"Finishing the Hat," one of the strongest and most incisive songs in Stephen Sondheim's canon, is not about "finishing the hat"; it is more precisely about the artistic act of making (creating) a hat "where there never was a hat." A theatre song starts with a character (like George, in Sunday in the Park) and a situation (he is immersed in his sketches, his lover/model having just left him as he always knew she would). "We need a song here," says the librettist, or he writes in his first draft, or perhaps the songwriter long ago mapped out the spot. In any event, the songwriter faces a blank canvas, as it were; in Sondheim's case, as he has told us repeatedly, he typically lies supine on the couch in the living room of his Turtle Bay townhouse with a legal pad and a clutch of sharpened Palomino Blackwing 602 pencils. He stares at the page, cognizant of the space he needs to fill but at a loss as to how to do so. And then comes an idea; many ideas, perhaps, which are quickly discarded (or slowly discarded after hours or days of effort). But finally, magically: "look, I made a hat — where there never was a hat."
Sondheim last fall gave us a monumental book called — not coincidentally — "Finishing the Hat." This was a survey of his lyrics, beginning with the legendary West Side Story and Gypsy; continuing with the Shows That Changed the World, Broadway-wise, namely the legendary Company and Follies; and taking us through the end of the so-called Sondheim/Prince years, with the legendary Sweeney Todd and the initially notorious Merrily We Roll Along. The lyrics were the bricks of the book; the commentary on the lyrics and shows was the cream, and the observations-in-passing on matters diverse was the schlag. (The Master would no doubt complain bitterly at the imperfect combination of bricks and dairy, and rightly so.)
Now he returns with Look, I Made a Hat [Knopf]. Actually, the title page says "Look, I Made a Hat * Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany." A pithy subtitle for a pithy book filled with not only bricks — er, lyrics — but a meringue of Harangues, Digressions, et al. The first volume, on the other hand, was stuffed with "Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes." Leave it to Stephen ("God Is in the Details") Sondheim to elucidate the distinction between harangues and heresies.
As with Volume One, this is required reading for us all. Us meaning anyone with an interest in anything musical, in the theatrical sense. Reading through page after page of lyrics can be interesting, but not necessarily meaty — especially if the corresponding melody isn't rattling around in your brain. Which is why, I suppose, Sondheim has layered his tome with so much more. The purpose of each song within the context of the show and the plot; how and why he wrote the song, perhaps; and why it worked or didn't, or should have but stubbornly refused to cooperate.
Scattered around are more general observations in the form of what the author calls "sidebars." "Finishing the Hat," famously, had sidebars on Broadway's most celebrated lyricists of the past. Sondheim raised eyebrows — and how! — with his brutally candid assessments of the work of Oscar, Ira, Larry Hart, Alan Lerner and others. (As far as I'm concerned, you can offer any such opinions you wish so long as you support and explain your points. This Sondheim meticulously did, and does.) Loesser, Porter and Harburg are more to his taste. The sidebars in "Look, I Made a Hat" turn to other topics. There are indeed two brief sections discussing lyricists who were not covered in the first book; nine of the ten receive nothing but praise. These include Johnny Mercer, Howard Dietz and Carolyn Leigh, assessments which we can enthusiastically second. I am especially glad to see a heartfelt paean to the late Hugh Martin. Hugh — a contemporary and peer of Hart, Porter, Berlin, Harburg et al — thought Sondheim supreme as both lyricist and composer; he would be especially pleased to find himself in these pages. If nine of ten lyricists are praised, that means that there is one holdout: P.G. Wodehouse. Sondheim made plain in the first book that he doesn't much appreciate W.S. Gilbert or Noel Coward, either.
A helpful sidebar is entitled "Critics and Their Uses," which is not all that complimentary but with which I find myself in full agreement (and I am, myself, a first-night Broadway critic). Another is called "Awards and Their Uselessness"; to quote the Master, "the only awards that have significant value are the ones that come with cash." He also refers to the so-called lifetime achievement award, of which he is today's premier theatre recipient, as "the Thanks-a-Lot-and-Out-with-the Garbage Award." (A dandily pithy phrase, don't you think?)
