Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes (Anglais) Relié – 26 octobre 2010
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Oh, what a beautiful mornin’,
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I got a beautiful feelin’
Ev’rythin’s goin’ my way!
is much more evocative than this couplet from his “All the Things You Are”:
You are the promised kiss of springtime
That makes the lonely winter seem long.
The first, buoyed by Richard Rodgers’s airy music, sounds as profoundly simple (especially if you ignore the dialect) as something by Robert Frost. The second sounds even more overripe than it is in print, given Jerome Kern’s setting, which merely by being music—and beautiful music, unfortunately—makes the extravagance of the words bathetic.
Poetry is an art of concision, lyrics of expansion. Poems depend on packed images, on resonance and juxtaposition, on density. Every reader absorbs a poem at his own pace, inflecting it with his own rhythms, stresses and tone. The tempo is dictated less by what the poet intends than by the reader’s comprehension. All of us, as we read poetry (prose, too), slow down, speed up, even stop to reread when overwhelmed by the extravagance of the images or confused by the grammatical eccentricities. The poet may guide us with punctuation and layout and seduce us with the subtle abutment of words and sounds, but it is we who supply the musical treatment.
Poetry can be set to music gracefully, as Franz Schubert and a long line of others have proved, but the music benefits more from the poem which gives it structure than the poem does from the music, which often distorts not only the poet’s phrasing but also the language itself, clipping syllables short or extending them into nearunintelligibility. Music straitjackets a poem and prevents it from breathing on its own, whereas it liberates a lyric. Poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do.
Lyrics are not light verse, either. Light verse doesn’t demand music because it supplies its own. All those emphatic rhythms, ringing rhymes, repeated refrains: the poem sings as it’s being read. Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” percolates with unwritten music so strong that I would guess everybody reads it at the same trotting pace. In fact light verse, like “serious” poetry, is dimin ished by being set to music. Music either thuddingly underlines the dum-de-dum rhythms or willfully deforms them, trying to disguise the very singsong quality that gives the verse its character. This is why “The Pied Piper” has never been set well: take away the singsong and you destroy the poem, keep it in the music and you bore the listener mercilessly with rhythmic repetition. Music tends to hammer light verse into monotony or shatter its grace. It would seem easy to set Dorothy Parker’s famous “Comment” to music:
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.
The trouble is that she’s already done it. The jauntiness of the rhythm perfectly balances the wry self-pity of the words. Music doesn’t understate, that’s not its job: its job is to emphasize and support the words or, as in opera, dominate them. Thus any accompaniment, whether light or lyrical, is likely either to turn Parker’s irony into a joke or to drown it in sentimentality. Light verse is complete unto itself. Lyrics by definition lack something; if they don’t, they’re probably not good lyrics.
When it comes to theater songs, the composer is in charge. Performers can color a lyric with phrasing and rubato (rhythmic fluidity), but it’s the melody which dictates the lyric’s rhythms and pauses and inflections, the accompaniment which sets the pace and tone. These specific choices control our emotional response, just as a movie director’s camera controls it by restricting our point of view, forcing us to look at the details he wants us to notice. For the songwriter, it’s a matter of what phrase, what word, he wants us to focus on; for the director, what face, what gesture. An actor singing “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ ” might want to emphasize “beautiful,” but Rodgers forces him to emphasize “mornin’ ” by setting the word on the strongest beat in the measure and the highest note in the melody. Song stylists— club singers, recording artists, jazz vocalists and the like—often take liberties with lyric phrasings and tempos, but the music restricts their choices. This is not always a good thing: The unlucky lady who has to sing “Seven to midnight I hear drums” from Rodgers and Hart’s “Ten Cents a Dance” is forced to sing “hear drums” no matter how she squirms. The same holds true for anyone singing “It Never Entered My Mind” in the same team’s Higher and Higher; she has to make “And order orange juice for one,” sound natural. The songwriter sets the emphasis, for good or for ill.
