Finishing the Hat:Collected lyrics 1954-1981

Sondheim shows how


Stephen Sondheim
Virgin Books £30

Ever looking for the all important first line of a review, I thought I'd stumbled on it in the list of music and lyric writers mentioned (not all admiringly) in Stephen Sondheim's master class on the art of writing words for songs in musicals.

Two places on from DuBose Heyward, the author credited by Sondheim as the genius lyricist behind Porgy and Bess and, Sondheim says, much greater than Heyward's co-lyricist, Ira Gershwin; and one place before Cabaret composer John Kander (the list is not alphabetical), is W H Auden. The poet co-wrote the lyrics to Stravinsky's The Rakes Progress. And I thought, that's it, the first line: lyrics are poems set to music.

The brilliance of this insight was then somewhat dulled by Sondheim's articulate and fascinating essay on why lyrics are nothing like poems. But the lesson was worth it.

Just as Sondheim shows reveal something universal by focusing on the seemingly isolated particular - the American/Japanese culture clash in Pacific Overtures for instance, or in Company, the pressure to be in a relationship - this amalgam of commentaries, anecdotes and lessons on the particular discipline of lyric writing has a lot to say about all kinds of theatre.

Interspersed throughout the book are occasional photocopies of the neat handwriting with which Sondheim wrote the words to some of the finest songs ever written in musical theatre.

For fans in awe of the talent, the pages trigger the kind of thrill I last felt by accident while visiting Dublin's Trinity College library where I was idly peering through a glass cabinet to find I was looking at Samuel Beckett's handwritten notebooks. It's not quite the same thing, obviously, but as you turn the page to reveal the neat scrawl of Sondheim's pen, there is a similar unexpected intimacy with the work.

Sondheim writes candidly about his reputation, too. On Company - possibly the only musical I ever saw whose subject I could relate to my own life - Sondheim, whose name became a synonym for sophisticated irony, reveals that he is actually the romantic half of his creative partnership with director Hal Prince.

Prince, it turns out, is the ironic one, though it was Sondheim whose work was labelled "cold", often by those who need to see a tap-dancing six-year-old before declaring a show to have heart.

Sondheim reveals also the three principles by which he wrote his work - Content Dictates Form, Less is More and God Is in the Detail - a mantra that all writers could use, whether novelists, lyricists or even, dare I say it, poets.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive