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Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics, 1954-1981, With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes (The Hat Box #1)

4.53 of 5 stars 4.53  ·  rating details  ·  960 ratings  ·  146 reviews
Stephen Sondheim has won seven Tonys, an Academy Award, seven Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors. His career has spanned more than half a century, his lyrics have become synonymous with musical theater and popular culture, and in Finishing the Hat—titled after perhaps his most autobiographical song, from Sunday in the Park with George—Sondheim has not ...more
Hardcover, 421 pages
Published October 26th 2010 by Knopf (first published October 26th 2009)
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Look, I'm a music theater buff, and a Sondheim freak. So it was preordained that I would love this book. Actually, I was expecting to find it redundant, if not nostalgia-inducing, inasmuch as I have long owned and adored copies of his scores and libretti, and near-memorized recordings of every Sondheim show (save the unloveable mess that is Road Show, about which you can read my review elsewhere on Goodreads). However, I can confidently tell you that ANYbody with even a PASSing interest in theat ...more
Mary Ronan Drew
There is nobody like Sondheim. Much as I love Cole Porter and the Rogers and Hart and Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, it's Sondheim who sings to me.

This collection of lyrics to his musicals from West Side Story in 1957 to Merrily We Roll Along in 1981 is enlightening. Sondheim introduces each show, includes the lyrics to songs that were cut, and explains the dynamics between him and the producer, director, writer of the book, choreographer, and composer if he was writing only the lyrics, as in
Nov 28, 2011 willaful rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anyone interested in musical theatre
I'm fascinated by people who love their work and take it seriously, so even if I wasn't a musicals fan I probably would've enjoyed this book. The subtitle describes it pretty well: this is a collection of Sondheim's lyrics from the first half of his career, along with his commentary about the process of writing the lyrics and creating the shows. He also gives uncensored opinions on other lyricists' work, which are saved from seeming brutal by their obvious sincerity, and by the fact that he is j ...more
Kevin Fanning
I mean, yeah, I don't know how else to rate this. It's on a totally different scale than a novel or whatever. If you are interested in musical theater in general and in Sondheim in particular then obviously this book is for you. But also if you are interested in learning more about how a writer who is EXTREMELY GOOD at what he does actually does what he does, you might want to look at this. There is tons of good writing advice packed in here, and a lot of fascinating critical self-dissection alo ...more
What does it mean, to make art? Does the artist create and nurture his work, or does it feed on him, consuming his life until he is forever “finishing the hat”? Paging through Stephen Sondheim’s recent memoir/commentary/anthology, I couldn’t help wondering.

In his book, Sondheim discusses the “principles” and “heresies” of lyric composition at the level of a technical master, analyzing himself and his (deceased) contemporaries with all the precision of his own best lyrics. He writes as he is, a c
A Bow for Mr. Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim Will probably forever be regarded as the finest lyricist the musical stage has known - with apologies to librettist W. S. Gilbert or Gilbert and Sullivan fame. He has always taken on stories that encourage - no, force - the audience to relate to his ideas, whether that be in the early stages of his career with the magnum opus West Side Story or with the subsequent Gypsy!, Pacific Overtures, Follies, Sundays in the Park with George, Company, Sweeney Todd, A
When I first heard about this book, I wasn't too excited. For some reason I was under the impression that it was just a collection of the lyrics. Nice to have, but, really, not that necessary, since -- ahem -- I already know them all by heart.

I dutifully ordered the book from the library, though -- this is Sondheim we're talking about, after all. When it came in and I took a closer look at it, I realized how wrong I'd been, and immediately sat down and started reading. This is the book Sondheim
So much of what I could say in a review of Sondheim's lovely book of lyrics - Finishing the Hat - is touched upon by singer/songwriter Paul Simon in an article he wrote for The New York Times:

I will only add my own thoughts – which are wordy, because I love the man. When I was a freshman in my rural Iowa high school, I took vocal lessons with a local college instructor, Hollis Dobref, who later went on to work with Jason Smith to develop up-and-coming jazz
I'm a lyricist so this is more than just a book for me. It's is an essential text. Right now, I have a library copy, but it's clear that I'm going to have to buy my own. It's all there, lyrics from 28 years worth of writing in one volume. No this isn't poetry as Sondheim makes clear. But if you want to know the essentials behind world-class lyric writing, careful reading of these lyrics will prove rewarding. I know almost all of the tidbits included with the lyrics, but if you're just a casual f ...more
More! More! More! When I heard about this book, I was prepared to like it. One of America's best writers, writing about his craft? Yes, please! What I found was a great blend between memoir, analysis and lesson, all focused on Sondheim's lyrics. I appreciated that he sets the groundrules up front, and follows them throughout. This isn't memoir as gossip. This is reflection on his experience in the creation of 13 musicals, with the benefit of time to explore his intentions at the time, and their ...more
Stephanie Sun
One of the rare gift books worth reading cover to cover. Just amazing that Mr. Sondheim was willing to share so much of his ginormous brain with anyone with $40 to spare.

