it on, just as Oscar passed his on to me.

There is, however, a third reluctance: How can you comment critically on someone’s work without hurting the writer whose work you’re dissecting? My answer is cowardly but simple: criticize only the dead. I have never believed in “de mortuis nil nisi bonum”; speaking ill exclusively of the dead seems to me the gentlemanly thing to do. The subject cannot be personally hurt, and his reputation is unlikely to be affected by anything you say, whereas publicly passing judgment on living writers is both hurtful and stifling— I speak from experience, as someone who has been disdained both by journalists and by many of my songwriting elders and contemporaries as well. Don’t look in these pages for critical opinions of the work of anybody but myself and those who can no longer defend themselves— but who also cannot be upset by anything I have to say. As for my own lyrics, I hope to be able to point out their virtues as well as their flaws. Self-deprecation is easy, selfpraise has a bad reputation and is hard for a nice upper-middle-class boy like me who was brought up not to boast.

What you can look for, when helpful, are plot, scene and character descriptions, mixed in with a few anecdotes, to help place each lyric in its appropriate setting, both theatrical and real. They’re no substitute for the music, but they may give the lyric a bit more life. What you shouldn’t look for is much gossip— I can promise a little, but not a cornucopia. Gossip depends on memory, and now that I’ve waited so long to set things down on paper, I don’t trust it. Fully aware of the distortions that even yesterday’s memory can engender, I’ve checked the anecdotes and histories accompanying the songs with whoever is alive and still compos mentis.

So now, as Portnoy’s psychiatrist said, vee may perhaps to begin, yes?

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Note to the Reader

Cast of Characters

Preface

Introduction

Rhyme and its Reasons

1 Saturday Night 3

2 West Side Story 25

3 Gypsy 55

4 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum 79

5 Anyone Can Whistle 111

6 Do I Hear a Waltz? 141

7 Company 165

8 Follies 199

9 A Little Night Music 251

10 The Frogs 285

11 Pacific Overtures 303

12 Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street 331

13 Merrily We Roll Along 379

Acknowledgements 423

Appendix: Original Broadway Productions 425

Index of Songs 431

Subject Index 437

Read More Show Less

First Chapter

Finishing the Hat

Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
By Stephen Sondheim

Knopf

Copyright © 2010 Stephen Sondheim
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780679439073

This book is a contradiction in terms. Theater lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung, and sung as parts of a larger structure: musical comedy, musical play, revue—“musical” will suffice. Furthermore, almost all of the lyrics in these pages were written not just to be sung but to be sung in particular musicals by individual characters in specific situations. A printed collection of them, bereft of their dramatic circumstances and the music which gives them life, is a dubious proposition. Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems. Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung. Some lyrics, awash with florid imagery, pre - sent themselves as poetry, but music only underscores (yes) the self-consciousness of the effort. In theatrical fact, it is usually the plainer and flatter lyric that soars poetically when infused with music. Oscar Hammerstein II’s

Oh, what a beautiful mornin’,

Oh, what a beautiful day.

I got a beautiful feelin’

Ev’rythin’s goin’ my way!


is much more evocative than this couplet from his “All the Things You Are”:

You are the promised kiss of springtime

That makes the lonely winter seem long.


The first, buoyed by Richard Rodgers’s airy music, sounds as profoundly simple (especially if you ignore the dialect) as something by Robert Frost. The second sounds even more overripe than it is in print, given Jerome Kern’s setting, which merely by being music—and beautiful music, unfortunately—makes the extravagance of the words bathetic.

Poetry is an art of concision, lyrics of expansion. Poems depend on packed images, on resonance and juxtaposition, on density. Every reader absorbs a poem at his own pace, inflecting it with his own rhythms, stresses and tone. The tempo is dictated less by what the poet intends than by the reader’s comprehension. All of us, as we read poetry (prose, too), slow down, speed up, even stop to reread when overwhelmed by the extravagance of the images or confused by the grammatical eccentricities. The poet may guide us with punctuation and layout and seduce us with the subtle abutment of words and sounds, but it is we who supply the musical treatment.

