Features Book Reviews Published 18 February 2011

Finishing the Hat – Collected Lyrics (1954 – 1981)

The great man collects and annotates.

Stewart Pringle

From its opening page, on which Sondheim affirms the dubious benefit of a book of printed lyrics, Finishing the Hat is a gloriously candid and clear-headed appraisal of the author’s place within the history of 20th century musical theatre.

Here Sondheim praises Clarity as the prime virtue of all great lyric writing, and his adherence to the principle allows him to speak of his own work and the work of others with a voice untempered by sentimentality or reserve. Rather than simply collecting his lyrics for posterity, or offering a biography for vanity and voyeurism, Sondheim offers a rich and detailed history of his development as a pre-eminent lyric writer, and in doing so creates what is surely one of the very finest books about the writing process.

Sondheim presents close to a complete overview of his early writing, with each musical accorded its own chapter with an overview of its inception, production and subsequent life. Many of the printed lyrics are accompanied by reflections, anecdotes and critical appraisals of their strengths and weaknesses. The early lyrics to Saturday Night and West Side Story in particular are savaged for their inadequacies and misjudgements. It can be surprising to hear sections of a now ubiquitous lyric such as ‘America’ dismissed as ‘graceless […] as peanut butter and impossible to comprehend’.

Much of the book’s joy, however, is to be found in these merciless assessments. Together with the reproduced pages of handwritten manuscript, they display the mind of an artist whose perfectionism is softened by an admirable practicality. While willing to fight a point or problem to the death, he also comes across as being able to reach a compromise with his own ambition, of permitting a small defeat in the knowledge that a victory could soon follow. There are few greater pleasures than reading through his early failed attempts to realise the opening number for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, before arriving with him at the triumph of ‘Comedy Tonight’.

The early publicity for these long-awaited words, from a man who is considered by many to be the master of sophisticated musical theatre, focussed largely upon the perceived acidity of his attacks on his fellow lyricists.  These reflections are interspersed at relevant points throughout the text, and make up a detailed map of his influences, his heroes and his villains. Though his attacks on Noël Coward are pitiless, they are admirably justified, and if there is a hint of Oedipal glee in his assertion that ‘Oscar Hammerstein II is not my idol’ it is balanced by the genuine adoration he heaps upon those writers he believed to be possessed of genius. Similarly the respect he accords to book writers: often the unsung heroes of the musical.

If the book has a weakness, it is only that (even at over 400 pages for what is only the first volume) it is just too short. A number of lyrics, such as ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’ from Follies, are sadly bereft of comment, and though it’s hardly Sondheim’s fault, the absence of any lost material from Sweeney Todd is a blow. Wonderful that he got it right first time, but couldn’t he have made one tantalising mistake? In every other way, however, the book is frankly spectacular. Though its brazen attitude is unlikely to win over Sondheim detractors who find his writing over-cooked and smug, for his fans it’s a crystalline record of a brilliant mind in motion.

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

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