Book Review by Alan Gomberg
Book Review by Alan Gomberg
Readers of Stephen Sondheim's first volume of collected lyrics (Finishing the Hat) who were disappointed that Sondheim didn't write much about his personal life in that book will be pleased to hear that he reveals a bit more in the second volume, Look, I Made a Hat. For example, he cries while watching Animal Planet. Often.
All right, he doesn't really reveal much about his personal life, but this time out you may come away feeling that you know him a bit better than you did before. In the past he has occasionally conveyed some vulnerability in interviews and public appearances, but here he is perhaps more open about his feelings than you may expect. For example, discussing the song "Move On," he writes: "The next-to-last lines ('Let it come from you / Then it will be new ...') express something I firmly believe but find increasingly hard to act on. I use it as a supportive thought when I hit those low moments, of taking on the fraudulence of what I'm writing, moments which occur with increasing frequency the older I get. It's a weak mantra, but one worth repeating as often as possible."
It's clear that Sondheim's fame and the esteem with which his work has long been regarded have not eliminated his need for approval (a need with which most of us can probably identify). He tells us that he was "thrilled" to learn from Warren Beatty that Paramount Pictures CEO Barry Diller loved what he had written for Reds. I imagine that most readers of this book will think that Diller is the one who should have been thrilled that Sondheim was writing music for the film. (Of course, Diller may have been thrilled.)
Perhaps it's that understandable need for approval that leads Sondheim to spend a little time here defending a couple of his shows. When writing about the derisive laughter that the original production of Passion provoked from some audience members, he suggests that the reason for the laughter was not that those people were unable to identify with the characters of Fosca and Giorgio, but that "they identified with Fosca and Giorgio all too readily and uncomfortably." I think Sondheim is right about this.
Given Sondheim's laudable penchant for covering in detail the changes made during a show's development, it's surprising that few of the specific changes made during this show's previews are discussed. I think that many readers would have been fascinated by more material on the changes. The original version of the final Giorgio and Clara sequence, which was completely rewritten during previews, might have been especially interesting to admirers of the show.
Sondheim is more generous here in his assessments of other lyricists than he was in Finishing the Hat. Discussing most of the major theatre lyricists of the "Golden Age" in the earlier book, he found a good deal to criticize even in the work of those he admires most. Here, discussing lyricists whose contributions to Broadway book musicals were relatively smallamong them, Johnny Mercer, Hugh Martin, Leo Robin, Howard Dietz, and Carolyn Leighhe has much positive and little negative to say. When he praises Robin's lyric for "Sunshine" from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or several of Martin's songs, it's hard to resist the urge to listen to them immediately. The only lyricist he appraises negatively is P. G. Wodehouse. (I'm a bit disappointed that the work of Harold Rome isn't discussed in either book.)
For anyone who has wondered if Sondheim feels bitter about West Side Story losing the major awards for best musical to The Music Man, his praise of Meredith Willson's score for the show, especially "Rock Island" ("one of the most startling and galvanic openings ever devised"), seems to answer the question.
Still, even though the tone here is often almost benevolent, Sondheim is sometimes a bit critical in this book, at least when discussing critics and certain types of musicals. Some readers may be surprised to find that his thoughts on theatre chat rooms are rather positive (though not completely so).
On balance, Sondheim comes off as mostly rather sweet, charmingly chatty, occasionally a bit defensive, and more than a bit vulnerable. He doesn't have to write in detail about his personal life for this book, along with Finishing the Hat, to provide those who are interested with some sense of his personality. If there are elements of this book that disappoint, the insights you gain into how Sondheim thinks about how to express character, conflict and dramatic content and into his own personal investment in the issues faced by the characters he depicts (in collaboration with his book writers) are invaluable.
As you would expect, his commentaries are informative, insightful, and written with wit and elegance. (On a small point, I'm hopeful that the introduction to the Into the Woods chapter may finally stop people from writing that Into the Woods was inspired by Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment. This has been stated with misguided certainty by manydespite both Sondheim and James Lapine having denied it in the past.)
