Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Finishing The Hat

This is one of the most remarkable documents of the theater that I've ever read, so exceptional in fact that I'm having trouble breezing through it, instead savoring every word. So even though I'm only half-way through, I'm writing a "first installment review," a respite from the political and economic shenanigans I've been held hostage to over the last few weeks. I prefer to think about great literature, music, or theater and Finishing The Hat; Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) is a perfect Trifecta.

This is a detailed account of the American Broadway theater (1954-1981) written by our greatest living Broadway composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, arguably the greatest ever.

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. We can eagerly await Sondheim's next installment covering the musicals after 1981.

Although as a young man Sondheim struggled to become known as a composer, Finishing The Hat understandably focuses on his lyrics as visiting his music in the same detail would require technical knowledge few of us mere mortals possess. He sets out his mantra for lyrics -- for which he gives attribution to Oscar Hammerstein, his mentor, and Strunk and White's The Elements in Style -- as follows:

1. Content Dictates Form
2. Less is More
3. God is in the Details

As an example of the latter he quotes his lyrics "Losing My Mind" from Follies, one of my many favorite Sondheim pieces, one that is in my own piano repertoire. Funny, I've played this song hundreds of times and never made the connection that as Sondheim puts it, "musically, this was less an homage to, than a theft of, Gershwin's 'The Man I Love,' with near-stenciled rhythms and harmonies" (although the lyrics are more along the lines of Dorothy Fields, a lyricist Sondheim holds in higher esteem than Ira Gershwin). Now I can clearly see the similarities, never noticing them in my many renditions of both songs. But the "God is in the Details" issue is from the last stanza of that song where Sondheim uses the word "To" in the fourth line from the end rather than the more prosaic "And"

"I dim the lights
And think about you,
Spending sleepless nights
To think about you.
You said you loved me,
Or were you just being kind?
Or am I losing my mind?"

Per Sondheim: "...using the word 'to' instead of 'and' ...takes Sally a step further into her obsession with Ben and offers a nice example of the subtle powers of the English language. As I keep saying, God is in the details."

No doubt Sondheim's best work begins when he is both lyricist and composer, finding the perfect marriage of the subtleties of the English language with the progressions and rhythms of music. But before establishing himself as a composer (although he was both lyricist and composer for his rarely performed earliest work, Saturday Night, in 1954), his friend, Oscar Hammerstein, persuaded him first to take on the role of lyricist for West Side Story with the renowned composer, Leonard Bernstein, who according to Sondheim, thought himself "poetic," which set up a continuing battle, Sondheim trying to write lyrics within the characters and Bernstein wanting an unrealistic poetic lyric. Sondheim then was too young and inexperienced and frequently had to accede to Bernstein's demands, something he is still not happy about. I love Sondheim's comments regarding the song "America": "Some lines of this lyric are respectable - sharp and crisp, but some melt in the mouth as gracelessly as peanut butter...."

While things went better when he collaborated with Jule Styne for Gypsy, he felt he was ready to write both the music and lyrics but the show's star, Ethel Merman, insisted on a "name" composer for the show. Nonetheless, Sondheim had respect for Styne, thought he captured the right atmosphere in the music for the show, and undoubtedly learned a trick or two from that collaboration.

His disaster collaboration was with none other than the great Richard Rodgers in the writing of Do I hear a Waltz? in 1964. This came on the heels of "two successful" musicals for which Sondheim wrote both lyrics and music, the commercially successful A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962 and the artistically successful (but commercial failure) Anyone Can Whistle in 1964 which, although it closed after only nine performances, was another great learning experience for the young artist, preparing him for greater successes in the future. The title song from Anyone Can Whistle is also one of my own personal favorites and when I play it on the piano I almost feel is if I am practicing a yoga exercise, "It's all so simple: / Relax, let go, let fly. / So someone tell me why / Can't I?" Some, according to Sondheim, thought this particular song was autobiographical, to which Sondheim replies, "To believe [this song] is my credo is to believe that I'm the prototypical Repressed Intellectual and that explains everything about me. Perhaps being tagged with a cliché shouldn't bother me, but it does, and to my chagrin I realize it means that I care more about how I'm perceived than I wish I did. I'd like to think this concern hasn't affected my work, but I wouldn't be surprised if it has." How's that for frankness?

In any case, back to his collaboration with Richard Rodgers, something he took on at the request of the, then, dying Oscar Hammerstein, and as a means to make a "ton of money" after the flop of Anyone Can Whistle. It was, as he admits, an act of self-deception, it made him "feel noble to sublimate my need to write music in order to support his [Hammerstein's] forlornly abandoned partner...Warmed by the personal aspects of the venture and rationalizing the right and left, I agreed to write the lyrics, as wrongheaded a decision as I've ever made." Sondheim found Rodger's creative abilities were failing him and once he wrote music for a piece he refused to alter any of it for the lyrics. It was a spiritless collaboration and as Sondheim says it "was not a bad show, merely a dead one." So with the failure of a work he loved, Anyone Can Whistle, and the failed collaboration of Do I Hear a Waltz, Sondheim began his voyage into a brilliant career as "I learned the only reason to write a show is for love -- just not too much of it."

