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Saturday, 20 November 2010 19:00

Book Review: Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim

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Stephen Sondheim’s new book “Finishing the Hat” is a collection of lyrics from his shows from 1954 to 1981.  More than that, it is a look inside the mind of this American musical theatre genius.  The sub-title of the book describes it best, “Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes.”  This book has plenty of all of the above.

A friend recently spoke to me about a radio interview he had heard with Stephen Sondheim on National Public Radio.  He mentioned he felt that Sondheim was arrogant.  As I read this book, I could see why he might think that.

Sondheim spares no one in his critique of other’s work.  He describes Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics as “pleasant.”  He says that Irving Berlin’s lyrics weren’t interested in character and that Dorothy Fields’s lyrics were “mostly reflections of herself, rueful and amused.”    Of W.S. Gilbert’s lyrics he writes “they bore me to distraction.”  He refers to Noël Coward as “The Master of Blather” and about his lyrics says he “cordially but intensely dislikes” them.  Thankfully Mr. Sondheim shows his concern for other lyricist’s feelings following the dictum to criticize only the dead.  He says “speaking ill exclusively of the dead seems to me the gentlemanly thing to do.”  

While all of this may come off as arrogant, he is no less easy on himself.  The lyrics in the book are dotted with asterisks which refer to Sondheim’s critiquing of his own short-comings.  Let’s face it, after a man has been told he is a brilliant lyricist for fifty plus years, which he is, who can blame him if he starts to believe it.  And at 80 years of age, the man can say what he darn well pleases.  

What a year it’s been for Mr. Sondheim.  His eightieth birthday celebration has seemed to last the entire year.  There have been birthday concerts, the renaming of a Broadway theatre to the Stephen Sondheim Theatre and the publication of this treasure trove of Mr. Sondheim’s work and his personal stories about the process and the collaborators.  

You will never listen to a musical or original cast album quite the same way after reading Mr. Sondheim’s book.  You will find yourself listening for “near” versus “true” rhymes and you will recognize “adjectival padding,” the unnecessary combining of multiple adjectives all essentially meaning the same thing.  Sondheim’s pointing out the flaws in his own and other’s lyrics is used as a tool to emphasise and stress the qualities of exceptional lyrics.  As Paul Simon pointed out in his review of this book in the New York Times, “I felt as if I had taken a master class in how to write a musical.”  

The book is full of pages of Sondheim’s notes and music in his own handwriting.  There are production and candid photos as well as Playbill covers and show art.  My only complaint is that I wish the publisher had chosen to use color for these.

There are wonderful stories in the book about Sondheim’s process and his experience with collaborators.   He tells how he was mortified that to Lenny (as Sondheim affectionately referred to Bernstein) the words dawn, lawn, gone and on all rhymed.  As Sondheim points out, only with Lenny’s New England accent did those words actually rhyme.  

There’s a funny story about Hermione Gingold coming in to audition for Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music.  Thinking her wrong for the part, the audition was given as a courtesy.  She came with nothing prepared and yet, before she’d left the theatre they had offered her the role.  

If you love musical theatre you will love this book.  Not only will you learn from it, you will be entertained by Sondheim’s candid story-telling.  This makes my list of “must-haves” for lovers of musical theatre.

Get Sondheim's FINISHING THE HAT

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Last modified on Saturday, 20 November 2010 19:57