The riches of Sondheim’s collected lyrics
Review BY Paul M. Puccio
News and Notes
Finishing the Hat
Rhyme and Its Reasons (excerpt)
Pacific Overtures (1976) (excerpt)
TSR assesses Sondheim’s first volume of collected lyrics
20 Years of Assassins
Sondheim 101: An overview of the controversial show
An Assassins chronology
Marc Kudisch added a new dimension as the Proprietor in 2004
The conclusion of Stephen Schiff’s “Deconstructing Sondheim”
Robert Lindsey-Nassif orchestrated Bounce in 2003
A college course comparied Mozart and Sondheim
Sondheim explored a collaboration with writer Terrence McNally
Sondheim on Film & Video (Part II) — three versions of Sweeney
Sarasota community theatre staged Sunday in the Park with George
Productions and Reviews
London’s Regent’s Park was the setting for an outdoor staging of Into the Woods
The Donmar Warehouse in London staged Passion
Orlando’s Mad Cow Theatre produced a well-received Company
Revival of West Side Story begins its national tour in Detroit
A revised second edition of Sondheim on Music has been published
The cast recording for Sondheim on Sondheim has been released
The original Evening Primrose has been released on DVD
Evening Primrose had a live, one-time performance in NYC
New Broadway history pays attention to Sondheim
Singing Sondheim: Recordings
Cryptic Crossword: “After Hours”
Solution to last issue’s crossword
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
The riches of Sondheim’s collected lyrics
Review BY Paul M. Puccio
In “Putting It Together” from Sunday in the Park with George, the latter-day artist expresses a view of creative work that captures both the circumstances and accomplishment of Finishing the Hat, the first volume of Stephen Sondheim’s collected lyrics:
If you feel a sense of coalition,
Then you never really stand alone.
If you want your work to reach fruition,
What you need’s a link with your tradition,
And of course a prominent commission,
Plus a little formal recognition,
So that you can go on exhibit —
So that your work can go on exhibition.
Certainly this handsome volume of lyrics is a worthy “exhibition” of Sondheim’s work from Saturday Night to Merrily We Roll Along.
Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) is dedicated to Sondheim’s “unsung collaborators,” from Julius J. Epstein to James Lapine. As Sondheim reminds readers, “Theater lyrics are … parts of a larger structure,” and he has always insisted that the characters and plots of “his” musical plays are the creation of librettists whose work is too often disregarded. While this book collects Sondheim’s lyrical output, his commentaries demonstrate that neither he nor his work stands alone.
There can be little doubt that Sondheim received considerable (and certainly well-deserved) formal recognition during 2010 on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The appearance of this volume at the end of that year is a fitting finale to these celebrations — though not, properly speaking, a finish, as a second volume of lyrics is forthcoming. And while the process of collecting lyrics might be most appropriate for a writer who has already developed a considerable corpus of work, it needn’t be seen as a valedictory act. Sondheim explains:
[W]hy collect these lyrics and make this book? Because a publisher asked me to; because it offered me the opportunity to append these comments on a craft I know a great deal about; because most of the lyrics are conversational and therefore stand the chance of being an entertaining read; but mostly because I think the explication of any craft, when articulated by an experienced practitioner, can be not only intriguing but also valuable.
In other words, it is Sondheim’s work that is at the center of this book. It is not a memoir, though there are personal reminiscences woven into it; it is not an autobiography, though readers will find illuminating glimpses of Sondheim’s working life in the theatre. Everything assembled in Finishing the Hat serves to display, examine and frame his lyrics. And while the book itself boasts many photographs, some of them unfamiliar even to ardent fans, it is much more than a coffee table confection.
Finishing the Hat is a richly structured book. Sondheim provides a statement of each play’s “Notion,” as well as “General Comments,” which include his observations about the history of the play’s development, comments about different productions and reflections on the creative process. There are reproductions of typescripts and manuscripts, which allow us glimpses into Sondheim’s (re)writing process, his efforts to find the most precise word for each phrase and line. Throughout are succinct essays on other lyricists , illuminating Sondheim’s link with his tradition: writers as varied as Lorenz Hart, W. S. Gilbert, Oscar Hammerstein II, Noël Coward, Cole Porter and Dorothy Fields.