His musical Company, which is about marriage, or perhaps more aptly, about the potential misery of marriage, is one of my favorites and I have a coincidental personal connection with it as well as it opened on the same day as my second marriage. Also, the main character's name is Robert, and I play most of the music from Company on the piano, with the notable exception of "Getting Married Today" which is technically demanding and is best heard sung. Sondheim points out the irony that all his training under Hammerstein to write an integrated book musical had to be rethought for this show as it is an ensemble production, with the music having to comment on the subject, and not necessarily advancing the plot. Also, it required Sondheim to interpret the intricacies of a subject he had not personally experienced: marriage. He had to interview Richard Rodgers daughter, Mary, to acquire "secondhand experience" on the subject.

What emerged is a brilliant collection of characters and songs, perfect for the subject and the cynical 70s. I was happy to learn that Sondheim's favorite version of the musical is the same one as ours, the 2006 production staring Raul Esparza. All the characters play musical instruments in this production and Esparza as I recall had to learn to play the piano to accompany himself when singing my favorite piece from the show, "Being Alive." The entire show is a remarkable performance which is available on DVD. Again, in a self-effacing mood, Sondheim confesses the following about the show: "Chekhov wrote, 'If you're afraid of loneliness, don't marry.' Luckily, I didn't come across that quote till long after Company had been produced. Chekhov said in seven words what it took George [Furth, the writer of "The Book"] and me two years and two and a half hours to say less profoundly. If I'd read that sentence, I'm not sure we would have dared to write the show, and we might have been denied the exhilarating experience of exploring what he said for ourselves." (Disclaimer: I don't agree with Chekhov!)

In 1971 he followed up Company with another musical with a loose plot, Follies. It is Sondheim's tribute to the subject he loves the most, Broadway history and Follies allowed him "to imitate the reigning composers and lyricists from the era between the World Wars....What made these songwriters imitable was that most of them had a style independent of whatever show they were writing. Just as you can listen to almost any piece by Chopin without ever having heard it before and still know that it's Chopin, so it is with Arlen, or Gershwin, as well as with a lyric by W.S. Gilbert or Harburg or Porter or Hart, at least the lyrics they wrote once they'd found their voices." Follies has that great show-stopper, "I'm Still Here" as well as one of the most cynical pieces ever written on the subject of marriage: "Could I Leave You?"

But so much of the value of Finishing the Hat is Sondheim's observations about his contemporaries. Of course he pays homage to his "unsung collaborators" over the years, people such as Arthur Laurents and George Furth just to name a few, and then there are his accolades and criticisms of the composers and lyricists, and he frequently doesn't hold any punches:

Leonard Bernstein: "taught me by example..[and] there were other musical things that I learned from Lenny by osmosis...Many of the lyrics from West Side Story suffer from a self-conscious effort to be what Lenny deemed 'poetic.'"
Frank Loesser: "A master of conversational lyrics....Most impressive...the ideas behind his songs."
Alan Jay Lerner: "Smooth, appropriate lyrics but merely pleasant...No discernable style or personality." (Although Sondheim acknowledges that My Fair Lady was the most entertaining musical he's ever seen, except his own!)
Oscar Hammerstein II: "An earthy, optimistic lyricist...Sometimes gets carried away by 'pretty' words instead of accurate ones."
E.Y Harburg: "Often preoccupied with linguistic playfulness that is at its best charming and inventive."
Lorenz Hart: His writings were" jaunty but melancholy, forceful but vulnerable..verbally nimble, full of humor, and a lazy craftsman."
Ira Gershwin: "Often undone by his passion for rhyming, for which he sacrifices both case and syntax." Sondheim speculates that his obsession "to invent and dazzle" was an attempt to "bridge the gap" with his genius brother.
Irving Berlin: "Naturally colloquial lyrics that were deceptively simple."
Cole Porter: "Most immediately recognizable lyrics...Technically, in both music and lyrics, no one is better than Porter and few are his equals."
Dorothy Fields: "Leading exponent in her generation of the truly colloquial lyricists...Dorothy needed someone like Kern or Arlen or McHugh -- more openly emotional composers."
Noel Coward. Compares him unfavorably to Porter. Porter's "music is notably more inventive and colorful than Coward's." In their lyrics, "both make sport of the haut monde, but Porter does it with fondness, Coward with disdain."

Those are but a few of Sondheim's "attendant comments..heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes.". He frequently devotes whole sections to his predecessors and contemporaries in Finishing The Hat and of course there will be others to follow in the succeeding pages. If that in itself is not worth the "price of admission," Finishing The Hat is also a fine example of the art of the book, and why a Kindle cannot replicate the look and feel of good book craftsmanship. It is an oversize format so the lyrics and text can occupy three columns and to accommodate numerous illustrations, musical handwritten scores by Sondheim, lyrics both typed and handwritten and edited with the author's notes, and photographs from the productions of his shows. I was intrigued by his thought process, working out lyrics as shown on facsimiles of his yellow legal pad notes. He even goes into detail regarding his writing habits (in a footnote) about how he bought a life time supply of a special pencil with reversible erasers, ones which are flat and can't roll off a table, as well as a 32 line yellow legal pad ("allowing alternate words to be written above one another without crowding or wasting space"). Sondheim's eye for detail is omniscient.

The book is beautifully designed, printed on a high opacity stock that reminds me of the Warren Patina paper I used in my production days in publishing, when the esthetics of the book were paramount. My one minor criticism of the design is the lyrics are not as easy to read as they are juxtaposed to Sondheim's commentary text which is in bold.

Sondheim ends Finishing The Hat with "Intermission" and likewise, this entry ends on the same note.