Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes is so important to our subject, I’m spreading my comments over four blog posts. The second post, about lyrics for the head, not always for the heart, is here. The third post, in which I knock him for knocking superior lyricists, is here. The fourth, admiring his admiration for Porter, Fields and Loesser, is here.
First, the good news, this is the best lesson in lyric-writing you could get by reading a book since Oscar Hammerstein’s introduction to his collection of Lyrics sixty years ago. That’s a long time between textbooks, and it’s fair to say the craft has changed significantly. Some might say it’s changed because of Stephen Sondheim. Looking at this book, you can take in more than half of Sondheim’s lyrics (there will be a second volume in the fall) at your leisure. Usually, these words hit us at the pace of the music, but this is a chance to turn off the metronome and carefully examine what makes them work. Or not work. And then, on a lot of the songs, you get to read the author’s commentary. The discussions of craft herein are Sondheim’s greatest gift to the world of musical theatre (if only we listen!), greater, I’d maintain, then the Sondheim-composed shows themselves.
And then he’s added some fun stuff: one grudge, a few fine whines, and some fairly good anecdotes. These don’t reveal all that much about Sondheim, the human being, but hey, nowhere does it purport to be an autobiography. In fact, the last page would seem to indicate that he didn’t read Meryle Secrest’s 1998 biography, as one of its central themes “occurs” to him while writing this book. So, Sondheim-watchers get that rather rare feeling of knowing something before Sondheim did.
For me, the chapter on West Side Story is most fascinating, because it reveals Sondheim’s greatest blind spot. Composer Leonard Bernstein initially intended to write the show’s lyrics himself. In collaborating with the 20-something Sondheim, he faced the frustration of dealing with a lyricist who wasn’t quite comfortable with romanticism.
Let’s stop to define the term. Romanticism, in songwriting, refers to the unrealistic, larger-than-life vocabulary used in expressions of love. It’s one of the oldest traditions of musical theatre that characters in love burst forth with hyperbolic sentiments. The elation of love gives people in musicals a smile on their face for the whole human race. We accept this, partly out of tradition, partly out of enjoyment of the bubbling-over-the-brim feelings. Many theatre-goers, bless their hearts, attend musicals because they enjoy romance.
Sondheim has many strengths as a lyricist, but writing songs in which lovers tell each other how they feel ain’t one of them. It’s his weak suit, and, as such, he was precisely the wrong choice for penning West Side Story‘s lyrics. In what sounds like a healthy and effective creative friction, Leonard Bernstein kept pushing him to exercise his romantic muscle:
He especially liked “Tonight there will be no morning star”: granted, Tony is supposed to be a dreamy character, but it’s unlikely he’s even seen a morning star (you don’t see stars in Manhattan except at the Planetarium), much less that he would be inclined to use it as an image. Lenny kept encouraging me to come up with these maunderings
“Maunderings,” he calls them! We should thank God for Lenny’s encouragement, because it led to some of the best show tunes of all time; e.g., Tonight, I Feel Pretty and Maria. How frustrating that Sondheim sees these songs as embarrassments, rather than pinnacles of his achievement. The opposite of romanticism is realism and when he talks about images Tony would be inclined to use, he’s being realist to a fault.
There’s nothing in Finishing the Hat about Sondheim’s second collaboration with Bernstein, The Exception and the Rule, which never saw the light of day. As one continues through the book, with its chapters on each subsequent show, the realist vs. romanticist argument gets left behind. This is because Sondheim left it behind, in life, by writing musicals in which characters never make love to each other in song. In so doing, he left behind many of the lessons taught him by his mentor Oscar Hammerstein, the acknowledged master of the romantic musical. Many of the specifics are discussed in the book: What good-neighbor Oscar told him to do, what he did differently, and why.
On the front end-piece pages, printed over and over, are three principles: Content Dictates Form; Less Is More; God Is in the Details. The pages in between explain, in exquisite detail, how these ideals can be applied to lyric-writing. And – I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this yet – there are pages from Sondheim’s notebooks. So, you can see what the alternate lines were, and the huge lists of words he might use, sometimes rhymes, sometimes words beginning with be- for “Behold the hills of tomorrow.” Unfortunately, these notes are hard to read, a combination of bad handwriting, tiny words on now-faded paper, and the smudging of the Blackwing 602 pencil. (One might also quibble with the font and design of the book, which makes the whole thing hard to read.)
Those notebook pages prove that great lyrics aren’t written, they’re rewritten. The Sondheim process involves constantly crossing out lines, words, phrases and stanzas and thinking up something better to replace them. Less proficient lyricists stand pat with a first draft, or maybe a second. Sondheim holds himself to an impressively high standard, and it’s astonishing to see how often he looks back all these years later and kicks himself for not doing the job better.