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 and the third, about his excoriations of the masters, is here.
My last post focused on Sondheim’s complaints about his betters. Taken out of context, his insults and misapprehensions are troubling – I recommend reading the entire book. He’s gentleman enough, though, to avoid knocking his contemporaries, and certain now-dead friends, such as Fred Ebb and Comden & Green, are spared. And then there’s the positive side, when he expresses admiration for Cole Porter, Dorothy Fields, and my favorite songwriter, Frank Loesser. At times, one gets the sense that he really wishes he could do what they do so well.
Since the book is chronological, he starts with Loesser, the unconscious inspiration for his first professional score, the stillborn Saturday Night. “A master of conversational lyrics…he tailored his lyrics to the individual characters.” On the facing page, he points out his failure to plausibly capture the diction of a not-especially-literate young man from Brooklyn:
When asked, “Quelle heure?”
By Mrs. Dupont
You say to her,
That’s what he means by “class.”
I was particularly gratified to see he extols Loesser’s knack for finding good ideas for songs.
Most impressive to me are the ideas behind Loesser’s songs. The concepts of “Make a Miracle” from Where’s Charley? and “Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls, among many others, are so strong that the lyrics need not be brilliant in execution: they can ride on their notions alone and bring the house down.
I was surprised to learn that Dorothy Fields was a family friend. Young Stephen called her Aunt Dorothy and didn’t even know she was a lyricist until he was in his teens. In the book, he’s knocked out by her ability to sound colloquial.
She took great pains to be low-key and offhand, to make the language seem “natural,” with the result that she was able to show off a bit and still sound unforced, as in “He Had Refinement” from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.
On the opposite page is a rewrite Sondheim did especially for Barbra Streisand, and this juxtaposition shows just what the “nephew” learned from the “aunt” as the lines are funny, not forced, and sound perfectly natural coming from the mouth of Babs.
One day you’re hailed for
Next day you’re nailed for
Then I’d hear:
“Don’t tell me she de-
Signed those clothes —
Even the needy
Don’t need those.”
“Can’t cap her teeth? She should cap her nose!”
She’ll disappear in a year.”
But I’m here.
They used to say, “Talent she’s got, but she screeches —
Sounds like her throat’s in a sling.”
So now they say, “Talent, she’s got, but those speeches —
Why can’t she shut up and sing?”
In interviews, Sondheim correctly maintains that his lyrics reveal nothing about Sondheim, the human being. (Indeed, this book reveals next to nothing about him, personally.) In this light, it’s wonderful to find him admiring Cole Porter’s ability to utilize his own true voice in song. (Or is it true? Cole could have fooled us all.)
The lyrics are genuinely felt. When he writes “A trip to the moon on gossamer wings” (in “Just One of Those Things“), you believe it because he believes it, just as you believe in Hammerstein’s earthy optimism, no matter how ponderously bucolic. It’s a line that would be laughable coming from the pen of anyone else, but followed as it is by words like “fabulous,” … and by phrases like “Goodbye, dear, and amen,” the intensity of his unashamed overstatement becomes not only believable but genuinely emotional. In Porter’s hands, a syntactical reversal like “My joy delirious” from the song “So In Love” becomes an expression or ardor rather than a lazy clumsiness because of the voice behind it.
Finishing , we become students of lyric-writing in the way Sondheim apprenticed himself to Oscar Hammerstein (and Hammerstein to operetta wordsmith Otto Harbach). After a page of pot-shots at his mentor, Sondheim explains,
If this seems like heavy-duty nit-picking, it’s a result of Oscar’s teaching me to examine every word in a lyric with fierce care, because there are so few of them in a song (unless it’s written by W. S. Gilbert or Noel Coward or a number of contemporary pop songwriters, who seldom use one word when twelve will do). Each one is valuable, and had better be invaluable. But again, these are quibbles. Hammerstein rarely has the colloquial ease of Berlin, the sophistication of Porter, the humor of Hart and Gershwin, the inventiveness of Harburg or the grace of Fields, but his lyrics are sui generis, and when they are at their best they are more than heartfelt and passionate, they are monumental.
I suspect that everyone reading this already holds Sondheim in great esteem. His songs tend to be revered by theatre people and theatre fans. Actors, in particular, appreciate how he always gives them something to act. As this is the issue I most frequently have my mind on, I, too, celebrate the subtext he gives players to play — in this sense he’s truly the son of Hammerstein, and nearly unique among living lyricists.
Finally, it occurs to me that Sondheim’s finest tribute to the great golden-era songwriters was created 40 years ago, in the fantastic, fun pastiches for the musical, Follies. “Losing My Mind,” “Broadway Baby,” “Who Could Be Blue?” and the quodlibet “Love Will See Us Through/You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” stand as the strongest testament to the brilliance of his forbears we’re ever going to get from Sondheim.
Who could ask for anything more?