Poetry can be set to music gracefully, as Franz Schubert and a long line of others have proved, but the music benefits more from the poem which gives it structure than the poem does from the music, which often distorts not only the poet’s phrasing but also the language itself, clipping syllables short or extending them into nearunintelligibility. Music straitjackets a poem and prevents it from breathing on its own, whereas it liberates a lyric. Poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do.

Lyrics are not light verse, either. Light verse doesn’t demand music because it supplies its own. All those emphatic rhythms, ringing rhymes, repeated refrains: the poem sings as it’s being read. Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” percolates with unwritten music so strong that I would guess everybody reads it at the same trotting pace. In fact light verse, like “serious” poetry, is dimin ished by being set to music. Music either thuddingly underlines the dum-de-dum rhythms or willfully deforms them, trying to disguise the very singsong quality that gives the verse its character. This is why “The Pied Piper” has never been set well: take away the singsong and you destroy the poem, keep it in the music and you bore the listener mercilessly with rhythmic repetition. Music tends to hammer light verse into monotony or shatter its grace. It would seem easy to set Dorothy Parker’s famous “Comment” to music:

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,

A medley of extemporanea;

And love is a thing that can never go wrong;

And I am Marie of Roumania.


The trouble is that she’s already done it. The jauntiness of the rhythm perfectly balances the wry self-pity of the words. Music doesn’t understate, that’s not its job: its job is to emphasize and support the words or, as in opera, dominate them. Thus any accompaniment, whether light or lyrical, is likely either to turn Parker’s irony into a joke or to drown it in sentimentality. Light verse is complete unto itself. Lyrics by definition lack something; if they don’t, they’re probably not good lyrics.

When it comes to theater songs, the composer is in charge. Performers can color a lyric with phrasing and rubato (rhythmic fluidity), but it’s the melody which dictates the lyric’s rhythms and pauses and inflections, the accompaniment which sets the pace and tone. These specific choices control our emotional response, just as a movie director’s camera controls it by restricting our point of view, forcing us to look at the details he wants us to notice. For the songwriter, it’s a matter of what phrase, what word, he wants us to focus on; for the director, what face, what gesture. An actor singing “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ ” might want to emphasize “beautiful,” but Rodgers forces him to emphasize “mornin’ ” by setting the word on the strongest beat in the measure and the highest note in the melody. Song stylists— club singers, recording artists, jazz vocalists and the like—often take liberties with lyric phrasings and tempos, but the music restricts their choices. This is not always a good thing: The unlucky lady who has to sing “Seven to midnight I hear drums” from Rodgers and Hart’s “Ten Cents a Dance” is forced to sing “hear drums” no matter how she squirms. The same holds true for anyone singing “It Never Entered My Mind” in the same team’s Higher and Higher; she has to make “And order orange juice for one,” sound natural. The songwriter sets the emphasis, for good or for ill.

Another thing about music is that it isn’t explicit. Play a recording of Debussy’s La Mer for someone who hasn’t heard it and ask what it brings to mind. The reply will seldom be “The sea!,” although in Music Appreciation courses that’s what is taught. True enough, over the years certain orchestral sounds have come to be associated with specific emotions, especially in the movies (saxophones for sexiness, bassoons for clumsiness, flutes for happiness), just as certain instrumental themes resonate immediately from repeated exposure: Alfred Newman’s title music from Street Scene evokes New York, just as “Dixie” evokes the South and “La Marseillaise,” France. Still, music is abstract and its function in song is to fulfill what it accompanies; poems are fulfilled all by themselves. Under spoken text, music is background, atmosphere and mood and nothing more.

In song, music is an equal partner. Hammerstein, like all good lyricists, not only understood but counted on the power of music
to glorify the understatement of his language, a collaborative surrender which poets who write for musical theater tend to underestimate or resist. Professional lyricists recognize music’s capacity not only to make a lyric vibrate, but also to smother it to death. If a lyric is too full of itself, as in “All the Things You Are,” music can make it muddy or grandiose. The lyrics of Maxwell
Anderson, Truman Capote, Anthony Burgess and Langston Hughes, to name some of the most prominent crossover poets, fall into this trap. Their lyrics convey the aura of a royal visit: they announce the presence of the writer. When the stories deal with exotic times or cultures, as in Burgess’s lyrics for Cyrano and Capote’s for House of Flowers, the self- consciousness can be acceptable, but when the characters are supposed to be speaking in the vernacular, as in Hughes’s Street Scene and Anderson’s Lost in the Stars, the lyrics become faintly but persistently ludicrous.

