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Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim

Finishing the Hat (2010)

by Stephen Sondheim

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3871142,894 (4.55)8
Stephen Sondheim has won seven Tonys, an Academy Award, seven Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors. His lyrics have become synonymous with musical theater and popular culture, and here Sondheim has not only collected his lyrics for the first time, he is giving readers a rare personal look into his life as well as his remarkable productions. Along with the lyrics for all of his musicals from 1954 to 1981--including West Side Story, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd--Sondheim treats us to never-before-published songs cut or discarded from each show. He discusses his relationship with his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, and his collaborations with extraordinary talents from Leonard Bernstein to Angela Lansbury. The anecdotes--filled with pointed observations and intimate details--transport us back to a time when theater was a major pillar of American culture. Best of all, Sondheim offers unparalleled insights into songwriting.--From publisher description.… (more)
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Because I'm a nerd, there's no way I couldn't love this. ( )
  Katie_Roscher | Jan 18, 2019 |
In this remarkable volume, Stephen Sondheim collects the lyrics (used, unused and reused) from his first 10 Broadway productions ("West Side Story" to "Merrily We Roll Along") as well as his first professional production ("Saturday Night") and another piece ("The Frogs"). A second volume - 'Look, I Made A Hat' - will follow in late 2011 with all his post-1981 lyrics, as well as his earlier TV and film work, and (assumedly) various songs he wrote for individual productions in the early days. And indeed, these two volumes are going to have pride of place on my shelf for many years to come.

To call Sondheim intelligent is a cruel understatement. As evidenced by the lyrics here, he never just dashes off a song and ignores it: a change of pronoun or a shift in tense conveys so much meaning in a Sondheim song. He discusses here the use of non-Latinate words in "Pacific Overtures", the reasons why some patter songs ("Getting Married Today") have a strong sense of structure while others ("The Worst Pies in London") do not, why inter-rhymes should only be used in the right situations with the right characters, and so on. Duly, Sondheim gives credit to the book writers with whom he has worked, and the array of talented directors, cast and crew who brought these visions to life. Sondheim is an artisan and part of a team, true enough. But this cannot disguise the fact that he is musical theatre's Shakespeare, never shirking from a challenge and always presenting us with more dimensions than we could have thought possible. This is a masterclass in song writing (not just for musicals, incidentally) written by the unparalleled master of the form.

In addition, Sondheim offers up his distilled thoughts on a number of 'Golden Age' lyricists - from Gershwin and Porter, to Fields and Hammerstein - but refuses to sugarcoat his opinions. Noel Coward is taken out and shot, basically. It's refreshing, first of all, to hear these uncensored comments. Sondheim is by no means cruel: personal opinions may surface, but we're presented primarily with academic discussions on the failings (or successes) of the typically-accepted pantheon of American songwriters. (My personal favourite was when Sondheim pointed the obvious flaws in some of Henry Higgins' lyrics in "My Fair Lady" - a musical he very much enjoys, but suggests is less gramatically correct than someone of Higgins' idiosyncracies would accept.)

At the same time, though, Sondheim is not a fool: he acknowledges that the pre-Hammerstein lyricists were working in a different era, with different goals as to character creation. The aim is not to limit the enjoyment of those who listen to this songs, but merely to argue for recognition of the growth and evolution of the medium. And Sondheim himself hardly gets off lightly: he is his own harshest critic, disdainful of lyrics that I - and many other fans - would surely adore. (The sweetest moments - although few and far between - come when he acknowledges that he does like a particular lyric of his own, one example being the simple but chilling "...and it was" from the end of 'Four Black Dragons'.)

At the end of the day, this is a necessity for Sondheads, highly recommended for any lovers of the musical theatre, and really a good read for anyone who has pondered lyric writing, or just enjoys the creation of art. Like all fans, I'm sure, there were many lines when I was disappointed to see no annotations but - of course - most of the time there would be very little to be said other than "this was good" or "this was bad". His lyrics stand as testaments to the art of presenting character, plot, theme and emotion through song. I don't mind when 'mainstream audiences' prefer to attend "Grease" or "Jersey Boys" to "Pacific Overtures"; that is the status quo in any artistic medium. But it does annoy me to a feverish degree when 'Broadway lovers' or 'musical theatre geeks' spend their days belting out tunes from 'Wicked' - whose lyrics I'd love to hear Sondheim take apart - while ignoring the great variety of works featured in this two-volume collection. I truly hope that - with re-releases of his recordings, and the release of these books - the lyrics contained herein, along with their masterful music, characters and stories can come to be appreciated by a far wider audience. ( )
  therebelprince | Oct 30, 2018 |
This is a book for die-hard Sondheim fans, budding lyricists or lyric aficionados only.