The book covers Sondheim's musicals written after 1981 (not including the additional material he wrote for the 2004 revision of The Frogs, which was in Finishing the Hat), along with miscellany from all periods of his career, including a handful of lyrics from his student work. If you've wondered about the song he wrote for Ginger Rogers's nightclub act in 1959 or "The Saga of Lenny," his dazzling 70th birthday tribute (using Kurt Weill's music) to Leonard Bernstein, you'll find the lyrics here.
There are sections devoted to projects that never reached fruition, such as The Last Resorts (an unfinished collaboration with Jean and Walter Kerr) and Singing Out Loud, an unproduced movie musical (inspired by the film Holiday for Henrietta) that he worked on with William Goldman, which was to have been directed by Rob Reiner. There's also A Pray By Blecht, the musical version of Brecht's The Exception and the Rule for which Sondheim reluctantly agreed to write lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's music, but which never got to Broadway (or even rehearsals). Jerome Robbins was to direct, and John Guare was writing the book. The title, Sondheim tells us, "was Lenny's. None of us could talk him out of it, but I assure you we had no intention of keeping it."
It's great to have the lyric for the "Flag Song," an alternate opening number written for Assassins. Since Sondheim recycled the music into Road Show, you can even sing it. And who would have guessed that Art Garfunkel asked Sondheim to write an English lyric for a Peruvian folk song that Garfunkel wanted to adapt? Well, he did and the lyric is here. So there is much of great interest (much more than I've described), much to enjoy and be fascinated by, but there are also troublesome points.
As with Finishing the Hat, the book contains a number of statements that contradict previously published materials, along with others that raise unanswered questions and some that are inaccurate.
Some are of little importance. For instance, the book says that Julie Andrews returned to Broadway in Putting It Together, but the production that Andrews played in was Off-Broadway, and Sondheim seems to be under the impression that Johnny Mercer wrote "Jeepers Creepers" for the Broadway musical Swingin' the Dream, but it was already a famous, Oscar-nominated song by the time it was heard as part of a medley of popular songs in that show. The book states that John La Touche was replaced as the lyricist for Candide after his untimely death, but La Touche's involvement with the show ended in November 1954 (21 months before he died). One questionable statement that I find a bit more important is when Sondheim perpetuates the myth that the original production of Candide was "a critical disaster." It actually received more favorable reviews (including several raves) than unfavorable reviews from the major critics.
Sondheim is a bit misleading when discussing the Playwrights Horizons workshop of Sunday in the Park With George, which was closed to nonsubscribers and critics. He offers it as a typical example of how productions at a non-profit theatre work. Sondheim himself had a very different experience at the same theatre several years later with Assassins. That was more typical of productions at non-profit theatres in that critics were invited. Their negative notices scuttled an expected move to Broadway.
In the Passion chapter, he writes that Giorgio's song to Doctor Tambourri was written for the first London production of the show. In fact, the song was heard in early previews of the original Broadway production (though it was revised and cut slightly for London). A live audio from the first preview is included as an extra on the commercial DVD of the production.
Discussing "Something Just Broke," which was added to Assassins when the show was first produced in London, Sondheim writes that Sam Mendes (the production's director) "planted the seed" by saying that he felt there was a song missing near the end of the show. But in the book Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions, Sondheim said, "I'd always intended to write 'Something Just Broke,' and there just wasn't time. We opened the show Off-Broadway, and we thought we would have it transfer. I assumed by the time it transferred, I'd be able to write this extra number but then it never transferred, so I wrote it for London." Which of these scenarios is the correct one?
Revisiting "The Right Girl" from Follies, Sondheim includes an alternate final section of the lyric that was inadvertently left out of Finishing the Hat. Specifically, it's the section in which Buddy again imagines visiting Margie, including his realization that he doesn't love the right girl. Finishing the Hat contained only the ending that was performed in the original Broadway production. Introducing the version in the new book, Sondheim writes, "The ending printed in Finishing the Hat is the one I wrote originally. I replaced it years later and for the better, with this." Since this ending, save for one changed word, was on Capitol's original cast recording of the score (dating from 1971), that statement is a bit confusing. (To my knowledge, the reason for that change on the cast recording has never been explained in print.)
The chapter on Into the Woods also raises questions for the fan who is familiar with the various incarnations of the show. For example, only the original version of "Last Midnight" is here, despite the fact that the song was revised for the 2002 Broadway revival. That revival version of the show is the only one currently licensed. Has Sondheim changed his mind and decided that he now prefers the original lyric? If so, will the original version again be licensed?
Another example from the show is "Our Little World," a song first heard in the original London production and then revised for the 2002 revival. The version included here is a mix of those versions: a section in the original version that was cut from the revival is included, and the revival's new final section is also included (but the last word of that section is missing). In the section that was cut from the revival, several words are different from what's on the London cast recording and what was in the score as licensed by Music Theatre International before the revival version displaced it. Is the version in the book an intentionally re-edited and slightly rewritten version of the lyric? Or is it simply an attempt to include sections from both versions?
"Second Midnight," a major number that was performed in early previews of the original Broadway production, is included here in a version that is less complicated (and, I think, less interesting) than the version performed in those previews and on the demo included in The Story So Far, a four-CD collection of Sondheim's work issued in 2008. What was Sondheim's reason for choosing this simpler version instead of the version performed in previews?
There are similar questions about several other songs. In addition, a couple of songs are missing lines, while the "Into the Woods" reprise in the first part of act two has a couple of lines that have popped in from "So Happy."
A great deal of work has obviously gone into the chapter devoted to the tortured saga of Wise Guys, Bounce, and Road Show, Sondheim and book writer John Weidman's musical(s) about Wilson and Addison Mizner. The chapter is divided into four "acts." These document a 1998 Wise Guys reading, the 1999 Wise Guys workshop at New York Theatre Workshop, the 2003 Goodman Theatre-Kennedy Center production of Bounce, and the 2008 Public Theatre Road Show. The changes in focus, plot and character development from one version to the next are recounted clearly, which must have required a great deal of work. Sondheim's descriptions and commentaries are illuminating. The inclusion of some excellent lyrics for songs that never even made it to the Wise Guys workshop is also a plus.
The lyrics, however, are sometimes presented in ways that make them difficult to follow. With just one exception, revised lyrics are not presented in complete form. When a lyric was revised for the incarnation documented in that "act," the revised parts are often there, but you must turn to an earlier act to find the non-revised parts. One song, "Next to You," is never presented in complete form together in one place. Even when you jump around to piece it together, the pieces do not create an altogether accurate representation of the song.
Given Sondheim's belief that he and Weidman finally got the show they wanted with Road Show, it is surprising that a few bits heard in Road Show are missing. Specifically, some lines and small sections in "The Game" are missing, and a section of "Addison's Trip" that was also in the NYTW Wise Guys and Bounce is missing.
A few interesting bits from the NYTW Wise Guys and Bounce are also missing. There are some puzzling differences, mostly of a line or two here and a word or three there, between what is in the book and what was in the productions (and on the recordings) of the several versions. For example, the lyric for "It's in Your Hands Now" does not completely correspond with the version heard in Wise Guys at NYTW and in Road Show.
In the book's epilogue, Sondheim writes with candor and infinite grace on the difficulties that getting old presents. Sondheim is one of the great artists of our time, not a historian or an academic researcher. Those of us who approach these books from the perspective of the longtime enthusiastinformed by years of attending many live performances, following interviews, and reading published scripts and books on Sondheim's life and worksmay be puzzled by some of the choices made and we may wish that more of the reasons for those choices had been explained. We may wish that Sondheim had received assistance in the compiling and editing of these books from a knowledgeable enthusiast who has an untiring obsession with minutiae. Perhaps, however, it is folly to question this great artist's lack of interest in such trivia.
On the final page of the epilogue, Sondheim expresses some disappointment with himself for having spent so much time focused on these two books rather than writing new musicals. I hope he realizes how immensely grateful many people are for the insights he has provided in these books, which are among the most important ever written about musical theatre. His choice was not mistaken. Sondheim has, once again, given us more to see.
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