Saturday, May 5, 2012

He Made a Hat


It's a wrap, a life of joy and genius, the second volume of Stephen Sondheim's biographical and encyclopedic collection of his lyrics and recollections, Look, I Made a Hat; Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany  (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011). My enthusiasm for the first volume, Finishing the Hat, led to writing about it before I was finished reading it and then again upon completion more than a year ago.

My initial observation on reading the first volume bears repeating for the second as well: "As the subtitle hints, it is not only an erudite, introspective, and sometimes self deprecating account of his own works with the complete lyrics, both those retained and discarded for the shows he wrote during the period, it is also a frank discussion of the 'major players' of his time, most of whom he of course knew or knows, and some of whom he did not but nonetheless influenced him in some way. I call this book 'a document' as only a first-hand participant of Sondheim's stature could make his reminiscences a treasure-trove which will be studied by students of Broadway for years to come."

The amusing subtitles of the two volumes at first glance look similar, but there are subtle differences. Both have "Attendant Comments" and "Anecdotes" in their subtitles, but Finishing The Hat's "Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines" have been replaced by "Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions," and the all encompassing, "Miscellany" and "Amplifications" in Look, I Made a Hat's subtitle.  Sondheim is too precise a thinker to imagine these changes were made only because of his playful, almost sardonic sense of humor.  This second volume is less about others in his profession (although it is still that to a degree), than it is about himself, the process of creating, an attempt to tie everything together, the dominant figure of the NY Stage coming to grips with the process of aging and looking back at what defines his work.

This second volume covers his more mature works, 1981 to the present.  It also reviews a wide range of "miscellaneous" works, ones I've never heard of, some incomplete or unproduced pieces.  The "big four" here are his well-known Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, and Passion

Sunday in the Park with George is about the life of George Seurat and, in particular, the two years he took creating his "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte."  Of significance to Sondheim is this musical united him with the author of the book, James Lapine, with whom he would frequently collaborate afterwards.  The song "Finishing the Hat" is from Sunday and as he uses the title as the general metaphor for both these volumes, it bears some closer examination.  He says it "reflects an emotional experience shared by everybody to some degree or other, but more keenly and more often by creative artists: trancing out -- that phenomenon of losing the world while you're writing...."

 He continues with an anecdote.  One of his pleasures is "inventing games" and he was once playfully challenged by his friend, Phyllis Newman, the actress and singer, wife of Adolph Green, to create "a game of murder" (a more interesting one than the card game of the same name that already existed) and once Sondheim started to work on the game, he labored continually through the night, saying  "I hadn't moved for eleven hours. I must have, of course, if for nothing else than to go to the bathroom, much less get a drink or a snack. But I had no memory of it. I had left the planet for eleven hours, completely absorbed in a world of instructions, gunshots, diagrams, and clues, calibrating every possibility of the players' movements and observations. I've never had a better time making a hat. No matter how trivial the goal may have been, the intensity or the concentration was the same as that of writing a song, and just as difficult and exhilarating. 'Finishing the Hat' is an attempt to convey that treasured feeling. ...Relinquishing the world may be easier in the privacy of a study or during a walk in the woods, but it can happen in a public place, too.... When the cocoon is self-created, the surroundings matter not at all. As befits the creative act, 'Finishing the Hat' is a stream-of-consciousness lyric. There is no complete sentence."  

....That, however you live, / There's a part of you always standing by, / Mapping out the sky, / Finishing a hat... / Starting on a hat../ Finishing a hat... / Look, I made a hat.../ Where there never was a hat.

Into the Woods came right on the heels of Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim wanting to collaborate with James Lapine again.  It started off as a "quest musical along the lines of The Wizard of Oz," one of Sondheim's favorites as the songs help define the characters and convey the story. Into the Woods became a potpourri of famous fairy tale characters going into the woods, "the all-purpose symbol of the unconscious, the womb, the past, the dark place where we face our trials and emerge wiser or destroyed..."  Sondheim says of the two main characters, the baker and his wife, "their concerns a quotidian, their attitudes prototypically urban: impatient, sarcastic, bickering, resigned -- prototypical, except that they speak in stilted fairy-tale language and are surrounded by witches and princesses and eventually giants.  This makes them funny and actable characters, and their contemporaneity makes them people the audience can recognize." 

