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‘Finishing the Hat’ by Stephen Sondheim

‘Finishing the Hat’ by Stephen Sondheim

Author: Michael Klein

November 16, 2010

For Sondheim lovers—and like recovering alcoholics, we are legion—Finishing the Hat (Knopf) is far and beyond the most adroit and comprehensive look at the man and his music that has ever been written.

Meryle Secrest and Martin Gottfried wrote biographies of Sondheim but both books were badly written and, more importantly, Secrest knew nothing about music. While those earlier efforts tried to bring a memoirist’s intimacy to Sondheim’s life,  Sondheim chose to bring an expert’s one—and not to his life, per se—but to the lives of his first thirteen productions (from “West Side Story” to “Merrily We Roll Along”) written for Broadway. A second volume will be published in the fall of 2011.

More like a scrapbook than a strict non-fiction account of an important piece of Broadway musical history, Finishing the Hat incorporates complete lyrics from the thirteen productions (and some lyrics that were never used), photographs, footnotes and anecdotes on songs and theater people. It also includes a somewhat intrusive but engaging running analysis of other pre-eminent lyricists before Sondheim:  Noel Coward, Cole Porter and, the only woman, Dorothy Fields. And it tells a few (there should have been more) stories about some of the actors from Sondheim shows (Hermione Gingold’s audition for “A Little Night Music” is hysterical).

Sondheim’s writing style is close in style to that of his lyrics: concise, smart and disarmingly funny. He writes very much in the same way he speaks and doesn’t ruminate as much as illustrate. He can also be unmerciful when it comes to talking about other people – particularly other lyricists: “Lorenz Hart is the laziest of the pre-eminent lyricists, and one of the most disconcerting (the other two being Ira Gershwin and Noel Coward).”

On other subjects, he can be just as critical:

Directors:  “…there are two kinds of directors:  those who are writers and those who want to be, or, more ominously, think they are.”

But also revelatory when it comes to how he feels he’s perceived:

“West Side Story”:  “It tagged and then dogged me with the label ‘lyricist,’ so that when my music finally popped into the open two shows and five years later, I was dismissed by some as an overly ambitious pretender who should stick to his own side of the street.”

The surprising feature of “Finishing the Hat” is how workmanlike Sondheim is when talking about his own craft.  While on the one hand he is seen (and he, himself, is well aware of this) as someone who has revolutionized the American musical theater by choosing stories that seem, on the surface anyway, unmusical, he is very methodical, almost traditional, in his approach to songwriting and incredibly disciplined when it comes to finding the right word and the right stress for the right word in a lyrical line.

One feels, justifiably so, at the end of  the book, that Stephen Sondheim’s great achievement is writing lyrics and music that are as complex as life and the making of art itself,  and the song “Finishing the Hat,” (from “Sunday in The Park With George”) may be his most beautiful statement about them both.  Look I made a hat, where there never was a hat are the song’s final words and, interestingly enough, Sondheim himself says it is “the only song I’ve written which is an immediate expression of a personal internal experience.”

And in one other rare moment of self-exploration, Sondheim admits to something that his almost staunch self-assured nature would not necessarily indicate at all:  “To believe that ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ is my credo is to believe that I’m the prototypical Repressed Intellectual and that explains everything about me.  Perhaps being tagged with a cliché shouldn’t bother me, but it does, and to my chagrin I realize it means that I care more about how I’m perceived than I wish I did.”

What Finishing the Hat eludes to more than anything else is what his musical autobiography, “Sondheim on Sondheim,” also suggests:  that the man is even more complex than his music.
Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Accolades
by Stephen Sondheim
ISBN: 9780679439073, $39.95, 440 pages

Michael Klein photo

About: Michael Klein

Michael Klein has won two Lambda Literary Awards for poetry and taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College, City College of New York, Binghamton University.  He is currently a faculty member in the MFA Program at Goddard College. His latest book of poems is "then, we were still living" ( which was a Lambda finalist, and his new book of poems, "The Talking Day" will be published in 2013 by Sibling Rivalry Press.

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