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Book review: 'Finishing the Hat' by Stephen Sondheim

The first of a two-volume set of Sondheim's collected lyrics springs to life with sharp-eyed annotations, zingy anecdotes and frank appraisals of his most illustrious lyric-writing predecessors.

November 28, 2010|By Charles McNulty | Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

Finishing the Hat

Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes

Stephen Sondheim

Alfred A. Knopf: 480 pp., $39.95.

The essential qualities of Stephen Sondheim's artistic temperament — the peppery precision, the refusal to traffic in received wisdom and the commitment to truth over sentimentality — help turn what could have been a perfunctory curatorial service into the most valuable theater book of the year. "Finishing the Hat," the first of a two-volume set of Sondheim's collected lyrics, springs to life with sharp-eyed annotations, zingy anecdotes and frank appraisals of his most illustrious lyric-writing predecessors.

Sondheim on Sondheim alone is worth the price of admission. It's fascinating to hear about the complicated genesis of "Comedy Tonight," the opening number from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" that crucially establishes the show's "elegantly vulgar" comic tone. And what a privilege to be privy to his justification for a "trick rhyme," such as "personable"/ "coercin' a bull," from "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," the patter number from "Company" that merrily blends psychological indictment with Andrews Sisters pep.

Reviewing the songs he wrote with Leonard Bernstein for "West Side Story," Sondheim finds much to criticize about his early desire to verbally impress. After hearing a run-through of "I Feel Pretty," friend and fellow lyricist Sheldon Harnick gently pointed out that Maria probably wouldn't resort to such curlicue sentiments as "It's alarming how charming I feel!" Sondheim agreed, but his collaborators were pleased with what he had done and wouldn't consent to changes. "I have blushed ever since," he confesses.

The only thing perhaps more interesting than Sondheim dissecting his own work is Sondheim dissecting the work of his forbears. He is a Geiger counter for mis-stressed syllables, syntactical snarls and sacrifices of meaning for rhyme — chronic problems in the popular catalog of Lorenz Hart, whom Sondheim calls "the laziest of the preeminent lyricists."

Carping does indeed come naturally to him, but this isn't an exercise in snotty fault-finding. The book is a celebration of craft, an "Elements of Style" guide for theatrical songwriters. Sondheim generously bequeaths trade secrets to the next generation, which he refuses to subject to his unsparing scrutiny, knowing firsthand the pain that can be inflicted on an artist still searching for his voice.

The dead, however, remain fair game. When considering his beloved mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim engages in the same kind of "heavy duty nitpicking" that his great teacher modeled for him. This practice of examining each word in a song "with fierce care, because there are so few of them" reveals some wayward tendencies in Hammerstein's work, such as pointless repetitions, strained imagery and a full-blown obsession with birds. But it also allows Sondheim to appreciate that the man who could be breathtakingly "monumental" with simple emotions was "at his most poetic when he was at his least 'poetic.'"

Lush with insights into what Sondheim himself describes as a "fringe enthusiasm" (the theater being "an ancillary part of American culture these days"), "Finishing the Hat" is a masterful book on the art of writing — specialized to be sure but as widely resonant as the best of his songs.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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