Garry's Reviews > Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics, 1954-1981, With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes

Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim
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's review
Nov 28, 10

Read in November, 2010

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 and creation which are necessary to achieve works of staggering genius. I have read more interviews with and books about a certain songwriter from Liverpool than Broadway composers, and I always marvel at the way McCartney can remember details of songwriting sessions that occurred decades earlier and which are just one among hundreds (completely ignoring the question of the impact of pharmaceuticals). I chalk this up to being a manifestation of the same obsession which allowed him (with a little help from his friends) to create the masterpiece in the first place. All of this is to say,that this book further demonstrates that character trait, with Sondheim dissecting his own work...sometimes down to the syllable. The full paragraph he devotes to the strengths (he declares early on: expect no false modesty....expect no lack of critical honesty, either) of the very fist LINE of Sweeny Todd is just one example. His asides and commentaries on other song writers are fascinating. I disagree with his take on Alan Jay Lerner, but you gotta love the line that Lerner was "a chameleon of one color." His criticism of Noel Coward does not diminish how much I enjoy his songs, but I had never noticed that sincerity of emotion was reserved for his songs about England and London. Interesting. His relationship to Hammerstein is clearly complex, but we've always known this. A good analyst could have a field day here. At the end of the day, the praise (deserved) outweighs the criticism (again, deserved, but often it feels snarky), and he agrees with and carries through with the theme that his career has been an attempt to "fix" "Allegro." Finally, while I would love another Sondheim musical or two, I have to say that I hope he hurries up with Volume II.

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