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 previous post, about its lessons in meticulousness is here. The third post, on his knocking the great(er) lyricists is here. The fourth, saying positive things about some positive things he says, is here.
Among my most beloved possessions are the large square coffee table books devoted to the complete lyrics of Berlin, Porter, Hart, Gershwin, Loesser, and Hammerstein. I’ve never gone though them, as I have the Sondheim book, cover to cover, reading every page. But they’re certainly a lot of fun to dip into. Sondheim’s lyrics, finely-crafted as they are, do not provide the same amount of pleasure. In the context of his comments on how and why he wrote them, the reader becomes very aware of the construction. It’s like focusing on brushstrokes rather than enjoying the whole painting.
Maybe I’ve buried the lead: A lot of these lyrics simply aren’t very good. I know them’s fighting words to those legions of rabid fans who believe everything Mr. S. ever did was a masterpiece. But if you’re a rabid fan, of anything, it’s a sign you have rabies, right? Viewing soberly, I come to the conclusion that A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum is clever when it ought to be funny, Anyone Can Whistle is a precious mess that’s notably lacking in emotion, Do I Hear a Waltz? contains oddly passionless love songs and many a comedy song that doesn’t land, and The Frogs and Pacific Overtures are painfully boring or banal.
It doesn’t seem to be false modesty when Sondheim admits that certain songs (like Welcome To Kanagawa) are abject failures. He firmly believes what the Sondheim-is-God crowd can’t admit, that he’s a mere mortal who sometimes writes things that are trite, witless or dense. The flip side of this is a little strange: Lyrics he’s particularly fond of include such lesser-known classics as A Bowler Hat and The Road You Didn’t Take. He’s proud of the last line of the latter,
The Ben I’ll never be: Who remembers him?
and when you read it on the page, with enough time to work out its meeting, like you’re reading poetry, it’s kinda cool. With the music, though (a frenetic gloss on Jule Styne’s Little Lamb), the whole concept flies by without being understood.
There’s a problem with a lot of Sondheim and I can’t think of any other lyricist who shares it: He’s too smart for his own good. The words fly by very fast, and I suppose a listener as smart as Sondheim might be able to grasp them on first hearing, but the rest of us are left in the dust. So, we buy the cast albums and replay them until the meaning reveals itself and then pat ourselves on the back for being intelligent. But haven’t we been gypped? Didn’t we pay for a Broadway ticket and weren’t we supposed to get it while we were in the theatre? Why have we been sent home with homework, forced to look up unfamiliar words like précis, reticule, bathysphere and even hip-bath? Other lyricists don’t do this. Lyricists like Harnick, Ebb, Comden & Green, Maltby and Harburg seem more concerned that the audience has a good time.
Sondheim’s made the point many times that lyrics, unlike poems, exist in time. They hit your ear at a certain speed, set by the composer, and you’ve no time to linger over them to glean obtuse subtleties. On paper, I get this:
Lucy wants to be Jessie
And Jessie, Lucy.
You see, Jessie is racy
But hard as a rock.
Lucy is lacy
But dull as a smock.
Jessie wants to be lacy,
Lucy wants to be Jessie.
That’s the sorrowful précis.
It’s very messy.
In performance, my head spins:
The song replaced a wonderful sultry minor-key number about a dame torn between the high-life and low-life. At its more leisurely pace, Sondheim could pack in a particularly delicious set of rhymes:
She sits at the Ritz with her splits of Mumm’s
And starts to pine for a stein with her village chums
But with a Schlitz in her mitts down at Fitzroy’s bar
She thinks of the Ritz.
Oh, it’s so schizo.
The first time I heard that (sung by Craig Lucas, who’s since become a major playwright), I positively squirmed with pleasure.
Which brings me to Now and a passage I’ve always enjoyed:
In view of her penchant for something romantic,
De Sade is too trenchant and Dickens too frantic
And Stendhal would ruin the plan of attack
As there isn’t much blue in The Red and the Black
To me, it’s particularly delightful to observe the thought process of a lust-ridden lawyer, strategizing (as lawyers do) how he might seduce his virgin bride with literature. What’s more, it’s true to character and setting. A late 19th century European intellectual is able to rattle off the authors’ names and titles that he quite plausibly would have on his bookshelf. And he sings in precise, machine-like triplets because that’s the way his mind works.
Sondheim’s not so impressed with himself:
This lyric is another example of the difference between funny and clever. The two elaborately rhymed stanzas about the books Fredrik considers reading to Anne have never gotten even a snicker, nor should they. They are a form of literary masturbation and too clever by half.
Don’t be so hard on yourself, Steve! The audience, taking in a quick fusillade of new syllables on fast notes, doesn’t dare laugh because. unconsciously, they worry that laughing (or snickering) will get in the way of hearing the next line. It just might be the lyric is finally shown to its best advantage, on page 256 of this book.
Later in the same show, there’s this:
It’s a very short road
From the pinch and the punch
To the paunch and the pouch
And the pension.
It’s a very short road
To the ten thousandth lunch
And the belch and the grouch
And the sigh
and I’m going “Pinch? Punch? Paunch? Pouch? Huh?” How is it that this non-intellectual serving girl can rattle off bon mots with the speed and ease of her learned employer? Sondheim criticizes his I Feel Pretty by noting “It’s alarming how charming I feel” makes a Puerto Rican teen seem like she would “not have been unwelcome in Noel Coward’s living room.” What he doesn’t get is that Being In Love puts theatre characters in a more poetic state of reality. Maria becomes Everygirl, gleefully dancing with a universal emotion; her language is justifiably heightened. Audiences accept it. Hell, they love it!
My problem with Petra and the p-words, and a whole host of Sondheim characters, is that they’re unrealistically hyper-articulate. Listening to them is like eavesdropping in an Ivy League dining hall. (Which gives me an idea: Wouldn’t Sondheim be perfect for a musicalization of The Social Network?) And, after a while, it’s tiring to take in a torrent of well-wrought words. At other writers’ shows, you don’t have to listen so damn hard.
I was alerted to this issue when a colleague praised my song, Marry Me. (I hope to God nobody misinterprets this as my comparing myself to Sondheim.) He enjoyed the guy’s inability to form words, he said, because he’s burned out from too many years of seeing too many characters in musicals saying precisely what they mean, without a moment’s thought, in perfectly crafted sentences.