Stephen Sondheim Finishes the Hat
I spent parts of the past month reading over Stephen Sondheim’s book of published song lyrics, entitled Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. (If you’re going to append a long subtitle to the title of your book, that’s how you do it.) It’s an indispensable book for anyone who cares about musical theater.
The author is understandably ambivalent about the whole idea of publishing song lyrics in print. After all, that’s not how they were meant to be consumed. (Who was it who said that song lyrics on a page were “photographs of a bird in flight”? Was it Leonard Cohen? I can’t remember.) The lyrics come packaged with his own analysis, some of which is highly technical: Sondheim criticizes the final section of “Getting Married Today” for including the word “Monday” in proximity with the words “I’ll,” “floating,” and “garbage,” which makes clusters of consonants that are too difficult for the singer to handle.
Curiously, Sondheim doesn’t like his own work on West Side Story, citing a lyrical “wetness.” Generations of theatergoers would disagree with him on that. He also doesn’t know why “Send in the Clowns” became a big pop hit out of all his other songs.
More controversial stuff is in his assessments of other song lyricists. He doesn’t find too many kind words for Lorenz Hart or Ira Gershwin. He thinks their rhymes are too labored and draw too much attention to themselves. His writings on these take up less than a page each; perhaps he just needed longer essays to make a case like that. Still, in criticizing them for lyrics that don’t fit the dramatic situations in their shows, he appears not to have considered that they were written in an earlier era of Broadway, when songs were explicitly intended to be hits (selling records and sheet music) outside the context of their shows. He doesn’t seem to take into account how those songs work on their own, which is how most of us experience Gershwin and Rodgers & Hart songs now.
He refuses to advance any opinion on living theater songwriters, saying he doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or reputation. This is understandable, but it’s a shame. I’d have loved to hear his thoughts on Wicked or Avenue Q or Spring Awakening. I also wish he’d included the songs he wrote for the 1990 film version of Dick Tracy, which contain some fine work. (From “Sooner or Later”: “Baby, it’s time, so why waste it in chatter? / Let’s settle / The matter. / Baby, you’re mine on a platter. / I always get my man.”) I’ve always been a big fan of “What Can You Lose?” myself.
Regardless, the book would still be a treasure trove even if it only had the lyrics themselves. On top of that, there are priceless anecdotes like Sondheim’s recollection of playing the score of Gypsy at the home of an aged Cole Porter. When he and collaborator Jule Styne sang “Together Wherever We Go,” they heard Porter gasp in delight at the word “amigos.” The musical theater giant wasn’t expecting that word there, nor the extra rhyme. Sondheim lets us know that hearing that gasp was quite a thrill for a young lyricist just starting out. If the great Sondheim is indeed done writing for the stage, this is a nice going-away present he’s leaving us with.