Stephen Sondheim, master lyricist and composer, publishes new book
The Jewish-American great gives his fans a new gift - a large volume of the lyrics he wrote during the second part of his career, entitled ‘Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics’.
Every critic has artists whose work he follows with bated breath. I don't mind admitting this of myself - not that there is anyone who doesn't already know that Hanoch Levin is the nub of my critical interest in Israeli theater. This is in part because, by chance (or not ), the trajectory of his work as a playwright and director paralleled mine as a theater critic and to a considerable extent shaped it. Levin, as is well known, never spoke out in public, in writing or orally, about his own work, and let his plays (and his directing ) say everything he had to say about it. Fortunately for me, another deity I worship in the temple of theater (and I have no hesitation about using this theological imagery with respect to the fundamentally heretical art of theater ), Stephen Sondheim, has been more generous in his statements about his own art.
Sondheim is neither a playwright nor a director. Narrowly defined, he is a lyricist (for the songs in "West Side Story" and "Gypsy" ) and a composer. Of course, though, he is much more than that: In more than 60 years of artistic work he has originated and created at least 10 major musicals, each of which changed and shaped this most clearly original American theatrical genre. In this sense he is the begetter of an art for which he had the luck (in his analysis ) and the good taste (according to my way of thinking ) to find the best possible partners, in the shape of the writers of the plays (the "books" in the language of musical theater ) and the directors and producers with whom to make dramatic-musical-theatrical masterpieces.
All of this has been true and accepted by many people for at least 30 years now. However, last year, when Sondheim turned 80 years old, he gave his many fans a wonderful new gift - a large volume in which he collected the lyrics he wrote during the first part of his career (1954-1981 ), entitled "Finishing the Hat" (published by Alfred A. Knopf ). The book contains a lot more than lyrics - as promised in the subtitle, there are also "Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes." This year or, to be precise, two weeks ago, he gave his admirers the second part, containing his works from the years 1981 to 2011, called "Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011 ) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany."
Why a hat? The reason for this is a song in one of the most important and extraordinary plays in the musical genre, "Sunday in the Park with George," which Sondheim conceived and wrote in 1981 together with playwright and director James Lapine. The uniqueness of this work is that its center is not a plot but rather a painting by Georges Seurat. The musical "recreates" the painting on the stage, including the very process of its creation, making a statement about art and the artist's relationship with himself, his work, his audience and his times. In many senses this musical, which regrettably has never been produced in Israel (and, things being what they are, I doubt it ever will be ), is Sondheim's artistic credo, and in the first part of the second book he details how it was created.
One of the songs in this musical (the premiere of which starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters ) was "Finishing the Hat," in which Seurat describes, as he works on the painting, the artist's total absorption in a detail of the painting - in this case, completion of the work on a hat - while the world is happening around him (including his own personal life ). Sondheim's two volumes are an excellent demonstration of going into the technical details of the lyricist's work on a musical, since through the details we learn a great deal about the artist, his craft and art, and about ourselves as well.
Sondheim himself writes in the second book that the splitting of the works into two volumes, published in successive years, enabled him to deal in the second volume with readers' complaints, and his own, about the first volume. Thus, for example, he notes that people commented that he wrote in detail about his work as a lyricist but hardly anything about his work as a composer. He admits that this was the case, and the reason is that it is possible to write about lyrics in language everyone understands but writing about music requires professional jargon. In the summation of the second volume, he writes: "Having gifts for both words and music, I used to worry that if I was honest with myself, I would admit that one was weaker than the other, that only Berlin and Porter were bestowed with equal portions (not perfect, but equal ) and that I should chose only one, preferably sticking to lyrics because there were so many more composers than lyricists for me to wish I was as good as. It took me longer than it should have to realize that language is music, and that I'm all of one piece."