It’s the music that does them in. Poets tend to be poor lyricists because their verse has its own inner music and doesn’t make allowance for the real thing. The two great exceptions are DuBose Heyward’s lyrics in Porgy and Bess and Richard Wilbur’s in Candide. Their work bespeaks an understanding not only of how music operates with words, but of how words operate in drama. They know how to combine the density of poetry with the openness of lyrics and still not intrude their own selves into the characters. I hasten to add that intrusion is a problem for non- poet lyricists as well. To cite a favorite example of my own, from West Side Story: “It’s alarming / How charming / I feel,” sings Maria, a lower- class Puerto Rican girl who has been brought up on street argot and whose brother is a gang leader, but who suddenly sings the smoothly rhymed and coyly elegant phrases of a character from a Noël Coward operetta because the lyricist wants to show off his rhyming skills.

In opera, density is less of a problem because text occupies a back seat. Usually, the lyrics matter minimally except when necessary to carry the plot forward, and most operas have very little plot to carry— traditionally, the drama is supposed to be carried by the music. The lyrics by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman for The Rake’s Progress read gracefully and sing unintelligibly, not only because Stravinsky distorts them but because they’re too packed for the listener to comprehend in the time allotted for hearing them. If poetry is the art of saying a lot in a little, lyric- writing is the art of finding the right balance between saying too much and not enough. Bad lyrics can be either so packed that they become impenetrable or so loose that they’re uninteresting.

Most lyrics written in my generation and the generations before me do not make for good reading. Nostalgists for what is popularly termed the Golden Age of Musicals (1925–1960), who appreciate how good many of the songs were and ignore how terrible most of the shows were, might disagree; but even they, I hope, would have to admit that prior to the late 1930s lyrics tended to be generalized and gooey (“You Are Love”—Hammerstein), arch and gooey (“I’ll Follow My Secret Heart”—Coward), strenuously effortful (“Lover, when I’m near you / And I hear you / Speak my name, / Softly, in my ear you / Breathe a flame”—Hart), convoluted (“Into Heaven I’m hurled”—Ira Gershwin) or at best unadorned and repetitious (“I’ll be loving you always / With a love that’s true always”—Irving Berlin), all of them perfectly satisfactory for theater songs of the time, but uninteresting or wince making on the page.

The curious thing is that it was Hart, Berlin, Cole Porter and their contemporaries who ushered in a colloquial revolution; they instilled the way we actually speak into the formalized artifice of theater songwriting. But it was Hammerstein, experimenting with the dramatic equivalent of this in Show Boat (1927), who made the first serious attempt to focus on unique feelings of individual characters in specific situations through the lens of a realistic, although period, vernacular— and all in a show which dealt with taboo subjects such as racial prejudice and miscegenation. The attempt was important, even if the results, by today’s standards, were fairly generic. Ironically, Show Boat was so startlingly different for its time that, despite its success, it didn’t have much immediate effect on other writers. They were too comfortable with traditional musical comedy to think in terms of creating songs to fit characters because there were no characters in musical comedy, only personalities. It wasn’t until Oklahoma! (1943) that Hammerstein’s influence flowered.

The one great pre-Oklahoma! exception, of course, was Porgy and Bess. DuBose Heyward’s lyrics and George Gershwin’s music completely individualized characters for the first time in Broadway musical history. If the show had been presented in an opera house, perhaps it mightn’t now seem to have been such an extraordinary event. In its time, as a commercially presented musical,
few noticed how subtly and elegantly written the piece was, least of all the critics, who generally panned it. This was because the characters were so much more powerful than their predecessors (including the shallow, romanticized figures in Show Boat) and because Heyward didn’t come out of a songwriter’s tradition but out of a poetplaywright’s, much like Lorenzo Da Ponte, who was
Mozart’s librettist, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who was Strauss’s. Unlike Anderson, Capote and the other poetplaywrights
who wrote musicals, Heyward under stood the difference between character and characteristics; the lyrics sounded like heightened natural speech rather than self-advertised “poetry.”

