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Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics, 1954-1981, With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes

(The Hat Box #1)

4.51  ·  Rating details ·  1,755 ratings  ·  194 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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Average rating 4.51  · 
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 ·  1,755 ratings  ·  194 reviews

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Feb 01, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: arts
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
Jul 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Stephen Sondheim wrote all of FINISHING THE HAT, covering roughly the first half of his musical career (1954-81). He reprints the lyrics and offers side remarks as to what was going on at the times these shows were composed. This period embraces WEST SIDE STORY, for which he wrote the lyrics; also A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, words and music both; ditto that daring pair, COMPANY and FOLLIES ca. 1970. Also in this volume are A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, PACIFIC OVERTURES and others. T ...more
Jan 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Mary Ronan Drew
Dec 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Caitlin Hayes
Oct 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I poked away at this for years, dipping in and out before finally finishing this week. Sheer genius! Can't wait to crack Volume 2. ...more
Nov 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Kevin Fanning
Aug 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 27, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir, nonfiction, music, art, own
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
Nov 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 24, 2020 rated it liked it
This book covers roughly the first half of Stephen Sondheim's remarkable career. I enjoyed getting Sondheim's own take about his creative process, his collaborators, mentors, and, refreshingly, his mistakes as well as his successes. As one would expect from a master of language, his writing is insightful and witty. ...more
Dec 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a completely exhaustive self-reflection on Sondheim's pre-James-Lapine era, and a valuable teaching tool for anyone wanting to learn the craft of musicals. ...more
Dec 05, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 17, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 20, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Themis-Athena
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Oct 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-2011, 5-stars
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
Anna Tatelman
Dec 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Whether you are a lyricist, a writer, a musical lover, or just someone who enjoys reading about people who are incredibly passionate about something -- or even some combination of the above -- this is a book that you MUST read. Stephen Sondheim writes about his musicals, his collaborations with other people, his writing process, and his opinions of both himself and other writers with a beauty and honest that's rare. He also has an incredible vocabulary and, though I'd like to think of myself as ...more
Stephanie Sun
Feb 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: dead-tree
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
Lois Duncan
I heard an interview with Stephen Sondheim on the radio and was so fascinated by it that I had to order this book. Sondheim's career has spanned more than half a century and his lyrics have become synonymous with musical theater and popular culture. Not only does this book contain lyrics of top Broadway shows and descriptions of how they were written, it also includes information about behind the scenes strategy and politics that the average person isn't aware of that led to certain good songs b ...more
Jan 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 29, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Jan 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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 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.

Loved it! Such an insight into writing and Sondheim as a person!
Jun 23, 2020 marked it as to-read
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Kellen Blair
Dec 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020
Made this a yearlong experience, reading a couple of lyrics and annotations a day (while listening to the corresponding music). To find fault would be to nitpick. Then again, that’s exactly what Sondheim does throughout the book! Despite his brilliance, one is left with the feeling that when speaking about his own work (or, even more so, about others’) he can’t quite see the forest for the trees. He can disparage Hammerstein all he wants (and he does, often to an uncomfortable point, given the f ...more
Dara Salley
Sep 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
I’m not a huge Stephen Sondheim fan. I’m only familiar with a few of his musicals and I only really like one (Sweeny Todd). I’m more of an Andrew Llyodd Webber/Bob Fosse fan. For a casual non-fan, like me, you might assume that a book of lyrics and notes would be boring. You would be wrong. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in musical theater or the art of language in general.

I’ve never been able to “get” Stephen Sondheim. I always felt like this was a personal flaw, because so ma
Jun 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
"...I think the explication of any craft, when articulated by an experienced practitioner, can be not only intriguing but also valuable..."

Despite its ridiculous subtitle including "Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes," I somehow imagined that this would just be Sondheim noting why he wrote a line the way he did. Don't get me wrong--there is plenty of that, and I love it. However, Sondheim includes everything promised in the subtitle. The poor people around m
Apr 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Finishing the Hat Scores* Ranked!

1. Sweeney Todd
2. A Little Night Music
3. Pacific Overtures
4. Merrily We Roll Along
5. Company
6. Anyone Can Whistle
7. Follies
8. A Funny Thing Happened ...
9. The Frogs
10. Saturday Night

*Omitting the non-Sondheim-composed scores West Side Story, Gypsy, and Do I Hear a Waltz?

A few hot takes:

Sweeney Todd: My very favorite musical in all the land.

A Little Night Music: Just overwhelmingly gorgeous, and more complex than the waltz structure initially suggests.

Mark Dickson
Aug 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
How do you a review a book that’s a collection of a body of work? Do you review it as if it was an anthology? I genuinely have no idea.

You essentially already know if you’re going to enjoy this book if you’ve bought it. It is a well-designed and well-constructed book of the first chunk of Sondheim’s work and while there are a couple of less-interesting pieces, none of them are outright terrible.

What has been slightly disheartening is the attendant commentary that Sondheim provides to each show,
Mary Beth
Feb 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
It’s fun to read through Sondheim’s clever, hyperliterate, poignant lyrics, but a collection of lyrics wouldn’t add up to much on their own—as the man himself points out, lyrics without music are deficient. What makes Finishing the Hat so special are the accompanying essays and annotations, imparted with wit and candor and insight, about songwriting and rhyme and artistic collaboration and Sondheim’s predecessors in musical theater. It makes for a fascinating, revealing, often terribly funny boo ...more
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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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  • Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics, 1981-2011, With Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes, and Miscellany

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