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