With Oklahoma!, though, Hammerstein fired the shot heard round the musical-theater world. The show was such a gigantic financial triumph that other writers not only noticed, they took notes. They scrambled to get on board, and before long “musical comedy” morphed into “musical play,” a development that has turned out to be a mixed blessing. Even today, a lot of people (including critics) deplore the loss of what they see as the lighthearted silliness of the old musicals. For songwriters and playwrights, however, involving an audience in a story with singing characters who are more than skin deep is much more interesting work. Rodgers and Hammerstein spoiled musical theater for the rest of us sloggers in the field— or saved it, depending on your point of view.

Even the lyrics in the enlightened post- Oklahoma! era, however, tend in print to seem simple and threadbare, homiletic or tortuously clever. A number of lyrics by Cole Porter and E. Y. Harburg come to life on the page because of their formal brilliance; a few others, particularly those of Frank Loesser and Dorothy Fields, read easily because of their unforced conversational energy. Still, most have nowhere near as much effect as when they’re accompanied by their indispensable musical partner and performed by singers who know what they’re doing. The vast majority lie dead on the page until sung, at which point they spring instantaneously to life (some of them, anyway).

Why a book of lyrics, then? Especially theater lyrics, which are a fringe enthusiasm at best, considering their tiny impact on what is currently coming out of people’s earphones or the bar down the block or the car blasting by. The lyrics of contemporary popular song, of rock and rap and country, are the ones which reflect the immediacy of our world, much as theater songs did in the first half of the twentieth century. They are the sociologist’s totems, and studies of them have resulted in an inundation of essays and books, not to mention college courses. Live theater itself is at most an ancillary part of American culture these days. Ever since the advent of movies and television, theatergoing has increasingly become either a dutiful activity for a dwindling, aging audience or an occasional festive night out, the purchase of hard-to-get tickets being its greatest pleasure. Broadway theater, formerly the fount of new American plays, has for many years been focused predominantly on musicals, chiefly two kinds: stolid solemn uplift equipped with impressive lumbering spectacle, and elaborate concerts of familiar pop songs threaded along a story line, a genre familiarly known as the “jukebox musical,” which the critic Stephen Holden has characterized as “karaoke hell.” (As I write this, a third kind has recently overrun the theater like kudzu: the self-referential “metamusical,” which makes fun of its betters by imitating their clichés while drawing attention to what it’s doing, thus justifying its lack of originality without the risk of criticism.) Off-Broadway and regional musicals are numerous and often adventurous, but even they are only part of a cottage industry with fewer new cottages and more refurbished ones every season.

Happily, schools still persist in putting on plays. Performing live theater still seems to be fun for young people. Nevertheless, rock concerts are their theater of choice, and even that territory is succumbing in popularity to more passive forms: movies, television and the Internet. I used to think that the need for live theater would never die; I fear I was wrong.

So once again, why collect these lyrics and make this book? Because a publisher asked me to; because it offered me the opportunity to append these comments on a craft I know a great deal about; because most of the lyrics are conversational and therefore stand the chance of being an entertaining read; but mostly because I think the explication of any craft, when articulated by an experienced practitioner, can be not only intriguing but also valuable, no matter what particularity the reader may be attracted to. For example, I don’t cook, nor do I want to, but I read cooking columns with intense and explicit interest. The technical details echo those which challenge a songwriter: timing, balance, form, surface versus substance, and all the rest of it. They resonate for me even though I have no desire to braise, parboil or sauté. Similarly, I hope, the specific techniques of lyricwriting will enlighten the cook who reads these pages. Choices, decisions and mistakes in every attempt to make something that wasn’t there before are essentially the same, and exploring one set of them, I like to believe, may cast light on another. Since most of the lyrics which follow belong in the mouths of particular characters in particular situations, characters who are only partly knowable without the context of the dialogue and actions in their stories, I’ve included synopses to introduce each show and each song. These are shadows, however, not substance. With few exceptions, every lyric in this collection is prompted by the beginning, middle or end of a culmination of incidents before it, incidents of which the reader is likely to be unaware. For example, “In Buddy’s Eyes” (from Follies) loses much of its tone and all of its subtext when disconnected from the placid surface of its music and the scenes and dialogue which have preceded it. How can we know what Sally means or what she’s trying not to say, without knowing Sally? It’s as if we were asked to know Hamlet from his soliloquies alone, for what are solo songs but musicalized soliloquies, encapsulated moments even when addressed to other characters? Lyrics without the scenes from which they sprout, at least the ones in this book, are just as incomplete as lyrics without music.

