Book Review by Alan Gomberg
Book Review by Alan Gomberg
In June 1970, when I was 12, I had to spend a couple of weeks in the hospital. Not long before, I had bought the recently issued original cast recording of Company. When my parents took me to the hospital, I brought my portable record player and the Company LP, which I listened to several times every day.
Soon after that, I saw Company. I had already seen a fair number of Broadway shows, including such great musicals as Fiddler on the Roof and 1776. Company was the first that I had to see again.
That recording and that show were transformative experiences for me. Those songs made me feel like I was an adult. I had never heard anything like them before: those cutting, incredibly packed, witty lyrics; that striking, angular music. Not that I "got" everything in the lyrics. Like Elaine Stritch, I thought that the line "Perhaps a piece of Mahler's" referred to a piece of pastry. Actually, I thought it was "a piece of Moller's," and that Moller´s was a famous Manhattan bakery.
Since then, I have read almost everything there is to read about Sondheim and his work. Like a number of other people, I’m a little obsessive about Sondheim. So, of course, I'm thrilled that his new book, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, is now here.
First of all, thank you, Mr. Sondheim. Thank you, Knopf. Thank you to everyone who made this book happen.
The book starts beautifully and imaginatively. The first things you see, on the front end-piece pages, are Sondheim's three principles of lyric writing: Content Dictates Form; Less Is More; God Is in the Details.
Then there is Sondheim's dedication of the book: "to my unsung collaborators." All the book writers with whom he's collaborated are listed. Below that is one of my favorite lines from any Sondheim musical (and it's a line that was not even written by him, but by George Furth): "I collabor him and he collabors me." Appropriately enough, this linefrom Sondheim's one show about people who write musicals, Merrily We Roll Alongis a joke made by a character who's a book writer and lyricist about his collaboration with a composer. In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim makes sure to remind people, as he has in the past, that there would be nothing without his book writers. Since I feel that almost all of the shows with Sondheim scores have superb books, I'm pleased that he frequently takes pains to pay tribute to the excellent writers whose characters have so inspired him.
What follows the dedication is a remarkably stimulating book that's tremendous fun to read. Sondheim always knows how to entertain and how to use words.
This book collects most of Sondheim's work from 1954 to 1981. (A second volume, covering the later work, is on the way.) It covers all the stage musicals for which Sondheim was the lyricist during that period, starting with Saturday Night (even though it wasn't produced onstage till 1997) and continuing through Merrily We Roll Along. For the shows that had significant amounts of new or revised material added after 1981, the new material is generally included.
The use of the word "collected" rather than "complete" in the book's subtitle signals that the two books will not include absolutely every Sondheim lyric, much less every variant in every draft. Among the lyrics from between 1954 and 1981 not to be found here are those for Evening Primrose (which it seems will be in the second volume), several pop and/or nightclub songs, and the songs Sondheim wrote or co-wrote (without credit at the time) for the Judy Holliday musical Hot Spot.
Although I hope the second volume will include some of the other earlier work not included here, perhaps even some from before 1954, it does seem that Sondheim must have decided to not include certain lyrics in either book. The following are some of the lyrics missing here that seem unlikely to show up in the second book:
Of course, Sondheim completists already have in some printed format most of what's in this book, even if just in a CD booklet in some cases. Even if you wish that more had been included, there's extraordinary pleasure to be gotten from what is here, including previously unpublished gems like the largely new lyric for "Free" written for the film version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It's a pity that the song was never filmed. Sondheim plotted out how it should be shot, cutting to visualizations of Pseudolus's fantasies of his life when he's at last free. This bit would have accompanied a scene of Pseudolus swimming at the baths.
Then there's the original version of the opening line for "Perpetual Anticipation," which was changed at Hal Prince's request:
And there's the giddily insincere lyric for "Darling!" This song for Gussie was cut during previews of Merrily We Roll Along. (The book states, incorrectly, that it was cut before rehearsals.) Here Gussie is singing about her former husband, Joe, who's down on his luck and has been asking everyone for money:
Who else could come up with something like that? Brilliantly clever, but beyond the cleverness, it helped to vividly characterize Gussie (as she was written in the original version of the show).
Adding to the value of the book are Sondheim's introductions to each show, usually focused on his memories of the show's development. Also valuable are the commentaries that follow many of the lyrics, which are sometimes explanatory, sometimes critical, sometimes both. Much of this will not be new to those of us who are Sondheim devotees, but we'll love it anyway. We'll also sometimes find statements on factual matters that are inconsistent with what has been written in the past. In many cases, what was written in the past was correct. (More on that later.) Even a relative newcomer to Sondheim's work might be confused at times by some of the internal inconsistencies in the book. Still, Sondheim does discuss some things more clearly and in more detail than in the past.
Much of the fascination of the book lies in how unabashedly Sondheim speaks his mind. His strongly stated principles of lyric writing, laid out in detail, and his short essays "about the men and woman (yes, just one) who by general consensus comprise the Pantheon of Great Lyricists in the English-speaking musical theatre" are major attractions.
