Finishing the Hat–the Lyrics and Kvetches of Stephen Sondheim


Stephen Sondheim is now 80 years old and, by common consent, the most remarkable artist to have devoted his creative energies to the form we call the Broadway musical over the past half-century. Justifiably, the theatrical world has spent much of the past year celebrating his achievements in a variety of ways: a string of gala all-Sondheim concerts; a musical revue (Sondheim on Sondheim); a Broadway theater renamed for him; endless feature articles, interviews, and public forums—pretty much everything except christening an ocean liner the S.S. S. Sondheim.

Now, the New York Philharmonic’s Sondheim! The Birthday Celebration, has been broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances series and issued on DVD, while Knopf has published Finishing the Hat, a volume collecting lyrics from the first half of Sondheim’s career. The book’s lengthy subtitle—With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes—is only the first of several features that make it as intriguing a phenomenon as Sondheim himself.

Though Knopf has for decades been publishing identically formatted volumes of the great Broadway lyricists, Sondheim’s collection does not match the rest of the series. Its smaller size and its being printed with three-column instead of four-column pages, however, don’t make it appreciably easier to read: The smaller trim size means smaller type, with the lyrics printed more faintly, presumably a designer’s ill-chosen attempt to differentiate them from the extensive notes Sondheim has supplied. That his complete oeuvre will occupy two volumes (the second, covering 1982–2010, is expected next year) will make cross-referencing from the early to the later works more difficult than it is with the bulky but complete single volumes of his predecessors like Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein.

But then, refusing to conform to a pattern has often seemed to be Sondheim’s stock-in-trade. The succession of astonishingly individual shows for which he has created the scores confirms that he has never been interested in anything that smacked of the conventional. The lyrics collected here display, in triumph, his passionate need to make every moment of every song an exact and wholly individual expression of the character singing and the dramatic impetus to do so.

Sondheim the annotator often writes lovingly and generously about the gifts of the great predecessors named above, and their colleagues (he seems to have a particular affection for insufficiently praised figures like Dorothy Fields). At the same time, his notes often imply that these beloved artists, including Hammerstein, have all somehow fallen short because their practice didn’t wholly match his own. The driven, obsessive-perfectionist personality behind the gleaming brilliance of his lyrics emerges in the notes as a discomfiting presence, a darker alt-Sondheim, rather less easy to admire than the genius who crafted words and music for Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd.

The song texts convey a depth of feeling and breadth of sympathy to match their wide range of knowledge and the acuity of their wit; no songwriter has succeeded better than Sondheim at pouring his whole soul into an epigrammatic couplet. And like all song lyrics published in book form, his automatically bring to mind, for experienced theatergoers, the music, equally well wrought and often just as memorable, to which he welded them.

The less open-hearted annotations, in contrast, reveal an obdurate, at times even faintly priggish, Sondheim, dogmatic to an almost puritanical degree about the niceties of fitting words to music, often surprisingly narrow in outlook, and once or twice even confused about definitions. He firmly asserts that song lyrics aren’t poetry (though the two genres have been bleeding into each other for centuries), and that most poetry can’t be set to music without destroying it, though he does allow that Franz Schubert somehow managed the task.

One sympathizes with Sondheim’s fixations; they involve the tools of his craft. Musical settings that mis-stress syllables make him “crazy”; lyrics that speak in conventional phrases are “generic.” But we already knew this from his determined resistance to such temptations in his own lyrics; if we didn’t, we wouldn’t want a book of his collected lyrics. The notes constantly suggest, however, a desire to promote his distinctive methodology as a general theory: A song lyric in the musical theater must be “realistic” in diction, colloquially expressing the complexity of characters who are “more than skin deep.”

Well, yes. It is a method; it works. It achieved something, for instance, for Verdi and Puccini, each of whom rebelled against what had become a prevailing tendency in Italian opera to stereotype characters and generalize situations, and both of whom tore their librettists to shreds trying to coax out of them words that could evoke more substantive music. Such a rebellion is necessary for the creator who, like Sondheim, drives himself to build works that will stand above the common run. But what distinguishes the individual artist can’t, by definition, become the general rule.

Additionally, the Broadway in which Sondheim has immersed himself has primarily been, over the decades, a place for money-making, crowd-pleasing fun. Its serious achievements have been works like West Side Story and Sweeney Todd, not Wozzeck and Peter Grimes. Sondheim, one gathers, disapproves of fun. Though few lyricists have shown more agility at verbal play, he carps against lyrics that are verbally playful to no purpose. Some of his predecessors might have asserted that playfulness, in the theater, can be its own purpose, one to which the form we used to call “musical comedy” was largely devoted. Playwrights and songwriters, Sondheim asserts, find more serious efforts more interesting. If they do, and can convince the public to agree with them, certainly no one’s stopping them.

And for all the bumps that his career has endured from box offices and critics, it seems clear from this year’s celebrations that no one has stopped Sondheim. The songs on the PBS broadcast, lushly played by the Philharmonic under the baton of his devoted Paul Gemignani, are nearly all familiar, parts of the lingua franca of today’s theater. Some of the performances seem a little familiar, too, mechanically touching the usual bases. But the best items, including a next-to-closing epic involving seven divas, reaffirmed that Sondheim, the guy who wrote the songs, lives on, excitingly. The kvetch who wrote the notes? Who remembers him?