Tuesday, September 26, 2023

lyrics in aspic

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat (Knopf, 2010); Look, I Made a Hat (Knopf, 2011)

It's only in recent years that I felt I've come to know Sondheim's work as a whole well enough to read these collections of his lyrics. In one sense I still don't: I was dismayed to find that many songs that I knew, or thought I knew, I could summon up no memory of the tune by seeing the lyrics on the page. On the other hand, these books, especially the first one, are full of fascinating and witty commentary on the art of lyric writing.

Sondheim distinguishes lyrics from poetry. Poetry, written to be perused on the page at the reader's own speed (but what about live poetry readings?), is free to be dense and complex, but lyrics have to be understood while sung, so they have to be simpler, but as they're written to be accompanied by music, the music can carry much of the emotional charge, so the lyrics can get away with being simpler, which is how Oscar Hammerstein (Sondheim's mentor, whom he nevertheless isn't very much like) could do it.

Still, complexity is part of Sondheim's appeal (what about "Getting Married Today," which is rattled off at top speed?), and I enjoy inner and trick rhymes like "It's alarming how charming I feel," which Sondheim castigates his young self for putting in the mouth of Maria in West Side Story, who isn't otherwise so verbally precocious. I like it, though.

Elaborateness is one thing, but Sondheim has an essay fiercely defending exact rhyme, which he feels is essential for the ultimate purpose of lyrics: clarity. He castigates a contemporary lyricist who avoids exact rhyme because it interferes with his idea of feelings. Sondheim doesn't name this person, and otherwise avoids critiquing the living. The first book is full of little essays evaluating past lyricists, though, because being dead their feelings can't be hurt; and Sondheim lets loose on a lot of them whom he considers imperfect, which is most of them. His funniest remark on those lines is on Lorenz Hart, whom he finds sloppy and careless. Like "Your looks are laughable / Unphotographable." "Unless the object of the singer's affection is a vampire," Sondheim says, "surely what Hart means is 'unphotogenic,'" but there aren't many good rhymes for that.

(In that connection, this is the only book I've read in which the author can write 'Gershwin' and the reader knows it means Ira, not George.)

But Sondheim could write about George, because he's musically trained - he was a student of Milton Babbitt, which may sound surprising, but Babbitt was fond of popular song - and usually writes his own music, in a very distinctive style. (He chafed at being hired to write lyrics only for West Side Story and Gypsy, but Hammerstein persuaded him to do it, because they'd be great learning opportunities). But he avoids discussing the music, because while lyrics are just words and the technical side can be explained to any English-speaking reader, analytical writing about music can only be understood by the technically trained. Hey, I've had some technical training, I bet I could understand it; I wish he'd gone into it. If only he'd seen Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music, which is so full of technical analysis that even I skimmed over parts, but which has been read with appreciation by many with even less technical background than I.

Sondheim explains why he doesn't write the "book" (plot and spoken dialogue) of his musicals. He says that as a lyricist he's a miniaturist: writing the book requires a larger-scale feeling for development and pacing that he doesn't think he has. He's in awe of those who can do it well. He doesn't see himself as creating the characters he writes lyrics for; he's enriching and filling out the characters the book-writer creates, and he tries to do it in a manner befitting that particular writer's style. I knew that, and that's why when I cited Into the Woods in my Mythcon GoH speech as an example of mashing up fairy tales, I credited it to Sondheim and James Lapine. It was their idea, not just his. When Sondheim tells the story of its creation, he writes "James came up with the notion" and "we remembered something he'd concocted," not "I."

Buried in the back of the first volume, Sondheim explains why he titled it Finishing the Hat. That song from Sunday in the Park with George is "the only song I've written which is an immediate expression of a personal internal experience"; everything else, he's writing for the characters, not about himself. And when he gets to Sunday in the second volume, he tells what that personal internal experience is: it's the rare occasions on which he's gotten so wrapped up in his work that hours pass without his having noticed them, what he calls "trancing out." He wishes that could happen more often because it's amazing when it does. And I thought, hey, he's discovered monotropism. It happens to me all the time, mostly when I'm doing library research. Sondheim thinks it happens to everybody at least occasionally; I'm not so sure about that.

The book starts with what he considers his first mature work, Saturday Night, and goes on to his better-known stage shows from there. Only at the end of the second volume are there sections of apprentice work (which he cheerfully rips apart critically), unproduced and incomplete shows, TV musicals, incidental contributions to other people's shows, movie songs, and an amazing number of personal birthday songs for friends.


  1. "Trancing out" sounds like what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called "flow."