Sondheim thought the work would be producible by a wide range of theatre companies, from schools (as there is an absence of obscenities) to professional theatres, and the musical works on two levels, one for just entertainment and the other as a sophisticated adult parable. "I predicted that Into the Woods could be a modest annuity for us [he and Lapine], and I'm surprised to say I was right."

I've "feared" seeing Assassins as having lived through so many of them in my lifetime, I just did not want to have it in my face on the stage, pretty much the same reason Ann and I don't see violent movies.  But, after reading Sondheim's description of the musical, it's on our list to see if it should ever be revived. Leave it to Sondheim (and his collaborator, John Weidman, based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.) to make a musical out of nine of the thirteen attempted presidential assassinations.

In describing how he came to Assassins, Sondheim reveals much about the process and writing lyrics in particular.  It also shows his own level of enthusiasm for this work, not to mention the level of reflection and prose in Look, I Made a Hat: "Writing lyrics is an exasperating job, but there are occasional moments which compensate, such as finding the right word that sits exactly on the right phrase of music or stumbling on the surprising but appropriate rhyme. It is those moments that propel you (me) to continue groping through the morass of banalities and not-quite-good-enough stabs at freshness and grace which constitute the bulk of the writing. And there is no moment more invigorating than reading the initial pages of your collaborator's work, especially if your collaborator is first class, the kind with whom I've been repeatedly blessed (not by chance, I can assure you - I've approached, and agreed to be approached by, only those whose work I like). Suddenly, what have been weeks of theoretical palaver, circling the subject, finding the spine and mapping the trajectory of the story, analyzing the characters, improvising scenes and songs, discussing style-suddenly, all that - becomes crystallized in a page or two of dialogue which makes the idea into words, much in the way a first rehearsal makes the word become flesh. Because of the quality of my collaborators, I have experienced that moment often, but the most exhilarating of those highs was the evening I read the first pages of John Weidman's script for 'Assassins'."

Passion is another collaboration with James Lapine, although the idea itself was conceived by Sondheim after he had seen an Ettore Scola film Passione d'Amore  which struck him "as a story worth singing." He was concerned about making it into a musical as "the characters were so outsized."  It might have demanded an opera, not a musical, and that is an art form that Sondheim (I am happy to learn) does not enjoy.  I say "happy" as I too have carried around the scarlet letter of "OP" (opera-phobic) even though I enjoy both music and theatre. Sondheim has exonerated the tinge of guilt I feel about opera, even though I briefly studied it in college when I used to go to the Met, sitting at the student's desk which had a very limited view of the stage in my day where I followed the score of the opera.  Maybe I simply don't go in for pageantry. 

Here's Sondheim's take on opera: "I have successfully avoided enjoying opera all my life. There are many moments in the operatic literature that thrill me, but few complete scores, and even those that do ...I would rather listen to on records because they strike me as way too long. I was brought up on the swiftness and insubstantiality of musicals, and I'm not as enthralled by the human voice as I would like to be. For me it's the song, not the singer; I don't really care who sings 'Vissi d'Arte,' I care about what she's singing. I discriminate among singers of popular songs and show tunes, but for some reason I'm both less enthusiastic and less critical when it comes to the higher stratum of the art form. I recognize that this is my loss, and I sometimes envy (but not a lot) the swooning pleasure my opera-buff friends get from it. The thing that puts me off most is that most opera composers seem to have little sense of theater. They spend as much time having their characters sing about trivialities as about matters of emotional importance, and they too often resort to recitative to carry the plot along-for my money a tedious and arid solution to a problem easily solved by dialogue."  You are preaching to the choir, Mr. Sondheim.

Passion is an epistolary musical, with the songs, as Sondheim puts it, "somewhere between aria and recitative...[and] there's enough dialogue so that no one could mistake Passion for an opera. I hope."

