There are precious few books on the art of writing lyrics for the musical theatre. One is Oscar Hammerstein’s Lyrics, published in 1949, which contains not only many of Hammerstein’s finest lyrics but also an insightful essay by him on the craft of matching words to music. Ira Gershwin’s Lyrics on Several Occasions is another fine book on the subject.
With his recent book Finishing the Hat, Stephen Sondheim has joined company with his storied predecessors. Like Hammerstein and Gershwin, Sondheim is both a topnotch lyricist and an honest and helpful teacher. His book contains lyrics from all his Broadway shows from 1955 through 1981, thereby allowing us to read lyrics from such favorites as West Side Story, Gypsy, Company and Sweeney Todd.
In addition to lyrics and photographs, the book features Sondheim’s unsparing comments on the lyrics of several Broadway notables. Noel Coward, Lorenz Hart and Alan Jay Lerner do not fare well in his critiques. Sondheim is also highly critical, at times, of his own work.
On some lyricists I differ with Sondheim. Sondheim acknowledges that Oscar Hammerstein taught him the highest standards of craft. He also speaks of a certain monumentality to Hammerstein’s writing. But he doesn’t, in my opinion, fully appreciate the scope of Hammerstein’s greatness.
There are three reasons for this, I would venture. The first is that as Hammerstein’s friend and protégée, he stood too close to the master to be able to see him fully. The second is that as both lyricist and playwright Hammerstein had a different focus in lyric writing than Sondheim possesses. The third is that Hammerstein was, in essence, a dramatic poet, and Sondheim’s sharp mind is too logical to be entirely sympathetic with the imaginative nature of true dramatic poetry. The minds of characters in plays, like those of humans in real life, are not so logical.
I would also differ with Sondheim, although not so vigorously, on Lorenz Hart. Sondheim is correct in considering Hart a sloppy craftsman. Much of this was due to the way that Hart wrote. Richard Rodgers did much complaining, with good reason, of how he used to practically force Hart to work. Under pressure from Rodgers, Hart would dash off lyrics in short periods of time. As a result, many of his lyrics, while brilliant, lack polish. A few of his couplets suffer from confused syntax.
Yet when I saw the Rodgers and Hart musical revue Ten Cents a Dance last weekend at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, I was reminded of the excellence of much of Hart’s work. His rhymes are often inventive. Perhaps Hart’s greatest contribution was the emotional depth he added to the pyrotechnic wit of Broadway lyrics.
Finally, Sondheim is all but silent on the great German poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht. While Sondheim has often dismissed Brecht as a political propagandist, it is clear that Brecht also influenced Sondheim. It was after Sondheim attempted to adapt a Brecht play with Leonard Bernstein and John Guare that Sondheim found his true voice with Company . Many of Sondheim’s shows, from Company through Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd use what Brecht called the alienation effect. The songs distance the audience from the play’s events, and allow the spectators to see those events in a larger context.
Nevertheless, Sondheim’s book is an act of generosity. Ever mindful that Oscar Hammerstein taught him to write theatrical songs, Sondheim has worked hard to pay it forward. He has been very encouraging and informative to younger writers and composers, and this book is part of the ongoing education that he has offered.
Finishing the Hat is a must for anyone who loves musical theatre.