With friends like you

enfant terrible

bete noir

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 first, praising the meticulousness in his self-assessment, is here. The second, about the verbosity of his lyrics, is here.  The fourth, about his admiration for other lyricists, is here.


Hey! Look at the headline:

Sondheim Knocks the Acknowledged Masters of Musical Theatre Lyric Writing.

Like many a headline, this highlights one remarkable thing while burying the context and important, though less news-making, aspects.  If all you’ve heard about Stephen Sondheim’s book is that he excoriates his betters, you might think it’s a rude late-life attempt to get on the best seller list.  But his commentary about Hammerstein, Gilbert, Lerner, Coward, Hart, Harburg and others should rightfully be viewed as part of an invaluable volume that’s primarily concerned with the craft of lyric-writing.  Sondheim is incredibly harsh on himself, first and foremost.  The little sidebars on those who went before him are interesting applications of his impressively high standards on show tunes we know and love.  They’re all of a piece, and not the point of the book.

That said, I can’t help rebutting some of these barbs because they’re wrong, willfully ignorant of the projects the songs come from, don’t take into account the time and place the long-dead lyricist was writing in, and, most interestingly, reveal a bit about Sondheim’s own shortcomings.

To start with, when he declares W. S. Gilbert unfunny, he barely acknowledges that, as the outstanding humorist of the Victorian Era, Gilbert, virtually by himself, established a place for wit on the musical stage and influenced just about every lyricist who trod the boards for the next 100 years or so.  In fashioning a brand new genre, Gilbert can hardly have been expected to conform to rules and/or traditions that began generations after his death.  Basically, here in the 21st century, we have a lyricist who flourished in the late 20th century expressing confusion as to why his peers and betters admired the 19th century artist who, in a very real sense, invented lyric-writing as we know it.  It’s as if David Hockney were to denigrate Renoir.

When Sondheim disparages Lorenz Hart, the greatest of all lyricists, he’s the most off the mark.  He cites five lines from one of the most popular waltzes to ever emerge from Hollywood, Lover:

Lover, when we’re dancing,

Keep on glancing

In my eyes

Till love’s own entrancing

Music dies.

and badmouths:

Love’s own entrancing music dies?  Why “own”?  Whose else would it be?  And it dies in such a short period of time?  Why?  If so, it can’t mean an awful lot to the lovers.  And even if it lasts for the whole dance (which the lyric implies it doesn’t), then what?  Considering the ardor of the rest of the lyric, it doesn’t make sense.  The nonsense of the lyric, the convoluted syntax in the first quatrain and the emphasis on “Till” are representative of a lot of Hart’s work.

Oh, really, Mr. Smarty Pants?  Why haven’t you bothered to find out what the actual lyric Hart wrote for the project is?  You keep telling us that lyrics must be connected to character and situation, but, to cast aspersions on a genius, you remove all context and look at the wrong lyric.

In the 1930’s, when Rodgers and Hart had hit after hit, music publishers had a much greater influence than they did in Sondheim’s time.  A song, written for a film, with a lyric that perfectly captures a specific performer in a specific locale, was often deemed, by the publisher, to be too specific for the purposes of sheet music sales.  The lines quoted above were not what Hart wrote for the film musical, Love Me Tonight, but just lines to be used outside the context of the film, in dance halls, on the radio, and in songbooks.  Here’s what Hart created for Jeanette MacDonald, our hoping-to-fall-in-love heroine, to sing as she pilots a horse and carriage through the French countryside (note the ends of stanzas are what she says to her horse!):

Lover, when you find me

Will you blind me

With your glow?

Make me cast behind me

All my…WHOA!

“Kiss me,” he’ll be saying

Gently swaying

I’ll obey

like two children playing

In the…HEY!

He’ll be my lord and my master

I’ll be a slave to the last.

He’ll make my heart go faster-


Lover,when tou take me

And awake me

I will know,

Lover you can make me

Love you so.

As the clip shows (:30-1:38), the song’s a gaily-sung throwaway, which Maurice Chevalier seems to be hearing, and the horse throws her a look that says “I get it!”  It’s brilliant.  It’s entirely successful, and, for the song’s millions of fans, isn’t it romantic?  It fills our hearts with the joy of romantic hopefulness, something Sondheim-composed songs are unable to do.

