Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, by Stephen Sondheim (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)
For anyone interested in language and music theatre, this book offers fascinating insights into the fine art of writing lyrics for the stage, told by the great, curmudgeonly word-crafter Stephen Sondheim.
I was going to read this last fall, before we produced West Side Story, but never found the time. I’m glad I eventually picked it up. This is a big coffee table book, eminently dippable-into. Sondheim has included his scribbled first drafts, lyrics to songs that were cut from final versions of the shows, playbills, and plenty of photographs. I found that I devoured it in great chunks, though, fascinated by Sondheim’s rules on rhyme and rhythm and by his reflections on the talents and shortcomings of his predecessors W.S. Gilbert, Frank Loesser, Alan Jay Lerner, Lorenz Hart, and especially his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II.
Sondheim’s place at the top of the Broadway firmament is unquestioned, and eminently deserved, both as lyricist and as a composer. His output of superb, quirky musicals and their many hit songs, is breath-taking. Think about this: in the decade from 1970 to 1980, he wrote Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd, along with the lesser known The Frogs and the operatic Pacific Overtures. Those shows produced “Being Alive”, “I’m Still Here”, “Losing My Mind”, “Send in the Clowns”, “Johanna”, and Not While I’m Around”, just to list a few. If you are interested in the earlier period, you can read about the genesis of the hits West Side Story, Gypsy, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or of the flop Anyone Can Whistle, which closed after 9 performances, and Do I Hear a Waltz?” At the end is his Merrily We Roll Along, from 1981, starring Jason Alexander, which lasted for only 16 performances in its initial Broadway run.
This is an engrossing book. Borrow it from your public library. Or buy it for a music-theatre-loving friend as a birthday present. Or for your music-theatre-loving self.
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