"Finishing the Hat": Stephen Sondheim's magnificent musical memoir

The Broadway legend's "Finishing the Hat" is as densely layered as some of his best musicals

Published November 25, 2010 4:01PM (EST)

Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim
Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim

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 theater, 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.

Barnes & Noble ReviewThe 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?

By Adam Hanft

Adam Hanft writes and comments frequently on politics and culture for The Daily Beast, Fast Company, Huffington Post, CNN, Fox News, Politics Daily, the Barnes & Noble Review, and elsewhere. He is founder of Hanft Projects, a strategic and brand consultancy.

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