Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat.

Collected Lyrics (1954-1981)

Virgin Books, Random House.


Sondheim’s song Finishing the Hat, from Sunday in the Park with George, is about the creation of beauty, hence the book's title. Although much of Sondheim’s work belongs more on Broadway than at the Lincoln Center, here the writer, 80 this year, discusses his own output in a book that will fascinate anyone interested in musical theatre.

“Almost all of the lyrics in these pages were written to be sung in particular musicals by individual characters in specific situations,” he says. Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems, in Sondheim’s view. By contrast, poems are written to be read, silently or aloud. Poetry is an art of concision. Lyric writing is an art of expansion. Poets tend to be poor lyricists, he says. In one sense, therefore, his book is oxymoronic, for one might ask why Sondheim would publish his lyrics in a book if he prefers people to hear them in their proper context? After all, the poetry of Homer, Virgil, Byron and Wordsworth is expansive, whereas Sondheim's lyrics are concise, terse, almost anorexic.

Finishing the Hat contains 500 pages of opinion, comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes, expressed by the winner of seven Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize. To read Sondheim’s notes on rhyme and its reasons, or his praise of the rhyming dictionary, is fascinating and instructive. “Stephen is a writer you can readily bracket with Shakespeare and Chekhov,” says Trevor Nunn, going perhaps a step too far for many poets and playwrights.

West Side Story (1957) enabled Sondheim to work with three of the most gifted men in music and theatre: Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents, the playwright and librettist. Sondheim emphasises principles: Content Dictates Form; Less is More; God is in the Details, all of which are in the service of Clarity. Trunk tunes, safety bars and buttons are explained - buttons being the endings which cue applause. Many pages of piano score are reproduced in facsimile from Sondheim’s own manuscript, written originally in the very soft lead of a Blackwing pencil.

Sondheim writes lying down on a couch, to enable him to fall asleep when he encounters difficulties. I didn’t fall asleep. Neither will you.

John Robert Brown

First published in Classical Music, Dec 2010. Used by permission
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