The Ballads of Stephen Sondheim

'Finishing the Hat' by Stephen Sondheim (Knopf)

Kelly E. Perron

'Finishing the Hat' by Stephen Sondheim is available in bookstores now.

Stephen Sondheim devotes a considerable portion of his new book, “Finishing the Hat,” to an argument about why he should not have written it in the first place. Theater lyrics, he argues, should be sung in their proper context, and not read on the page like poetry. A book such as “Hat” that primarily serves as a compilation of lyrics, then, should prove an inane exercise. In practice, however, Sondheim dismisses these misgivings.

“Finishing the Hat”—which will soon be joined by a second volume that covers Sondheim’s musicals after 1981—provides a fascinating and illuminating glimpse into the mind of modern musical theater’s greatest writer. While lyrics comprise the bulk of “Hat,” Sondheim offers a revealing gloss of these songs in addition to personal anecdotes about the development of his many shows. “Hat” is less a bible for the Sondheim aficionado than it is an insightful meditation on the process of creating art.

Listed in order of appearance in Sondheim’s life, a cast of characters—which serves as a veritable who’s who of influential theater artists of the twentieth century—opens the book. Starting “Hat” with this convention of theatrical writing illustrates a point to which Sondheim continually returns: the collaboration demanded in theater. He details the importance of writing with the staging in mind—a lesson he learns after director Jerome Robbins heatedly questions what Tony is supposed to do onstage during the song “Maria” in “West Side Story”—and his need for partners such as the librettist to feed his creative flow.

In the same vein, Sondheim frequently offers poignant reflections on what art can achieve on an individual level. “To be part of a collaboration is to be part of a family, and for me—the only child of constantly working and mostly absent parents, a kid who grew up without any sense of family—every new show provides me with one,” he writes. “It may be a temporary family, but it always gives me a solid sense of belonging to something outside of myself.”

This terse explanation of his home life forms the extent to which Sondheim delves into his own personal life; his focus is less the private influences that shaped his work and more the technical practice of his craft. Still, enough anecdotes about Sondheim and the artistic giants with whom he worked abound to satisfy curiosity about both the highs (Cole Porter jubilantly expressing delight over a rhyme in the song “Together, Wherever We Go” from “Gypsy”) and lows (clashing with composer Richard Rodgers while working on “Do I Hear a Waltz?”).

Throughout the lyrics—elegant and intricate pieces of writing which alone would merit their own book—Sondheim explains the nuances of rhyme and the necessity of character exploration, proving his points with direct examples from his work. He does not shy away from self-criticism, disparaging several ill-advised choices he now regrets and genially celebrating those decisions of which he is most proud. Through these mistakes and successes, Sondheim presents ground rules and sins of songwriting, as well as his three most crucial principles: content dictates form, less is more, and god is in the details.

Similarly, Sondheim is not afraid to criticize his peers—although he avoids writing about those who are still alive, for fear of hurting their feelings or stifling their work. The sidebars in which he explicates the work of others showcase Sondheim at his most playful and witty, and negatively demonstrate the standards for which he argues.

As Sondheim insists in the book, no one is spared from his critique—even his mentor and surrogate father Oscar Hammerstein II, which he vigorously proves in the sidebar concerning Hammerstein. “The flowery affectation of operetta lyrics [as taught by Hammerstein’s mentor Otto Harbach] was something Hammerstein subsequently could never entirely shake,” he writes. “That quality is what makes so much of his work feel old-fashioned and sugary today.”

He then goes on to criticize the diction of many of Hammerstein’s most beloved lyrics: for example, country bumpkin Nellie Forbush’s unnatural use of the word “bromidic” and the mention of an impossible “bright canary yellow” sky, both from the show “South Pacific.” Hammerstein’s infatuation with bird imagery particularly puzzles Sondheim. Of the lyric “A lark that is learning to pray” from “The Sound of Music,” he writes, “And while we’re at it, how can you tell a lark that is just learning to pray from one that’s actually praying? Wait a minute—a lark praying? What are we talking about?”

Such sensible and sharp observations pervade “Finishing the Hat.” However, Sondheim is generally careful not to explicitly denigrate such classic shows but instead use them as jumping-off points to teach his ideals.

In the introduction, Sondheim in fact explains that his reason for crafting the book rests in its instructive functions. He does not seek to present a work that appeals only to those in the know. Rather, Sondheim hopes that his observations prove valuable to anyone interested in the creative process. “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,” he writes.

This broad view of the artistic experience saturates the book. “Finishing the Hat” borrows its title from a song in “Sunday in the Park with George,” Sondheim’s rumination on the power of art. “Look, I made a hat, where there never was a hat,” sings painter Georges Seurat as he begins to appreciate the compulsive satisfaction that stems from creation. Sondheim has effectively captured this elation—both on the stage and on the page.

—Staff writer Ali R. Leskowitz can be reached at aleskow@fas.harvard.edu.

Tags