Another thing about music is that it isn’t explicit. Play a recording of Debussy’s La Mer for someone who hasn’t heard it and ask what it brings to mind. The reply will seldom be “The sea!,” although in Music Appreciation courses that’s what is taught. True enough, over the years certain orchestral sounds have come to be associated with specific emotions, especially in the movies (saxophones for sexiness, bassoons for clumsiness, flutes for happiness), just as certain instrumental themes resonate immediately from repeated exposure: Alfred Newman’s title music from Street Scene evokes New York, just as “Dixie” evokes the South and “La Marseillaise,” France. Still, music is abstract and its function in song is to fulfill what it accompanies; poems are fulfilled all by themselves. Under spoken text, music is background, atmosphere and mood and nothing more.
In song, music is an equal partner. Hammerstein, like all good lyricists, not only understood but counted on the power of music
to glorify the understatement of his language, a collaborative surrender which poets who write for musical theater tend to underestimate or resist. Professional lyricists recognize music’s capacity not only to make a lyric vibrate, but also to smother it to death. If a lyric is too full of itself, as in “All the Things You Are,” music can make it muddy or grandiose. The lyrics of Maxwell
Anderson, Truman Capote, Anthony Burgess and Langston Hughes, to name some of the most prominent crossover poets, fall into this trap. Their lyrics convey the aura of a royal visit: they announce the presence of the writer. When the stories deal with exotic times or cultures, as in Burgess’s lyrics for Cyrano and Capote’s for House of Flowers, the self- consciousness can be acceptable, but when the characters are supposed to be speaking in the vernacular, as in Hughes’s Street Scene and Anderson’s Lost in the Stars, the lyrics become faintly but persistently ludicrous.
It’s the music that does them in. Poets tend to be poor lyricists because their verse has its own inner music and doesn’t make allowance for the real thing. The two great exceptions are DuBose Heyward’s lyrics in Porgy and Bess and Richard Wilbur’s in Candide. Their work bespeaks an understanding not only of how music operates with words, but of how words operate in drama. They know how to combine the density of poetry with the openness of lyrics and still not intrude their own selves into the characters. I hasten to add that intrusion is a problem for non- poet lyricists as well. To cite a favorite example of my own, from West Side Story: “It’s alarming / How charming / I feel,” sings Maria, a lower- class Puerto Rican girl who has been brought up on street argot and whose brother is a gang leader, but who suddenly sings the smoothly rhymed and coyly elegant phrases of a character from a Noël Coward operetta because the lyricist wants to show off his rhyming skills.
In opera, density is less of a problem because text occupies a back seat. Usually, the lyrics matter minimally except when necessary to carry the plot forward, and most operas have very little plot to carry— traditionally, the drama is supposed to be carried by the music. The lyrics by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman for The Rake’s Progress read gracefully and sing unintelligibly, not only because Stravinsky distorts them but because they’re too packed for the listener to comprehend in the time allotted for hearing them. If poetry is the art of saying a lot in a little, lyric- writing is the art of finding the right balance between saying too much and not enough. Bad lyrics can be either so packed that they become impenetrable or so loose that they’re uninteresting.
Most lyrics written in my generation and the generations before me do not make for good reading. Nostalgists for...