There's a sidebar on actors in revivals, and another on directors of revivals. "The problem is that a great many directors, not just the academics or the amateurs, reconceive for the sake of reconception, usually in the name of 'relevance' or 'fixing' the show's flaws. They want to be considered creators so desperately that they think nothing of rewriting the authors' work." He praises the approaches of people like John Doyle, but leaves us with the observation that "there's a difference between a rehash and a revival."
|photo by Joan Marcus|
If you skip up to the musicals listed in the second paragraph of this review, you will quickly grasp the difference between the first Sondheim volume and the second. Those glorious musicals — 13 of them, West Side Story to Sweeney Todd more or less — reside in "Finishing the Hat." "Look, I Made a Hat" gets Sunday in the Park, Into the Woods, Assassins and Passion. Oh, and Road Show. Remember Road Show? Sondheim spent 14 years working on this tale of the historical Brothers Mizner — one a conman and playwright, the other an architect — struggling away through version after version with librettist John Weidman and director after director after director. Sondheim splits discussion — and lyrics — into four extensive chapters, one covering the early workshops; the second covering Wise Guys, as the piece was called in its fully-staged "special workshop" for subscribers of the New York Theatre Workshop (staged by Sam Mendes, starring Nathan Lane and Victor Garber); the next covering Bounce (briefly known as Gold!), the Hal Prince version which played the Goodman in Chicago and the Eisenhower in Washington; and finally John Doyle's Road Show at The Public Theater.
This, we must note, is an awful lot of Road Show; roughly 110 of the 440 pages of text. (The lyrically dense Sweeney Todd, in Volume One, gets 42; Gypsy gets 22.) So you can see that this gives us very many pages of lyrics for which the average reader is sure not to know the music. Lots of bricks, if you will. Highly instructive, though, because Sondheim not only acknowledges the problems but explains how he — and Weidman, Mendes, Prince & Doyle — attempted to fix them. Referring to one of the offending songs in Bounce: "I worked on that damn thing for a month, which proves that it takes just as long to write a wrong song as a right one." We not only see the artist "finishing the hat," or trying to; we see our greatest artist trying, struggling, and trying again — for 14 years — to finish the unfinishable(?) hat.
Filling out the lyrics for Sunday in the Park, Into the Woods, Assassins, Passion and all those Road Shows, Sondheim turns the calendar back and "at the request of friends" includes earlier work which didn't make it into the first volume. This includes songs for shows, television musicals, films, and special occasions; we can only be glad that those friends made the request. These include minor contributions to such shows as Hot Spot and Illya Darling and major contributions to the 1973 version of Candide; also eight numbers from A Pray by Blecht, an adaptation of Brecht's The Exception and the Rule with music by Bernstein, book by John Guare, direction by Jerome Robbins, and a starring role for Zero Mostel. Announced for an early 1969 opening at the Broadhurst, but abandoned. Among the treasures at the tail end of the book are two birthday songs. "The Saga of Lenny," based on you-know-what and written for you-know-who's 70th birthday, is delicious. ("Poor Lenny / Ten gifts too many / The curse of being versatile / To show how bad the curse is / Will need a lot of verses / And take a little Weill.") Even better is "The Arthur Laurents Eightieth Birthday Song," sung by a returned-from-the-grave Ethel to a medley from Gypsy. "You look swell, you look great / Shit, you hardly look seventy-eight."
Welcome back to those of you who just slipped away to order the book.
Elsewhere, Sondheim gives us a veritable gallimaufry of observations and confidences. (If he is determined to use "gallimaufry" in every book he writes, I might as well adopt it here and now.) Let it be added that he sprinkles the book with delicious anecdotes and delectable word images; Sondheim has always protested that he doesn't write prose, but as the mule said to the burro, you could have fooled me.
When I sat down to write my 2010 review of "Finishing the Hat," I spent a few unnecessary days thumbing back through the book searching for items I meant to quote. This time around, I figured, I would mark every ultra-flavorful kernel with a sticky-note. (Pink, which I commandeered from my daughter's desk.) I now look at my copy of "Look, I Made a Hat" with seven dozen or so pink slips protruding in all directions. Unfortunately, the only way to figure out what I meant to cite is to go back and read each of the affected pages again. So while I intended to fill this column with dozens of quotes from Sondheim, that is not going to work. Just as well; you don't want me to spoil it for you? Although I could easily quote 40 passages and there'd be plenty remaining to savor. Let us leave with one telling anecdote. The 11-year-old Sondheim, back in 1942, was taken by his father to see friend-of-the-family Eddie Cantor starring in Banjo Eyes. This was a haphazard musicalization of the well-crafted 1935 John Cecil Holm-George Abbott farce, Three Men on a Horse. At one point during the matinee, Cantor turned to his stage wife and urged her to get dressed quickly because "We're going to the Sondheims' for dinner." In an instant, young Sondheim — long before he'd met even his first Hammerstein — was irrevocably struck with the musical comedy bug, for life.
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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