Some songs, of course, are small scenes in themselves. I’ve been asked many times why I don’t write the books for my own musicals, since I treat lyrics as short plays whenever I can. The key word in that sentence is “short.” I’m by nature a playwright, but without the necessary basic skill: the ability to tell a story that holds an audience’s attention for more than a few minutes. Writing plays is, in my view, the most difficult of the literary arts. A play has to be as packed and formally controlled as a sonnet, but roomy enough to let the actors and the stagecraft in. Packed but loose, like a good lyric. Poets rarely have to deal with plot; novelists never have to deal with actors. A playwright has to deal with both and still make the result immediate enough to grip an audience for, on the average, two and a half hours. (That usually includes an intermission, where he loses them for fifteen minutes and has to woo them back.) I like to think I can hold their interest with short forms: playlets which are called songs. The longest I’ve written is the opening number of Into the Woods, a mere twelve- minute sequence, and that includes a good deal of dialogue. I’m in awe of good playwrights, even when I don’t like the plays, and ever since the day I started working with my first professional collaborator and learned what went into the craft of playwriting, I have never tried to do it alone.

Actually, I’ve wanted to set these observations in print for years. I like to pontificate as much as anyone who thinks he knows what he’s talking about, but I’ve done it only when being interviewed or when arguing with other songwriters. My reluctance to write them down, apart from the universal writer’s reluctance to write anything down, is two-pronged. To begin with, lyrics are such a small and specialized art form that they hardly seem worth lengthy public comment. Moreover, why not let them speak (sing) for themselves? Examining songs like the ones in these pages in light of how swiftly stencils change in popular art is not only a stroll down Memory Lane, it smacks of archeology. The counterargument in both cases is the same: any art, no matter how small, is a form of teaching, and for me teaching is a sacred profession. My intellectual life, and to some extent my personal one as well, was guided and changed by teachers: Lucille Pollock, a Latin teacher in ninth grade; Robert Barrow, professor of music at Williams College; and Milton Babbitt, with whom I studied composition after graduating from college. Not to mention my immediate mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, and every other collaborator I’ve worked with. Reading about how someone else practices a craft, no matter how individual or arcane— designing roller coasters, managing hedge funds, harvesting salt— if it’s detailed, clear and the writer is passionate about his pursuit, can be not just mesmerizing but enlightening. It is the best kind of teaching. In my case, writing lyrics for the theater is such a craft and I would like to pass my knowledge of it on, just as Oscar passed his on to me.

There is, however, a third reluctance: How can you comment critically on someone’s work without hurting the writer whose work you’re dissecting? My answer is cowardly but simple: criticize only the dead. I have never believed in “de mortuis nil nisi bonum”; speaking ill exclusively of the dead seems to me the gentlemanly thing to do. The subject cannot be personally hurt, and his reputation is unlikely to be affected by anything you say, whereas publicly passing judgment on living writers is both hurtful and stifling— I speak from experience, as someone who has been disdained both by journalists and by many of my songwriting elders and contemporaries as well. Don’t look in these pages for critical opinions of the work of anybody but myself and those who can no longer defend themselves— but who also cannot be upset by anything I have to say. As for my own lyrics, I hope to be able to point out their virtues as well as their flaws. Self-deprecation is easy, selfpraise has a bad reputation and is hard for a nice upper-middle-class boy like me who was brought up not to boast.

What you can look for, when helpful, are plot, scene and character descriptions, mixed in with a few anecdotes, to help place each lyric in its appropriate setting, both theatrical and real. They’re no substitute for the music, but they may give the lyric a bit more life. What you shouldn’t look for is much gossip— I can promise a little, but not a cornucopia. Gossip depends on memory, and now that I’ve waited so long to set things down on paper, I don’t trust it. Fully aware of the distortions that even yesterday’s memory can engender, I’ve checked the anecdotes and histories accompanying the songs with whoever is alive and still compos mentis.