I read this before we got Spotify in the US and at a peak Luddite moment when I had no cable internet so it had me scouring YouTube on my smartphone for every good-quality performance clip of the shows and songs discussed in this book. (Yes, I watched an entire filmed stage performance of Company: A Musical Comedy on YouTube on
One of the best books I have ever read on the subject of theater and the process of making theater- a must for anybody in the industry. Sondheim approaches his calling via the lyrics angle, but since good lyrics in musical theater are essentially storytelling, directors, composers, playwrights, actors and pretty much everyone else associated with the stage will get plenty out of this book- whether you agree with Stephen or not. Even when you don't his unquestionable genius is so well articulated ...more
Michael McLean
If you're a Sondheim fan read this book. If you're an American Musical Theatre historian you must read this book. If you like reading things that make you go, "Wow, that is one smart guy." read this book. If you love musical theatre but are indifferent toward Sondheim you still ought to read this book. Nobody alive today knows more about writing lyrics and music for Broadway. How it used to be, how it is, and how it might be one day.

I look forward to the sequel, "Look I Made a Hat", next year. D
This book is a master class in musical theatre creation. Those who have read a lot on Mr. Sondheim's work will be relieved to know that there are new anecdotes (the requisite Hammerstein-tutorial sessions are mentioned, as are the famous Jerome Robbins stories, but most of the stories here are new). But more important than the stories are the craft being taught. One can't read this and ever look at or listen to a lyric again without a more critical and appreciative eye and ear. Can't wait for Vo ...more
Dec 30, 2012 Elaine added it
This is a book for die-hard Sondheim fans, budding lyricists or lyric aficionados only.

With the lyrics to all his shows between 1954 - 1981 as well as many additional tidbits, this is a fascinating insight into the most talented man in musical theatre.

Sondheim studies his own work and dissects his lyrics, as well as those of others in an open and rather frank manner.

A simply superb insight into songwriting.

Finishing the Hat is a book of collected lyrics by Stephen Sondheim encompassing his shows from 194-1981. In this collection, he includes “attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines, and anecdotes.”

I absolutely loved this book. I’ve been a big fan of Sondheim ever since I became a musical theater fan (which was probably 15 years ago), and I know a lot of his lyrics backwards and forwards. I was originally skeptical about this book because I thought it would just be a list of lyric
Loved it! Such an insight into writing and Sondheim as a person!
Bryant Frazer
Holy crap. Someone tell me right away if anyone from the film world has written an autobiography with as much insight, erudition, and self-examination as Sondheim brings to bear on this collection of lyrics and commentary. He tackles the giants of the field with a critical eye (only those who have passed on) in between bouts with his own work, letting the exquisite speak for itself but scorning the lazy, the imperfect, and the merely clever. And in Sondheim's case, the exquisite remains breathta ...more
No surprise here - Sondheim is as articulate and masterful in analyzing his own work, and that of others, as he in creating the legendary oeuvre. He is relentlessly honest in assessing which songs of his worked, and the many which didn't - or don't. He cites a bevy of sogns cut from shows for one reason or another, including those which were "too clever" and served to show off his own formidable talent, rather than serve the narrative arc of the show.

Sondheim claims he will only slight the dead
Fascinating, invaluable document of Sondheim's specific approach to songwriting for the theater. If you have a strong interest in that, you can let him entertain you. It's in the title, so he does whine some - in the sense that he feels there are some definite no-nos when it comes to such writing. You may not always agree with him but you will certainly understand and, if you're a fan, appreciate his views. Surprisingly, he's very hard on himself - yet he also reveals when he's been particularly ...more
While Stephen Sondheim is one of my favorite composers and lyricists (Gypsy, Assassins, and A Little Night Music being among my favorite musicals), I wasn't originally interested in this book as I thought it was just a collection of Sondheim's lyrics. Interesting as I find the writing, I can read all of the lyrics online or just listen to the songs as I have recordings for all.

