Stephen Sondheim's 'Finishing the Hat': A reflection on a luminous Broadway career

Stephen Sondheim listens to Nathan Lane before the lighting of the marquee of the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on West 43rd St. in Times Square, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010 in New York. (AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams)
Stephen Sondheim listens to Nathan Lane before the lighting of the marquee of the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on West 43rd St. in Times Square, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010 in New York. (AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams) (Associated Press)
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By Peter Marks
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 12:00 AM

Washington Post Staff Writer

A new bible has arrived in bookstores. Well, that's how it feels, anyway, for show tune-loving acolytes of the Broadway composer, Stephen Sondheim. He holds forth on his career in an extraordinary new memoir, "Finishing the Hat" - one of the most entertaining volumes in years on the craft of writing and the progress of a life in the musical theater.

"Finishing the Hat" is installment No. 1 of that life - Sondheim's Old Testament, if you will-spanning the period between 1954 and 1981, when he was the lyricist for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," and composer-lyricist for a sublime string of other shows, from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Company" to "Follies" and "Sweeney Todd."

The book takes as its prime focus Sondheim's lyrics, which as his fans know are as sophisticated, subtle, funny and precise as any ever created for the theater. (Sample, from "You Could Drive a Person Crazy": "When a person's personality is personable/He shouldn't oughta sit like a lump/It's harder than a matador coercin' a bull/To try to get you off of your rump.") One of the pleasures here is absorbing the songwriter's rules - Sondheim's Commandments - for the writing of a lyric. He's at the same time enormously inventive and a strict constructionist, a firm believer in upholding standards, in a meticulous adherence to perfecting meter and cadence and rhyme.

In this, he knows he's a voice in the wilderness, that in the age of pop, rock and hip-hop, an appreciation of rhyming with religious devotion to form has been pretty much drowned out. A "fringe enthusiasm," is how he describes the current prevailing attitude toward theater songs of the kind he writes.

For some of us, of course, it's far more than that, and the precipitous drop in the attention level of songwriters to Sondheim's prescriptions represents a serious decline in the enjoyment and cultural significance of Broadway music. One could feel a warm consensus around this issue last Sunday at Strathmore, where about 1,000 Sondheim enthusiasts assembled to hear the composer talk about the book, and by extension, one of the most influential musical-theater resumes of the past 50 years.

Sondheim is now 80, and genially engaged in a retrospective stage of a long career that stretches back to his tutelage under Oscar Hammerstein II and his first attempts at writing for the commercial theater, in the early 1950s. Last Sunday, he was in endearingly good spirits for the 90-minute conversation moderated by yours truly. It's happened on only a few of occasions in my own adventures in the theater world that an encounter with a luminary could catapult me back to the starting gate of my own passion for the form. Without getting too mushy about it, sitting on a stage and gabbing with Sondheim about musicals reminded me of how elemental a relationship one can forge with art, and an artist.

Given that Sondheim declares time and again in the book that writing lyrics is a chore when compared to the pleasure of composing music, devoting a memoir to the lesser joy might seem counterintuitive. (The subtitle of "Finishing the Hat" - itself the title of a song from Sondheim's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Sunday in the Park with George" - notes that the book includes "attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes.")

Yet as he explained last week, he wasn't interested in a technical book that would be accessible only to musicologists. "If you write a book about music," he said, "you have to start using what for most readers would be arcane language." He expressed surprise that music critics manage even to find a way to translate what they hear into concise analysis. "But lyrics, you can write very specifically about, in language that any reader can understand."

"Finishing the Hat" as a result is an anthology of the lyrics from "Saturday Night" (1954) to "Merrily We Roll Along" (1981), annotated and embroidered with Sondheim's short commentaries - some nostalgic, others withering. What you glean in reading them through is a sense of how deeply he metabolized the lessons of his early lyricist guide, Hammerstein. It was a true mentorship: Hammerstein gave the young Sondheim musical-theater assignments, including one that led to an abortive attempt to tie the "Mary Poppins" stories into a single musical narrative.

"I couldn't solve it - and neither could Disney," Sondheim mischievously noted last week.

His training, then, has always been in service of the integrated musical, toward stories that advance plot or develop personality, in contravention of what songwriters had been doing in the previous generation: "There's the Cole Porter way and the Irving Berlin way: They didn't tell stories, they took ideas and played with them or they took a sentimental idea and strung it out," he told the Strathmore audience. "They didn't try to move the story forward or the character forward, because the shows in those days didn't require it.

"What Oscar did with his revolution with 'Show Boat' and 'Oklahoma!' was say, no, songs should help tell the story. They can be integral to the story, and the kinds of songs he wrote are songs you can't pluck out of the shows for the most part without leaving a hole in the story. And that's what I was trained to do."

As he reveals in "Finishing the Hat" and talked about at Strathmore, that training led to some surprising challenges. Composing "Forum," with its exquisite, farcical book by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, remains for Sondheim the most difficult score he ever had to write: He was required to compose what he calls "one-idea songs" divorced from character and story. Although the resulting numbers were funny, he maintains the musical's book and score have never been a good fit for each other.

"Finishing the Hat" feels in some ways to be Sondheim's instructional nod to emerging songwriters, an effort to pass on wisdom, in the manner Hammerstein did for him. He acknowledged that he'd served in a mentor's capacity for Jonathan Larson, the late composer of "Rent." But he steadfastly refused to talk about any of the current crop of lyricists and composers, explaining that he prefers to reserve his public comments for songwriters who are long gone.

"I don't believe in this idea of not speaking ill of the dead," he said, as the audience laughed. "They're the ones you can't hurt."

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