Revue de presse
"Finishing the Hat is a show stopper! If you love Stephen Sondheim, hate him, or never even heard of him, you'll still have a great ride—so take it! This book is filled with humor, controversy, stories about talented and glamorous people and, above all, life. And his lyrics! Everything you've ever wanted to know—about anything—is in those lyrics." —Phyllis Newman
“There is so much to be learned and appreciated from Finishing the Hat. It's filled with fascinating, entertaining, unique and compelling lessons from a man who encompasses the essence of what is truly great about American Musical Theatre.” —Michael Feinstein
“Just as Stephen Sondheim is, without dispute, THE master lyricist for the theater of our generation (not to mention his superb music!), he now has written THE book on the art and craft of lyric writing. It is a book that will enrich and entertain anyone with an interest in music and theater, either as a life’s work or a life’s pleasure. It is like no other writing on the subject. It is Sondheim.” —Alan & Marilyn Bergman
“Seeing my first Sondheim musical, Follies, I was like the farm girl brought to the Homes of Tomorrow exhibit; breathless, nose pressed to the glass. This book takes the glass away. It’s a thrill to experience these shows again with Steve as your guide. What a gift to the theatre this book is! For actors, it's a must. For lyricists, it a primer.” —Joanna Gleason
“The book is a masterpiece. There never has been and never will be one like it. It is about the grain of sand that produces the pearl and is indeed as honest and simple as that pearl. If you pay attention to this book you could learn how to write a song, though not a great song. That is forever mysterious as genius will always be. The main lesson is that this particular genius is dead practical. All the hocus pocus attached to art has no meaning in the mind of Sondheim. You must read it to see what does matter to him and you will marvel and read it again. And then again.” —Mike Nichols
“Stephen Sondheim’s book can be read for pleasure, information, wisdom, humor or inspiration; all of the pleasures I received. Or because it tells a few secrets about how genius works.” —Stanley Donen
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Mr. Sondheim's new coffee table book, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes, is a gift to us all. Before you even start reading the text, flip through it and you'll see that this is a gorgeous book. It is chock full of photographs--more than 200--many of them full page blowups. There are pictures and artwork from the productions, candid photos from Mr. Sondheim's personal collection, and images of his hand-written notes, lyrics, and sheet music. This book is richly and beautifully illustrated. The only small disappointment is that all images are black and white, but it is truly a minor complaint.
Once you've feasted your eyes, dive into the text. Almost immediately, you'll see that Mr. Sondheim has written his book with the care and precision with which he writes his songs. There's a slight formality to the tone (with the laying down of copious rules along the way), but at the same time, it's a very candid look at his work, his collaborators, his predecessors, and his life. For musicians or composers, there is much substantive information on his process. And for theater buffs like me, this book is a treasure! Mr. Sondheim's contributions are the apotheosis of musical theater. The shows recounted are theatrical history. Sadly, I'm too young to have seen the original productions of any of these 13 shows, but now I've heard about the drama behind the scenes of Merrily We Roll Along straight from the horse's mouth. I know his two regrets from West Side Story, what he really thinks of theater critics, how he wanted to plot A Little Night Music, and the influence of Hammerstein's Allegro on his career. The truth is, there is just so much packed into this book, it is simply impossible to even begin to summarize the contents.
This book is specifically dedicated to Mr. Sondheim's lyrics, and what a joy it was to sing, er... I mean, read my way through them. To give you an idea of how comprehensive Finishing the Hat is, every lyric of every song from the original production of Follies is included. Nine songs cut from the show are included, along with the reasons behind the changes. A revised lyric for a later London production is included. And altered versions of "I'm Still Here" (for Barbara Streisand and for the film Postcards from the Edge) are included. And always Mr. Sondheim's thoughts, observations, and occasional criticisms are shared, often through the use of extensive footnotes.
The book ends at Merrily, 423 pages in, with a provocative statement and the word INTERMISSION. This is indeed the intermission between the volumes of Mr. Sondheim's collected lyrics/memoir, the second of which will encompass the remainder of his storied career. I can only hope the second book is well into its production. As excited as I was to get my hands on this book, it is truly more than I could have hoped for. In the end, it's a fitting testament to an immense talent.
This is a dandy book for those of us who have, any time since the '60s or so, become infected with the Sondheim illness. Plenty to think about, carp about, admire. New photos to ponder. New versions of songs to ruminate over. A teeny-weeny part of me feels sorry for the guy, in that he seems to have so spend some amount of energy responding to preconceptions and conceptions about him. Must be exhausting.
One thought, upon finishing it: how rare and wonderful that a major practitioner of a given art (or craft, as he would insist) is also an astute and acute critic and surveyor of said art/craft. You think Harnick or Ebb or Porter or Hart or Loesser or any of them could/can write so incisively about their peers, their predecessors, how they all fit together, how they rank, how they shine (or don't), where the faults lie, where the untapped gems lurk? Nope. So we are lucky to have had Sondheim writing shows and just as lucky that he can talk to us about how it all happens, both for him and for others.
I didn't find the type hard to read, as others did, and I don't know about the photos shmearing off -- I read it while wearing kid gloves, naturally.