Actually, he doesn't comment on at least one of the acknowledged greats (Harnick) since he comments only on those who are dead. Explaining why, he writes, "How can you comment critically on someone's work without hurting the writer whose work you're criticizing? My answer is cowardly but simple: criticize only the dead." Nor does he write about the work of Comden and Green or Ebb, explaining that "their loss is too recent, and they were friends."
When writing about his own lyrics, he's often endearingly self-critical. "Class" from Saturday Night is full of "exemplary transgressions." Commenting on his rhyming of "woman" and "human" in "There's Always a Woman," he writes, "I have no excuse." (I had never realized he intended it as a rhyme.)
He isn't even altogether satisfied with a song as widely admired as "A Little Priest," referring to "the occasional clumsiness and flatness of the jokes, as in the 'financier' and 'politician' sections." To which I say: If the jokes were all brilliant, it would be too much. The lesser jokes give us a chance to catch our breath before laughing again. Not to mention that it's already a bit difficult to suspend disbelief at the spontaneous brilliance of Mrs. Lovett.
It will be no surprise to Sondheim devotees that he's also very critical of some of the great lyricists of the past. This may annoy readers who aren't prepared for it (and even some who are prepared). It's long been known that he has major reservations about the work of Hart and Ira Gershwin, and he's explained why in the past. Here he goes into more detail, but also finds things to praise in their work, acknowledging, for example, that Gershwin's style worked for satires such as Of Thee I Sing.
While his lack of enthusiasm for much of Hart's and Gershwin's work was known, to my knowledge he's never previously expressed in print his strong dislike of Noël Coward's lyrics. (He also doesn't care much for Coward's plays.) Comparing Coward and Porter, he writes, "Porter's wit is generous to the listener as well as to his targetsunlike Coward, he's sharing his thoughts with you, not trying to make you feel a bit slow and less witty than he is."
Some readers will probably be bothered and perhaps even a little mystified by Sondheim's arguably rather literal-minded objections to Hammerstein's poetic imagery. A matter of taste, but you may find yourself wishing you could engage him in conversation about this (and some other things).
I'm sure some will also be bothered when he objects to Nellie Forbush's use of the word "bromidic" in "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy," seeing the word as out of character for "a self-professed 'corny as Kansas in August' girl." He may have forgotten that the use of "bromidic" to describe something trite was common in the 1940s. After all, when MGM made Ziegfeld Follies in 1945, they felt no need to add an explanatory note to the Gershwin song "The Babbitt and the Bromide."
As he's said in the past, he loves some of Hammerstein's lyrics but feels he was a rather limited writer. Here Sondheim links him with O'Neill (an apt and insightful comparison) as "experimental playwrights with things to say profound enough to override their literary limitations."
In contrast, he doesn't mention Lerner's experimental side at all. Lerner's experiments may not have been as successful as Hammerstein's, but he surely ranks near if not with Hammerstein and Sondheim himself as a writer drawn to the adventurous and the ambitious. Lerner is a lyricist about whom Sondheim has said little in the past. We learn here that Sondheim finds his work lacking in personality. Still, he describes My Fair Lady as "the most entertaining musical I've ever seen (exclusive of my own, of course)." It's nice to read that since all Franklin Shepard could find to say about My Fair Lady was "I sort of enjoyed it."
When praising lyricists he admires, no one does it better, but even with those lyricists, he sometimes spends more time criticizing than praising. Porter brings forth some of his most enthusiastic praise and some of his most astute observations, such as when he mentions how Porter was "unique in his frequent use of subtle variations from stanza to stanza."
He is also especially enthusiastic about Fields and Loesser, writing of the latter that at his best he "was able to perform the rare trick of sounding modestly conversational and brilliantly dextrous at the same time."
He doesn't discuss composers in comparable detail, but he does occasionally express his feelings about some of them. When he does, it's almost always in positive terms (except when discussing Coward). He mentions that Arlen and Kern are his two favorite composers, and he describes Cy Coleman's music as "the essence of grace and sophistication."
Although we know he didn't have much personal affection for Richard Rodgers, he praises his music at several points, most unexpectedly when discussing Do I Hear a Waltz? (Admittedly, though, he praises only certain songs in the show.) He's always been highly critical of this show, which is liked a great deal by many musical-theatre aficionados, so it's nice to read him acknowledge some of its good points and praise some of the music, especially since Rodgers himself didn't think he'd written much good music for the show.
Sondheim states in his "Note to the Reader" that "There are some minor discrepancies between the lyrics printed herein and those printed in other sources because, apart from the occasional misprint, I sometimes change my mind about word choices after first, or even second, publication. The ones in this book can be considered definitive. Until I change my mind." There certainly are some word choices that are different from those in other sources. Despite Sondheim's assurance that everything here represents his current, well-considered preferences, some choices raise the question of how carefully he supervised this book.
