Even a less-then-passionate Sondheim fan will get the reference: "Finishing the Hat" is one of the brilliant Stephen Sondheim's brilliant songs, from his extremely brilliant musical Sunday in the Park with George. It's a song about the art of making art, and the life of the artist, and is, according to Sondheim's book, Finishing the Hat, one of his few autobiographical songs.
The subtitle of the book says it all: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. The grudges and whines come through loud and clear: Sondheim's critiques of other composers and lyricists are strongly phrased and withering. I don't get the impression that he suffers fools. And I do get the impression that, to him, most of humanity may fall into that category. His portraits of the many remarkable people with whom he's worked are also pointed. I may never again be able to fully appreciate Jerome Robbins's choreography for West Side Story now that I know what an egomaniacal bully he was.
|Little Stephen Sondheim at the piano|
I've been reading the book a little at a time for a while and have finally finished it. It's mostly fascinating, an incredible inside look at how a Broadway musical is put together. Or actually, was put together, since the days of out-of-town productions in Washington and Boston are long over. As a history of the theater as well as the history of theater greats, and an inside look at Sondheim's creative process, it's pretty compelling reading.
The book covers the first half of Sondheim's career, from his first musical, Saturday Night, a student production, through his first lyrics-only shows (West Side Story and Gypsy) through the first show for which he wrote both music and lyrics (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) through his next nine productions: Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, The Frogs, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, and Merrily We Roll Along.
An impressive list, an astonishing list. Anyone would be happy with a career encompassing even half of those legendary creations. But remarkably, it's only the first installment. The second book, Look I Made a Hat, begins with the show from which the lyric comes, Sunday in the Park with George and goes through 2011.
It's incredibly sad that there won't be a third volume. Can we clone Mr. Sondheim, please?