Bookmark: Hats off to Sondheim

The master of the grown-up American musical takes readers on a brutally candid, restless journey through the writing of 13 of them

Sondheim 311 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
Sondheim 311
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
Stephen Sondheim has a comic paperweight on his desk at home that reads “Nothing is written in stone.” The punch line is that the paperweight is a stone.
As we learn in Finishing the Hat, Sondheim’s spectacular new book about lyric writing – and so much more – the statement is both joke and no joke. In the preface to this massive yet compulsively readable compendium of “comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes,” he lists the “only three principles necessary for a lyric writer.”

The dictums – “content dictates form,” “less is more” and “God is in the details” – hardly set the imagination aflame. (The flamethrowing comes later.) But he says these principles of clarity “underlie everything I’ve ever written” and, thus, should “be written in stone.”
So clarity, and clarity alone, gives the lie to the paperweight.
Throughout this shiny blue book with the heft of a small coffee table, the master of the grown-up American musical and gold-standard- bearer of lyricists takes us along on a brutally candid, restless journey through the writing (and often rewriting) of 13 musicals, including West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along.
A second volume, beginning with his 1984 Pulitzerwinning Sunday in the Park with George, is in the works. Significantly, both books take their titles from a song in Sunday, arguably the greatest song ever written about the creative process. Sondheim calls Finishing the Hat the “only song I’ve written which is an immediate expression of a personal internal experience...
Every other song comes from nothing more than my identification with the characters who sing them, not my identification with myself.”
Many books exist about Sondheim, 80. But this is the first by him. And it’s both a feast of primary-source revelation and a riot of troublemaking heresy about such icons as Noel Coward (“the master of blather”), and the lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner (“not as natty as they strut to be”) and W.S. Gilbert (“sometimes clever and inventive... they bore me to distraction”).
Perhaps most startling is his toughness on his mentor and father-figure Oscar Hammerstein: “despite the fact that Oscar taught me virtually everything I know about lyric writing... there’s a fervent lack of surprise in Hammerstein’s thoughts, made manifest by his need to spell things out with plodding insistence.”
It would be a big mistake, however, to dwell on the sensational bluntness. Much as Sondheim shapes each song as if it were its own playlet, he analyzes each lyricist in a succinct essay – each opinion documented with detailed examples. (Besides, he only goes after dead colleagues.) And he is at least as hard on himself, especially as he scrutinizes the development of his craft.
He cringes at the “self-conscious aspirations toward ‘poetry’” in his youthful work on West Side Story, “a wetness, I regret to say, which persists throughout all the romantic lyrics in the show.” He reluctantly wrote just the lyrics, and not the music, for this show and Gypsy. But invaluable lessons are shared from both.
The book is structured with a joyous sense of adventure, with sidebars and asides as conversational as they are encyclopedic. His analyses of rhymes – “true” or “perfect” ones versus the dreaded “near” or “false” ones – deserve to guide generations.
Writing with the specificity we cherish in his lyrics, he insists, “A perfect rhyme snaps the word, and with it the thought, vigorously into place, rendering it easily intelligible.” And he’s equally sure that lyrics are not poetry: Poetic lyrics “convey the aura of a royal visit: they announce the presence of the writer.”
As his title warns us, there will be grudges and whines, not to mention the settling of personal scores along with the musical ones. The world may forget how often he got beaten up in the press before he became the Zeus of modern musical theater. He does not forget.
The book includes priceless pages of handwritten notes and typed lyrics, all festooned with corrections not in stone, as well as rehearsal photos with the history of Broadway in their faces. The illustrations are all in black and white. The color is pure Sondheim.
– Newsday/MCT