For example, the source used for the Anyone Can Whistle chapter seems to be the Random House published script, which has always had its puzzling aspects. Several numbers ("Simple," "Come Play Wiz Me" and "I've Got You Lean On") have some material that was not in the Broadway production, on the cast recording, or in the published score, but there's no indication of that here. In most of the book, when Sondheim includes cut material, the cut sections are identified as such. (Some but not all of the cut Whistle material was performed in the 1995 Carnegie Hall concert, but very little of it was in the recent Encores! production, which suggests that Sondheim doesn't regard it as essential.)
It's also odd that "The Right Girl" is not presented with its pre-Broadway final section included as a variant. This is surprising because not only was this section included on the Follies original cast recording, it was also in the 1985 New York Philharmonic concert, the 1987 London revision, and the Roundabout production (and the published script of that version).
In addition, there do seem to be some misprints here. For example, in "Bring Me My Bride," one letter being omitted makes a big difference when "peoples to degrade" becomes "people to degrade." There are several other misprints, including a missing line or two in a few of the more obscure songs, and a few instances in which lines are ascribed to the wrong character.
Also, there are places where more detailed notes would have been helpful in establishing the history of certain songs or where the plot description preceding a lyric contains inaccuracies.
I'm sorry to have to report that there are many factual errors of all sorts in Sondheim's commentaries and remembrances. Sondheim himself was aware that this might happen, acknowledging that his memory may not always be accurate and that he has therefore "checked the anecdotes and histories accompanying the songs with whoever is alive and still compos mentis." Since it was as long ago for them as it is for Sondheim, this seems not to have helped as much as Sondheim had hoped. Close reading of the text might have revealed to the editorial team some of the errors since the correct information has been published elsewhere in a good number of cases. In a few cases, as mentioned earlier, there are internal inconsistencies that should have raised a red flag.
To list all or even most of the factual errors is beyond the scope of this review, but here are a few errors and trouble spots:
Sondheim states that the tooth-pulling sequence in Sweeney Todd was cut from the original production during previews. In fact, the sequence was in the show during the entire Broadway run (unless it was cut for a time during previews but reinstated before opening night). It can be seen in two different videos of the original Broadway production, both shot some time after opening night. (The videos are part of the Theatre on Film and Tape collection at New York´s Library for the Performing Arts.)
The chapter on Merrily We Roll Along has an especially large number of inaccurate statements, some of them on the original production's history (especially regarding songs that were eventually cut), and some about when certain changes were made during the long process of post-Broadway revision.
Those who regard the original version of Merrily as superior to the revision may be bothered when Sondheim points to the Donmar Warehouse production winning the Olivier Award as proof that there's agreement on the success of the revision. What's not mentioned is that the production used a text that was closer to the original version than to the revision.
Moving away from Sondheim's own shows, here's something that bothered me but may not bother others. When discussing the "Golden Age of Musicals," Sondheim cites five songs as examples of the low standards of lyric writing found in those written before the late 1930s. Given the context, you'd expect that the songs he mentions would be from stage musicals. But two of the fiveBerlin's "Always," and Rodgers and Hart's "Lover"were neither written for nor heard in stage musicals. "Always" was written by Berlin for his wife. "Lover" was written for the film Love Me Tonight, but the lyric that Sondheim quotes is the sheet music version, which is completely different from the lyric in the film. Later in the book, he again cites that version of "Lover," dissecting it in some detail and incorrectly identifying it as being from The Boys From Syracuse. Sondheim's critiques of these lyrics may be completely valid, but they're not examples of what he's ostensibly discussing. (It also seems possible that the "Lover" lyric was intended as a playful, affectionate parody of romantic lyrics with operetta diction and that everything Sondheim criticizes about it was intentional.)
I don't mean to suggest that the many errorsthe ones I've mentioned represent a very small portion of those in the bookderail the book. Some are rather minor. Identifying Otis L. Guernsey Jr. as a writer for the New York Times rather than the New York Herald Tribune or stating that the Tonys were nationally telecast in 1963 (they weren't nationally telecast until 1967) obviously neither invalidates Sondheim's opinions nor lessens the quality of his lyrics. And I'm not terribly concerned for Robert Brustein and Arlene Croce when Sondheim assails them for things they never wrote in reviews from many years ago.
Still, some of the errors are significant, and the sheer volume of them is troubling. There can be little doubt that some of the incorrect statements in this book will be repeated in future books and articles. With Sondheim's book listed as the source, they will have the aura of unassailable authenticity. To paraphrase online critic Glenn Erickson (DVD Savant), misinformation will become history.
The book is full of good photos, although a couple of captions are wrong and there are some strange omissions (for example, not a single photo of any actress as Desiree Armfeldt). It's also nice to have photos of Sondheim's manuscript pages, even if some are virtually impossible to read.
As a record of Sondheim's thoughts on the craft of writing lyrics, this book is hugely important. As a collection of his lyrics, though it's not quite as comprehensive as might have been hoped, it's a joy, especially for the previously unpublished lyrics. As history, it's a distinctly mixed bag.
In 1970, Walter Kerr ended his review of Company with "Personally, I'm sorry-grateful." I'll end this review by saying that I'm grateful-sorry. Very grateful but I do wish that a bit more care had been taken in the preparation of this book. After all, God is in the details.
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