Then I found out that Sondheim also included notes about the writing of the shows and about specific lyrics, which sound
Emily Snyder
"Finishing the Hat" is a veritable masterclass with Stephen Sondheim whose work and contributions to musical theatre in the second half of the 20th century one must admire, whether or not one is a devotee. (For the record, I began theatrical life disdaining him, and have since come to fall in love with many of his works and admire others.)

In addition to the lyrics - including cut songs from scores - Sondheim gives commentary on his own work, on the plays and players, on what worked and what did
Michael Stevens
This review is for both Volume 1 ("Finishing the Hat" and Volume 2 ("Look I Made a Hat") of Stephen Sondheim's reflections and commentary on his lyrics.

These are necessary tools for any serious theatre-goer who wants to fully understand Sondheim's body of work. It is not overstating to say that Sondheim is to American musical theatre what Tennesse Williams is to American Drama: ocassionally dark and always provocative and smart. Obviously the flavors and tones are different and Sondheim's intell
A fascinating trip through some of the finest musicals of my lifetime. I say "some of the finest," because Sondheim's book stops in 1981, after the much maligned (unfairly) "Merrily We Roll Along," with the rest of his output to be discussed in a promised Volume II. For anyone who cares about musicals, who wants to understand the craft of lyric writing, who wants insight into the creative process, this book is a must read. Additionally, the book offers insight into the laserlike focus on craft a ...more
Brad Hodges
I'm not a big Broadway musical guy, but even I can appreciate the genius of Stephen Sondheim, who is one of the great lyricists of the art form. His first volume of collected lyrics, which runs from 1954 to 1981, is subtitled "with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes," and it's those that make this book gripping reading.

Reading lyrics is kind of hard, especially if you don't know the tune. It's easy to follow along the amazingly familiar, like "Send in the Clo
In this remarkable volume, Stephen Sondheim collects the lyrics (used, unused and reused) from his first 10 Broadway productions ("West Side Story" to "Merrily We Roll Along") as well as his first professional production ("Saturday Night") and another piece ("The Frogs"). A second volume - 'Look, I Made A Hat' - will follow in late 2011 with all his post-1981 lyrics, as well as his earlier TV and film work, and (assumedly) various songs he wrote for individual productions in the early days. And ...more
“I mean, even Cream of Wheat has lumps!” – from Now You Know, Merrily We Roll Along.

I heard this lyric at the opening night performance in 1981, and it still tickles me to this day.
Regardless of what the great Stephen Sondheim says about Larry Hart and Noel Coward in this book, I still love their lyrics.

I had the privilege of working at the Promenade Theater when Pacific Overtures, directed by Fran Soeder, moved from the York Theater to the Promenade in 1984-85. The move was a very exciting eve
Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat is essentially a collection of his lyrics from the shows he's worked on from West Side Story in 1954, to Merrily We Roll Along in 1984, with additional comments on the shows, some of the songs and essays on other lyricists.

For me, this book was sort of like a musical theatre Bible; Sondheim is viewed as (and in my opinion is) one of the best musical writers around, and he is one of the greatest influences on newer original composers today, including the late
Eric Kibler
Normally I don't make a habit of reading song lyrics. Yeah, with a rock record I'll sometimes sit down with the liner notes and read along, but mostly I'll refer to the lyric only if I can't suss out what's being sung. This book is the exception for two reasons: 1) These aren't rock lyrics. Sondheim is a great writer in this form. Literate and witty, these are songs meant to tell stories. Although they're meant to be coupled with music, they're good enough to be taken on their own. 2) This isn't ...more
Lindsay Stares
First off, this feels almost like a reference work, so don't expect to just sit down and read through it unless you're an even bigger musical theater geek than I am. Most of the text is lyrics, just as it says, surrounded by annotation, photos and additional information.

It's an interesting hybrid: there is information about the development of some of the shows, but a large amount of the commentary is either self-deprecating nitpicking about his own lyrics or tangents about the merits and flaws o
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Stephen Joshua Sondheim is an American musical and film composer and lyricist, winner of an Academy Award, multiple Tony Awards (seven, more than any other composer), multiple Grammy Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize. He has been described by Frank Rich in the The New York Times as "the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater." His most famous scores include (as composer/ ...more
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“Music straightjackets a poem and prevents it from breathing on its own, whereas it liberates a lyric. Poetry doesn't need music; lyrics do.” 9 likes
“Unless the object of the singer’s affection is a vampire, surely what Hart means is unphotogenic. Only vampires are unphotographable, but affectionate ‘-enic’ rhymes are hard to come by.” 4 likes
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