Then, some one hundred plus pages of the book are dedicated to the on and off again fourteen year affair of creating a musical based on the Florida resort architect, Addison Mizner and his raconteur brother, Wilson Mizner, perfect models of picaresque lives.  Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show went through four different incarnations, finally ending up pretty much as it began as far as the main theme is concerned, the relationship between two brothers.  The show had "four distinct scripts; three distinct directors; nine leading actors."  Sondheim had written thirty songs, most of which did not survive all four versions. Among the directors who impacted the show was, ironically, Sam Mendes in London who was also the director of the film Revolutionary Road, based on the novel by Richard Yates which I republished when thefirst edition had gone out of print.

But the director who had the most impact was John Doyle, who put the work on the course of becoming Road Show, after its previous variations over its ponderous life as Wise Guys and then Bounce.   About Doyle, Sondheim says, "He was enthusiastic about the story and understood the style, and at the same time saw what the show was trying to say about America with the objective, yet sympathetic, eye of a foreigner. He also saw that what the show needed was compression, to give it the kind of pace that defines the American image: speedy, impatient, determined, brash and humorous, all of which was expressed in what we had written-except for the speed, which wasn't speedy enough....Doyle turned out to be an exception among directors; the script he handed us after his tinkering, although it had its fair share of misguided and awkward moments, brought the mix of family dynamics and American penchant for reinvention into one focus, and that was what we had never properly been able to accomplish. 'Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show' was about so many things: American enterprise, American conniving, American promotion, American greed, the class system, sibling love and rivalry, road movies- a soup that Doyle (and Oskar) boiled down for us, which is what a good director, like a good editor, can do."

Then, Sondheim covers his "Other Musicals,"  "Movies" and "Television" (following college he wrote for the TV show, Topper, and Kukla, Fran and Ollie an amusing aside to his career).

In the mix of his lyrics and reminiscences are some of the "attendant comments."  Although Oscar Hammerstein was his mentor, and Sondheim thinks of himself as a lyricist, he is also a first rate composer.  When Sondheim graduated from Williams, he won a coveted prize for music which allowed him to study composition with the composer and music theorist Milton Babbitt.  Sondheim explains why he focused on lyrics in his two books: ".... the technique of composition is impossible to be precise and articulate about without using jargon. The inner workings of lyrics can be communicated easily without resorting to arcane terms; understanding what a perfect rhyme is requires no special knowledge. But understanding what a perfect cadence is requires knowing something about harmony and the diatonic scale. Music is a foreign language which everyone knows but only musicians can speak. The effect is describable in everyday language; how to achieve it is not."

Sondheim has had a love-hate affair with critics and while he takes some head on in these volumes, he writes generally about the art of criticism and the impact of this Internet age:"...It takes a long time to learn not to pay attention to critics, or at least not to let them distract you. ....A good critic is someone who recognizes and acknowledges the artist's intentions and the work's aspirations, and judges the work by them, not by what his own objectives would have been. A good critic is so impassioned about his subject that he can persuade you to attend something you'd never have imagined you'd want to go to. A good critic is an entertaining read. A good critic is hard to find. Then again, to a certain degree good critics are no longer necessary to find. The phrase 'Everybody's a critic' has taken on a universal cast. The Internet encourages people to  share their opinions with the world. In the theater, the 'buzz' created by chat room chatters has become increasingly important to a show's reputation before it opens, and has actually affected some of the news-paper and magazine critics, who refer to the chatter in their opening- night reviews. The irony is that the Internet is in the process of killing off the critics' jobs."

I think of Broadway as having several fairly distinct periods.  Before Rodgers and Hammerstein, the American musical was primarily revues with a loose plot to introduce song or dance, mostly light musical fantasies and comedies without much serious meaning to simply amuse and entertain. R&H changed all this with the introduction of the "book" -- a play in which music, dance, and plot were all integrated.  And musicals became more serious, introducing themes that were largely ignored before. It became the most emulated form for the Broadway musical since.

