Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book Review: "Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes" by Stephen Sondheim

I have long had a love affair with musical theatre. When I was younger, this love affair was all-consuming; anything and everything Broadway-related, from Andrew Lloyd Webber to (shudder) Frank Wildhorn, was fair game, and I admit that I had at least two versions of the Jekyll and Hyde soundtrack in my CD collection. However, with age and experience comes discernment. While I still have a fondness for some ALW, my interest in Wildhorn's pedestrian work died before I entered college and any lingering attachment perished when David Hasselhoff played the title role(s) in a televised version of Jekyll and Hyde.

Luckily, college introduced me to the works of Stephen Sondheim, and ever since, I have become a bit of a Sondheim snob. Consequently, when I heard that he was writing a book that included the lyrics for his shows, as well as essays and reflections on the songs, I was psyched (sadly enough, I probably used this exact phrase when telling my students about it. Unsurprisingly, they were not nearly as excited as I was).

Finishing the Hat includes the lyrics for Sondheim's shows from Saturday Night (conceived of before West Side Story, but unperformed until 1997) to the wonderful (if poorly received) Merrily We Roll Along. Interspersed among all of the lyrics are overviews of the shows as well as short essays and notes about the songs (hence the Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes from the book's subtitle). The book also contains Sondheim's original notes and reflections on other lyric writers (all deceased), such as Oscar Hammerstein II (Sondheim's mentor), Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter. In short, this book is a musical lover's dream come true.

While the lyrics are the real star of the book (and, as Sondheim noted in his interview with Terry Gross for NPR's Fresh Air, they read very well on the page), I found myself really enjoying his thoughts upon revisiting the lyrics. For instance, his explanation for changing "Rich and Happy" to "That Frank" not only helps us understand his rationale for the change but also gives us a deeper appreciation for the thought that he puts into his music and lyrics. I also enjoyed Sondheim's forthrightness and candor, which rarely devolve into malicious gossip (the closest he gets is in his recollections of The Frogs). He is quick to praise the lyricists who came before him and influenced his work (as his pastiche work in Follies shows), but he also does not hold back when it comes to critiquing their more questionable lyrics. Even as I felt myself getting defensive on behalf of lyricists like Gershwin (whose work Sondheim refers to as "Rhyming poison"), Sondheim uses specific examples to prove his points, and even when I admire the lyricist in question, I often found myself understanding and agreeing with Sondheim's anlysis.

One of the roads I didn't take was taking a course (or set of courses) dedicated to musical theatre. However, Sondheim's Finishing the Hat provides a veritable master class on musical theatre and the thought and care that go into creating a musical. Read it while listening to Sondheim's songs, and you will get the full appreciation of a master at work.