But wait, I’m just beginning: It would seem Sondheim is far too literal-minded to appreciate – let alone emulate – a couple of the greatest love songs of all time.  Here’s the enfant terrible on My Funny Valentine:

Sacrifice of meaning for rhyme: “Your looks are laughable,/ Unphotographable”  Unless the object of the singer’s affection is a vampire, surely what Hart means is “unphotogenic.”  Only vampires are unphotographable, but affectionate “-enic” rhymes are hard to come by.

You’ve got to be kidding me!  What sort of pointy-headed pedant could ever react this way?  To most of the English-speaking world, unphotographable and unphotogenic mean exactly the same thing, and the former’s a little more mellifluous.  Furthermore, the original context is, once again, ignored.  It’s sung by a teenaged girl, not an overeducated wordsmith, back in an age when teenaged girls knew a lot less about vampires than they do today.

Isn’t that lovely?  Of course it is.  One is forced to come to the inescapable conclusion that Sondheim here excoriates exactly that which he cannot do.  My Funny Valentine is universally admired as one of the greatest love songs ever written.  While Sondheim is widely appreciated in the theatre community, he hasn’t created words and music to any song with the depth of feeling and passionate romanticism of any of the Rodgers and Hart standards.

I realize my view is right in line with the many who’ve pointed out that Sondheim is more for the head than for the heart.  Really, I’d love to hear about the times you heard one of his songs and felt struck by Cupid.  Jaime Weinman has made some rather astute observations on this subject over the years, here and here.

An actress friend who loves Sondheim’s songs recently asked me about the man’s romantic history.  But we shouldn’t have to ask “Has he ever been in love?”  Larry Hart’s affairs of the heart were nothing but depressing, and he hated writing love songs.  Yet, miraculously, to Richard Rodgers’ captivating music, he was able to write the standards that everyone loves.  Everyone except Sondheim:

My romance

Doesn’t need a castle rising

In Spain

Nor a dance

To a constantly surprising


What refrain is constantly surprising?  Maybe one by Alban Berg, but nothing you’d ever hear on a dance floor.  Even Cole Porter’s refrains were only intermittently surprising – if a refrain were constantly surprising, it would cease to be a refrain.

This is the sort of thought that could only occur to some nerdy hermit who’s never ventured outside the college music library.  Truly great lyricists capriciously venture beyond the literal.  It’s this insistence on logical sense that stops Sondheim from joining their ranks.



4 Responses to With friends like you

  1. nancyjrab says:

    It’s been a long time, Noel Katz! And it’s nice to see that your Columbia Education still shows: a brilliant, point by point counter-argument. Well researched, totally supported by examples! Your Core Curriculum Profs would be proud!!!
    (it’s Nancy Rabinowitz, btw! How are you?!)

  2. Virginia says:

    You were right….I did love this post:)

  3. Biff McKeldin says:

    Hi Noel,

    Great blog post, and I agree with virtually everything you’ve said here (and now I can’t wait to read your other posts!). My only issue is that as much as I love Hart’s lyrics, I still maintain that the greatest lyric writer of musical theater is Oscar Hammerstein 2nd. There is no doubt that Hammerstein has a lot of doggerel in his portfolio, but he was always working toward writing for character and by the time he hooked up with Rodgers he had perfected his style. The lyric everyone loves to beat Hammerstein over the head with (including Sondheim) is Maria’s line in The Sound of Music about “a lark learning to pray.” I maintain that in a free-standing song Sondheim’s — and everyone else’s — criticism of the line would be spot on; however, in the context of a postulant who is trying to reconcile her desire to lead a cloistered religious life with her enthusiastic embrace of the natural, I think the line is brilliant (in other words the impossible imagery is the point). Put into the mouth of “cockeyed optimist” Mary Martin playing Maria Rainer you have flawless musical theater writing.

    My two cents!

    All the Best,


  4. Andrew says:

    Wonderfully argued, and completely missing the point of Sondheim’s reason for dismissing Hart. Hart’s romanticism, cleverness, and (presumably) sincerity are great arguments for his abilities as a lyricist, but they do not magically nullify his weaknesses with syntax and scansion or his habit of obscuring meaning.

    Nor does Sondheim consider these lyricists’ works in a vacuum – he rather explicitly acknowledges that when Ira Gershwin and Larry Hart were in their primes, the craft of making lyrics conversational was only beginning. Breaking new ground deserves respect, but it doesn’t suddenly erase the flaws of the work—as any look at Sondheim’s own work can attest.

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