But the fermentation of social change in the 60s and 70s brought a new period to Broadway.  Sondheim was part of that but so was the so called "rock musical" starting with Hair and Tommy, coming into full bloom with musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber, beginning with contemporary rock pieces such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, morphing into operetta type musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera.  Broadway came full circle with some of those works, operettas having flourished before Broadway's golden age.  Of those works, Sondheim says, "Rock and contemporary pop are not part of my DNA; worse, I find them unsatisfying when applied to the kind of musicals I like to write because of the limited range of their colors. Perhaps someday (maybe even by the time this book is published) someone will write a rock score that will have suppleness and variety, but the ones I've heard seem to me rhythmically and emotionally restricted, earnest to a fault and, above all, humorless except when they're being 'satirical' (that is, sarcastic). This lends them a pretension which rivals the British pop operas that briefly conquered the world during the 1990s."
 
Sondheim, meanwhile. blazed new trails, the "urban musical" such as Company, in addition to pushing musical limits in areas normally reserved for drama, Pacific Overtures, Sweeny Todd, Assassins, to name but a few.  He also sought vehicles for his love of panache and paying homage to those that made the Broadway theatre, most clearly celebrated in Follies

Who will now carry on the tradition of Broadway innovation?  Instead,  revivals seem to be sweeping contemporary theatre (maybe just a deficit of good stuff being written?).  They of course have their place.  It is the lifeblood of good regional theatre such as our own Dramaworks in nearby West Palm Beach.  Sondheim's thoughts on revivals? ".....I suspect that every writer who has had the pleasure of seeing his shows revived, whether on Broadway or in a community theater, has also suffered the chagrin of seeing it distorted almost beyond recognition-if it were truly unrecognizable, it would be a relief. The problem is that a great many directors, not just the academics or the amateurs, reconceive for the sake of reconception, usually in the name of "relevance" or of "fixing" the show's flaws. They want to be considered creators so desperately that they think nothing of rewriting the authors' work. Good directors shine a new light on a piece; the others shine a light on themselves."

Irreverent or outspoken?  Perhaps.  But, if Sondheim isn't entitled, who is? If you decide to read the book, read the "Epilogue" closely.  It reveals as much about the man as it does the artist.  He says that one would think writing songs for the theater, after so much experience, would become easier but "invention" does not.  In fact, "...it gets harder chiefly because you become-or should become-more aware of the pitfalls, especially the danger of repeating yourself. I find myself using the same chords and the same tropes over and over, and I fight against it; but when I lose the battle, I rationalize it as being a matter of style, my style, a style I've developed over the years, an identity as unchanging as my signature. And to a certain extent it is-but notas much as I tell myself it is."

And here is a man who knows he has climbed most of the mountains of his life, and is looking back, trying to bring it altogether and make some sense of the inexplicable and iniquitous process of aging. (Fitzgerald had it right with his short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," but T.S. Eliot best summarized the process in his poem "Little Gidding" -- "Having rehearsed the bitter gifts reserved for age / the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.")

About this universal truth, Sondheim laments, "The diminution of energy and the fear of superannuation are unpleasant enough, but you learn to put up with the first and ignore the second; the loss of memory is worse, and dangerous. The thing that bothers me the most is not forgetting faces or names, but forgetting trivia. Having to search my dwindling gray cells for who directed 'The Sound of Music' upsets me a lot more than not recognizing the stranger who wanders up to me at a party and turns out to be someone I've known for thirty years and worked with half a dozen times. What's dangerous is that not remembering makes you think about remembering, which inevitably draws you into the past. As time goes on, I watch old movies and listen to old songs more and more; when asked my place of residence on a customs form, I always want to write 'The Past.' "

As an amateur pianist I have a special appreciation for the work of Sondheim.  He writes extensively about his lyrics, but his music, to me, is equally brilliant with a fondness for waltzes like Richard Rodgers had..  Some of his pieces are hard to play (for me) as the music is pared to almost recitative lyrics, with many notes to a measure.  His music is always a challenge but a joy to play and no doubt he will always be known as one of Broadway's finest.

I have so many favorites, but his short lived 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along includes one of his most beautiful, fragile ballads, Not a Day Goes By and for this entry I include (albeit a somewhat flawed) "home video" of my playing the song.  It is a testimony of my great respect for Sondheim's music and what it has meant to my life. His lyrics best express how I feel....

"Not a day goes by,
Not a single day
But you're somewhere a part of my life
And it looks like you'll stay.
As the days go by"

video