Finishing The Hat: Collected Lyrics, 1954 - 1981, With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes
By Stephen Sondheim
Alfred A. Knopf 2010
From my shelves
Here are some things you should know about me before we get into the review part of this post. I was the star of our first grade play in school. I was the president of the drama club at my high school. I majored in theatre arts, along with English literature in college. So...theatre is sort of a thing for me. I am also slightly frustrated that blogger doesn't realize that theatre is the art form and the theater is the building. But I digress...
Stephen Sondheim is recognized as one of the greatest lyricists to work on Broadway. He has written lyrics, and in some cases the music as well, for shows as diverse as West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, Company, and Into the Woods (which you may recall I saw just a few weeks ago). In Finishing The Hat, a lyric from his musical Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim looks back at each show he has worked on professionally. He meticulously analyzes what he did well and what he wishes in retrospect he could change. He also, as theatre people are wont to do, gives his readers the inside scoop on the difficulties of working with a group of temperamental artists.
This is not a book you want to sit down and read through in a few days. This is a book to be savored, especially if you are familiar with many of Sondheim's musicals. Each chapter deals with one show and he includes all of the lyrics, including those that were eventually cut from the show. One of his greatest strengths in writing this book is his honesty. He is humble enough to admit the lines that still make him cringe to this day or the moments in which he took the easy way out as a writer. But he will also glory in what he views as his great successes, the turns of phrase that still make him smile.
Sondheim sees no problem with analyzing the work of composers and lyricists who have come before him with the same brutal honesty that he dissects his own. That being said, he remains a classy and intelligent gentlemen and only contemplates the work of those who have already passed. He praises Oscar Hammerstein II, a man who he saw as mentor, but also points out his tendency to write flowery imagery that didn't quite make sense. While his insight can be laser sharp, it is never malicious. Through his critique of himself and other artists, this book becomes a sort of master class in the art of writing for the musical theatre.
This book is a true gift to anyone who loves musicals and admires the work of Mr. Sondheim. Hearing his own thoughts about his work, accompanied by photographs and photocopies of Sondheim's original notes, gives the reader great insight into Sondheim's process as a writer and his passion for his work. Finishing the Hat is an invitation into the life and work of one of theatre's greatest. If you play the prologue from Into the Woods on repeat or love the dark genius of Sweeney Todd, this book will enhance your admiration of this talented musician/lyricist and his songs.