These essays are characteristically insightful, frank and engaging. Gilbert’s patter lyrics “strike me as more like typing than writing, to use Truman Capote’s famous distinction.” Coward’s ballads “are no more flowery than Porter’s, but they’re postures; their passion is secondhand, the expression of someone trying to feel an emotion that isn’t there. They’re sexless.” Some of Porter’s lyrics reveal “one of the dangers of camp … it can skid from giddy to vulgar in the space of an entendre.” We’ve come to expect meticulous and original phrasing in Sondheim’s lyrics, but this book demonstrates that his prose is equally graceful, careful and provocative.
Finishing the Hat is not merely a compilation of lyrics that Sondheim enthusiasts and scholars have seen before. There are many rarities, songs that were cut from plays in development, such as “The Clubhouse,” an earlier “take” on the opening number for West Side Story; “The Lame, the Halt and the Blind,” a song to promote the miracle rock in Anyone Can Whistle; a duet for Follies’ Ben and Phyllis titled “The World’s Full of Girls/The World’s Full of Boys”; “The Beggar Woman’s Lullaby,” which Sondheim wrote for the London production of Sweeney Todd (and which was also heard in the 2002 Kennedy Center production).
In many cases, these lyrics are at least as entertaining and nimble as the more familiar authorized lyrics. Take, for instance, “The Wedding is Off,” the first song that Sondheim wrote for Amy in Company:
Look, if you enjoy public disaster,
If you like to snicker and scoff,
You can be sick forty times faster:
Go to a funeral, a funeral’s groovy,
Sit through an Antonioni movie,
Look into National Geographic,
Watch a pedestrian killed in traffic,
But, sorry, folks —
This wedding is off!
There are also alternate versions of familiar songs: for example, Barbra Streisand’s concert rendition of “I’m Still Here,” as well as the version sung by Shirley MacLaine in the film Postcards from the Edge, and the film versions of “America,” “The Glamorous Life” and “A Weekend in the Country.”
Sondheim’s marginal notes, some of them quite extensive, provide rich information about the songs themselves, such as the particular lyricist evoked in a pastiche number or the circumstances that led to a song being cut during rehearsal or a creative choice that shaped the meaning or impact of a song. While Sondheim admits that these commentaries often reflect personal preferences and tastes, his critiques are so detailed and contextual that they amount to lessons on lyric appreciation. Take for instance his gloss on the lines “Spend sleepless nights/To think about you” (“Losing My Mind”):
One of the pleasures of writing is noting how a single small word can change or intensify the emotional tone of what is being said (or sung) … using the word “to” instead of “and” … takes Sally a step further into her obsession with Ben.
An observation like this one is a kind of tutorial that demonstrates the value of attentive reading, suggesting the intricate meanings that can unfurl from the smallest word.
Sondheim’s self-criticism is likewise instructive and revelatory. He is especially “harsh” (his word) on the lyrics for “The Little Things You Do Together” (Company):
I tried to keep the touch as light as possible by sprinkling the good lines far from each other (“Children you destroy together … Getting a divorce together … Withering away together”), but the tight triple-rhyme scheme necessitated repetition and generalities, which draw attention to the lyricist rather than the lyrics, even when they make sense (do notions like “swear together” and “bait together” really mean anything?). The lyric succumbs to sophistry because substance is too often sacrificed for rhyme.
What other writer would so candidly denigrate his own work, while simultaneously providing a useful paradigm for understanding and assessing lyrics in general?
There are many pleasures in this book, but the fundamental one is reading the lyrics themselves: encountering the emotional and psychological states dramatized in them, savoring the rhymes, chuckling at the humor and playfulness, marveling at the rich nuances of the English language. It is a language that allows for mischievous word reversals (“perfectly awful” and “awfully perfect,” A Little Night Music), double entendres (“Watching little things grow,” A Little Night Music) and pliable sentence syntax (“We’ll serve anyone — !/And to anyone/At all,” Sweeney Todd).
Sondheim’s role in the development of American musical theatre has been argued abundantly, but Finishing the Hat invites readers to consider his contributions to English verse. Sondheim rightly distinguishes between poetry and lyrics: “Poetry is an art of concision, lyrics of expansion,” he asserts, adding that “Poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do.” Nevertheless, Sondheim’s lyrics, like the best poetry, mine the language for its richest possibilities. Like poetry, they rely on the most precise choice of words — deriving much of their energy from the intricate relationships between those words. And like poetry, they reveal that our language is an inexhaustible source of pleasure, revelation and beauty. |TSR|
PAUL M. PUCCIO is an associate professor of English at Bloomfield College in New Jersey and an associate editor of TSR.