With the lyrics to all his shows between 1954 - 1981 as well as many additional tidbits, this is a fascinating insight into the most talented man in musical theatre.

Sondheim studies his own work and dissects his lyrics, as well as those of others in an open and rather frank manner.

A simply superb insight into songwriting.

  ElaineRuss | Sep 23, 2013 |
Yep, that about covers it. Lyrics from Saturday Night to Merrily We Roll Along, though really I’m only in it for Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the cast recording of Angela Lansbury & George Hearn so familiar to me that I can tell when that production diverged from the lyrics he puts down in the book. The man hates critics and grumps that musicals are the only art form reviewed by illiterates; at least, he says, visual art is usually reviewed by failed visual artists. For me, the interest was mostly in the musicals and not in his extensive commentary. ( )
  rivkat | May 27, 2013 |
Normally I don't make a habit of reading song lyrics. Yeah, with a rock record I'll sometimes sit down with the liner notes and read along, but mostly I'll refer to the lyric only if I can't suss out what's being sung. This book is the exception for two reasons: 1) These aren't rock lyrics. Sondheim is a great writer in this form. Literate and witty, these are songs meant to tell stories. Although they're meant to be coupled with music, they're good enough to be taken on their own. 2) This isn't just a collection of lyrics. The lyrics serve as springboards to discussions of the creative process and creative outcomes. Sondheim, at age 80, is clear-eyed about his work. When he tells us what worked, what didn't, and why, his arguments are irrefutable enough that this reader can only nod his head in agreement.

Sondheim, in propounding his philosophy of lyric writing, also places some of the greats of previous generations under the lens and offers his opinions on their bodies of work. Even his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, gets the treatment. ("Oh What a Beautiful Morning" --good! "Climb Every Mountain --bad!) The reader will learn the terminology used by insiders. Now I'll always know when I'm hearing a "list song", for example.

Sondheim's core principles are that content dictates form, less is more, and...er...a few others that I've forgotten. He also believes in rhyming. Not approximate rhyming, but "true" or exact rhyming. Not just as a creative restriction. The importance of rhyming, he tells us, is to reinforce what the ear has just heard. As someone who sometimes struggles to keep up with the words in theater songs, I agree wholeheartedly. One should not assume from this that Sondheim's lyrics are all "moon, June and spoon". They're creative as hell. Open the book to any random page and you'll see what I mean. Here, I'll do it right now: elixir/nick, sir -- gamut/dammit -- barbari[ans]/hairy.

The grudges and whines listed in the title are just the author being self-deprecating. But there are heresies. For example, he hates the time honored tradition of a group of people singing a single thought in unison. He shies away from doing this unless to highlight the fact that people are acting or thinking without individuality. And there are anecdotes. Some very funny ones are told, especially about Ethel Merman and Hermione Gingold. I don't think I'll ever be able to see Gingold on screen again without laughing inappropriately.

There are thirteen shows covered here, up to 1981's "Merrily We Roll Along". There is a sequel promised, yet these shows represent about 2/3 of Sondheim's output. So why a book of such length? Why not save more material for the sequel? I thought this until I read the section on "Merrily We Roll Along". Sondheim was 50 when he wrote that show, and its subject was a successful songwriter of a similar age, from a vantage point of financial and critical success juxtaposed with frayed and failed relationships. The story is told backward in time, ending with the promising start of lasting friendships and a career on the rise. Happier times. Although Sondheim rejects the notion that creative artists' characters reflect their own personalities, he confesses some autobiographical feelings expressed in "Merrily" (at east in so far as it portrays a young songwriter trying to get "the suits" to appreciate his good work), there couldn't be a more poignant place at which to end this book. ( )
  EricKibler | Apr 6, 2013 |
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"I collabor him and he collabors me." – George Furth, Merrily We Roll Along
To my unsung collaborators:
Julius J. Epstein,
Arthur Laurents,
Burt Shevelove,
Larry Gelbart,
George Furth,
James Goldman,
John Weidman,
Hugh Wheeler,
James Lapine
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This book is a contradiction in terms.
Poetry is an art of concision, lyrics of expansion. Poems depend on packed images, on resonance and juxtaposition, on density.
Poetry can be set to music gracefully ... but the music benefits more from the poem which gives it structure than the poem does from the music, which often distorts not only the poet's phrasing but also the language itself, clipping syllables short or extending them into near-unintelligibility. Music straitjackets a poem and prevents it from breathing on its own, whereas it liberates a lyric. Poetry doesn't need music; lyrics do.
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