So now, as Portnoy’s psychiatrist said, vee may perhaps to begin, yes?

Continues...

Excerpted from Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim Copyright © 2010 by Stephen Sondheim. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 14 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(10)

4 Star

(2)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(1)

1 Star

(1)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 27, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Culture vultures, prepare to feast!

    If you are lucky, you will discover artists whose work speaks to you in a very profound way. For me, it's the paintings of Henri Matisse, the novels of John Irving, the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. I'm an unabashed fan.

    Mr. Sondheim's new coffee table book, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes, is a gift to us all. Before you even start reading the text, flip through it and you'll see that this is a gorgeous book. It is chock full of photographs--more than 200--many of them full page blowups. There are pictures and artwork from the productions, candid photos from Mr. Sondheim's personal collection, and images of his hand-written notes, lyrics, and sheet music. This book is richly and beautifully illustrated. The only small disappointment is that all images are black and white, but it is truly a minor complaint.

    Once you've feasted your eyes, dive into the text. Almost immediately, you'll see that Mr. Sondheim has written his book with the care and precision with which he writes his songs. There's a slight formality to the tone (with the laying down of copious rules along the way), but at the same time, it's a very candid look at his work, his collaborators, his predecessors, and his life. For musicians or composers, there is much substantive information on his process. And for theater buffs like me, this book is a treasure! Mr. Sondheim's contributions are the apotheosis of musical theater. The shows recounted are theatrical history. Sadly, I'm too young to have seen the original productions of any of these 13 shows, but now I've heard about the drama behind the scenes of Merrily We Roll Along straight from the horse's mouth. I know his two regrets from West Side Story, what he really thinks of theater critics, how he wanted to plot A Little Night Music, and the influence of Hammerstein's Allegro on his career. The truth is, there is just so much packed into this book, it is simply impossible to even begin to summarize the contents.

    This book is specifically dedicated to Mr. Sondheim's lyrics, and what a joy it was to sing, er... I mean, read my way through them. To give you an idea of how comprehensive Finishing the Hat is, every lyric of every song from the original production of Follies is included. Nine songs cut from the show are included, along with the reasons behind the changes. A revised lyric for a later London production is included. And altered versions of "I'm Still Here" (for Barbara Streisand and for the film Postcards from the Edge) are included. And always Mr. Sondheim's thoughts, observations, and occasional criticisms are shared, often through the use of extensive footnotes.

    The book ends at Merrily, 423 pages in, with a provocative statement and the word INTERMISSION. This is indeed the intermission between the volumes of Mr. Sondheim's collected lyrics/memoir, the second of which will encompass the remainder of his storied career. I can only hope the second book is well into its production. As excited as I was to get my hands on this book, it is truly more than I could have hoped for. In the end, it's a fitting testament to an immense talent.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted December 5, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A Bow for Mr. Sondheim

    Stephen Sondheim Will probably forever be regarded as the finest lyricist the musical stage has known - with apologies to librettist W. S. Gilbert or Gilbert and Sullivan fame. He has always taken on stories that encourage - no, force - the audience to relate to his ideas, whether that be in the early stages of his career with the magnum opus West Side Story or with the subsequent Gypsy!, Pacific Overtures, Follies, Sundays in the Park with George, Company, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, etc. But while most everyone knows the lyrics to his large number of hits, few of us know the secrets or gossip or the lyricists real feelings about each of his ventures - until now.

    This book is a very well written compendium of the lyrics (in every phase of their being), notes, ideas, misjudgments, and personal responses to the shows and the people involved with them. Sondheim is brilliant, not only at what he has done for a living, but also as a thinker and philosopher and pundit. Reading this book, as opposed to scanning this book, opens windows of insight into the career and the personality of one of America's treasures. There is so much to enjoy about this book that it will take several readings to absorb it all. It is a welcome addition to the libraries of all those who care about the stage musicals that are one of the few 'unique offerings' of this country to the world of music.

    Grady Harp

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 26, 2010

    Awesome

    This man is a TRUE genius.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 23, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 24, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)