Another criticism directed at the first volume was that Sondheim hadn't written a lot about his personal life. He admits this, but says the book was not intended as a memoir because he has no interest in writing and publishing such a book. However, in his discussion of "Sunday in the Park with George," he says that, up until that musical and in work with Lapine on some of their joint projects, there was an emotional detachment, whereas starting with "Sunday in the Park with George" there is a degree of vulnerability, longing and compassion. To my regret, I have never had the opportunity to see "Sunday in the Park with George." However, on Broadway in 1989 I did see "Into the Woods," Sondheim and Lapine's stage masterpiece (which also has never been staged professionally in Israel ) - a brilliant mishmash of fairy tales ("Little Red Riding Hood," "Cinderella," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and more ) that mingle in a imaginary-musical wood with great inventiveness, humor and psychological acuity - and I was captivated.
From a close reading of the lyrics, and of Sondheim's comments in the second book about the songs added during the course of the final rehearsals and the creative process, you learn a lot about the craft of writing lyrics (even down to the use of a certain letter, word or rhyme ), as well as a great deal about Sondheim himself.
The next two musicals Sondheim discusses in the book are "Assassins," which he wrote with John Weidman, and "Passion," cowritten with Lapine. "Assassins" is about the individuals who killed U.S. presidents, from Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy. As in his other analyses, the details are breathtaking. Sondheim is a very harsh self-critic (with respect to many of the lyrics he wrote for "West Side Story" he is simply ashamed ) but, in his view, "Assassins" is his work that comes closest to perfection.
His next musical was also innovative and groundbreaking - "Passion," based on an Italian novel and on Ettore Scola's film "Passione d'Amore." It is set in the 19th century and is about an ugly and sickly woman who falls in love with a young man. In his discussion of this 1994 musical, Sondheim includes a chapter on what is called "revivals" - and comes to the correct conclusion that, in most cases (except, of course, for plays and musicals that have only just been written ), most of the essence of theater is "revival," and that is what is special about it. He notes that the most interesting, moving production, and the one that was the "revival" of "Passion," was at the Donmar West End in London, directed by Jamie Lloyd in 2010. "Theater is mercury, and my wish for the world to see that performance at the Donmar was an impossible one. The experience belonged exclusively to me and a roomful of others who had come together at the same time for the same event," says Sondheim in the book. Having seen this production myself, and having had the great fortune of hearing Sondheim speak about his work on that occasion, live from the stage, I can definitely agree with him.
In the last part of the second volume, Sondheim gives charming anecdotes about the lyrics he wrote for Warren Beatty's films, including "Dick Tracy" (Sondheim won an Oscar for one of the songs in it, performed by Madonna ); the lyrics he wrote for Leonard Bernstein's music in "Candide" (having stipulated that Bernstein would not intervene in the lyrics ); and the lyrics of two songs he wrote for music by Manos Hadjidakis for "Illya Darling," the musical theater version of "Never on Sunday" with Melina Mercouri, directed by Jules Dassin. (Mercouri accepted the lyrics enthusiastically but subsequently decided not to perform them; when Sondheim asked her why she replied that since he didn't care enough to come backstage after every performance, there seemed no reason to sing the songs. "This is a true story", he makes a point of writing. )
Sondheim also includes in the book many lyrics for songs that were not used, as well as brilliant songs he wrote for social occasions and parodies, an especially hilarious example being one of "The Girl from Ipanema" to music by Mary Rodgers, daughter of composer Richard Rodgers. Having said all this, I haven't even begun to enumerate all the goodies in this volume. Like its predecessor, this book opens with the motto that, according to Sondheim, is the recipe for anyone who aspires to becoming a successful theater lyricist. It also applies to many other arts and, of course, to Sondheim himself: "There are only three principles necessary for a lyric writer, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing... but they underlie everything I've ever written. In no particular order, and to be written in stone:
Content Dictates Form
Less Is More
God is in the Details
all in the service of
"If a lyric writer observes this mantra rigorously, he can turn out a respectable lyric. If he also has a feeling for music and rhythm, a sense of theater and something to say, he can turn out an interesting one. If in addition he has qualities such as humor, style, imagination and the numerous other gifts every writer could use, he might even turn out a good one, and with an understanding composer and a stimulating book writer, the sky's the limit."
How fortunate we are to be living in a period when there is a lyricist endowed with all the necessary good qualities, according to Sondheim, who has been lucky enough to have an understanding composer (both of them called Stephen Sondheim ) who has given us the hundreds of brilliant songs and the two thick volumes he has pulled out of his hat - a true magician of words and melodies.