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Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

Fin­ish­ing the Hat: Col­lected Lyrics (1954-1981) With At­ten­dant Com­ments, Prin­ci­ples, Here­sies, Grudges, Whines, and Anec­dotes

by Stephen Sond­heim, Al­fred A. Knopf/Ran­dom House, 444 pages

In the world of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can mu­si­cal theater, Stephen Sond­heim has out­paced the com­pe­ti­tion by such a dis­tance that, strictly speak­ing, he has no com­pe­ti­tion at all. It’s true that his pro­duc­tiv­ity has seemed to flag in the past decade or so. That would be al­lowed; the man cel­e­brated his 80th birth­day this year. But it turns out that he was keep­ing busy, af­ter all, if out of the pub­lic’s eye; and, again, he proves him­self to be in a league of his own. Of the many Sond­heim cel­e­bra­tions that have been pro­duced this year, none can vie with the one he cooked up him­self, the mind-bend­ing book that Al­fred A. Knopf has pub­lished un­der the mu­nif­i­cent ti­tle Fin­ish­ing the Hat: Col­lected Lyrics (1954-1981) With At­ten­dant Com­ments, Prin­ci­ples, Here­sies, Grudges, Whines, and Anec­dotes.

Afi­ciona­dos in­stantly rec­og­nize “Fin­ish­ing the Hat” as the name of a touch­stone song in Sond­heim’s touch­stone mu­si­cal Sun­day in the Park With

Ge­orge. Ge­orge is the painter Ge­orges Seu­rat, and his song, which is about the sac­ri­fices an artist must make when pur­su­ing art, con­cludes with a qua­train that fo­cuses on the few inches of oil-on-can­vas that take prece­dence over ev­ery­thing else in Ge­orge’s life that par­tic­u­lar day: “Fin­ish­ing a hat/Start­ing on a hat/Look, I made a hat/Where there never was a hat.” You might say that the author is get­ting ahead of him­self. Since

Sun­day in the Park With Ge­orge was not brought to fruition un­til 1984, Sond­heim won’t be putting it un­der his mi­cro­scope un­til he pub­lishes the se­quel to Fin­ish­ing the Hat. It will cover the re­main­der of his ca­reer, and it will be ti­tled, with a sense of fi­nal­ity, Look, I Made a Hat.

But he does pro­vide a fore­taste, expressed with the in­sight­ful­ness that in­hab­its ev­ery page of this first vol­ume. Writes Sond­heim: “Since, as the time-hon­ored shib­bo­leth has it, writ­ers should write what they know, it’s only nat­u­ral that play­go­ers, along with movie­go­ers and in fact all fans of nar­ra­tive fic­tion, are tempted to look for au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal hints about an author’s emo­tional life in his work. … The only song I’ve writ­ten which is an im­me­di­ate ex­pres­sion of a per­sonal in­ter­nal ex­pe­ri­ence is ‘Fin­ish­ing the Hat’ from Sun­day in the Park With Ge­orge. Ev­ery other song comes from noth­ing more than my iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the char­ac­ters who sing them, not my iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with my­self.”

Like so many other pas­sages in Sond­heim’s book, this one sug­gests the ob­jec­tive, bluntly hon­est stance the author strikes vis-à-vis his sub­ject. When all is said and done, this is a book of crit­i­cism — so long as “crit­i­cism” is un­der­stood to mean the con­vey­ing of im­pres­sions or judg­ment fol­low­ing close ex­am­i­na­tion. The prin­ci­pal topic of his crit­i­cism is Stephen Sond­heim, and most par­tic­u­larly Stephen Sond­heim the lyri­cist. His re­mark­able­ness ex­tends to the fact that he is among the very few Broad­way cre­ators who have ex­celled si­mul­ta­ne­ously as lyri­cists and com­posers. Un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, mu­si­cals are cre­ated not by a com­poser-lyri­cist but rather by a com­poser and a lyri­cist, of­ten work­ing as an on­go­ing team, like Lerner and Loewe or Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein. Very few peo­ple have achieved suc­cess as com­poser-lyri­cists: Cole Porter, Irv­ing Ber­lin, Frank Loesser, Sond­heim. Nonethe­less, the author has de­cided to present him­self in this book only as a lyri­cist. He has ex­plained in in­ter­views that this is be­cause he would be un­able to dis­cuss his mu­sic in any sig­nif­i­cant way with­out us­ing a spe­cial­ist vo­cab­u­lary that would be for­eign to most read­ers, whereas lan­guage ac­tu­ally can be ad­dressed through lan­guage.

Even ex­clud­ing his com­poser half, Sond­heim finds plenty to talk about. Of the 16 mu­si­cals he has writ­ten as com­poser-lyri­cist, the first 10 are cov­ered in this book: Satur­day Night, A Funny Thing Hap­pened on the Way to the Fo­rum, Any­one Can Whis­tle, Com­pany, Fol­lies, A Lit­tle Night Mu­sic, The Frogs, Pa­cific Over­tures, Sweeney Todd, and Mer­rily We Roll Along. Be­cause his topic is lyrics, he also in­cludes shows for which he served only as word­smith: West Side Story (mu­sic by Leonard Bern­stein), Gypsy (mu­sic by Jule Styne), and Do I Hear a Waltz? (mu­sic by Richard Rodgers). That lineup in­cludes sev­eral awe-in­spir­ing en­tries, but Sond­heim is mer­ci­less

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