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December 10, 2010

For the theater lover on your holiday gift list, a double dose of Sondheim

There's no question what book every lover of theater -- musical theater, more specifically -- will want this year. That's Stephen Sondheim's own "Finishing the Hat" (Knopf), an irresistible collection of (to quote the book's subtitle) "Collected Lyrics (1954-1981), with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes."

Isn't it rich?

The book would be invaluable if it only contained the lyrics, since Sondheim's are the most consistently brilliant in imagery, emotion and rhyme that have ever graced a Broadway show. But there's much more. Extensive chunks of dialogue are included, providing context for the song texts.

And, for the icing on this multi-layered cake, there's Sondheim's running commentary -- explanations of how he arrived at words and phrases; analyses of how each show came together, how and why the songs worked or didn't work in their respective scenes; tons of backstage stories; even descriptions of the pencils Sondheim uses when he's writing.

You come away understanding aspects of crafting a line that you may never have considered. You also come away, of course, with an understanding of what makes Sondheim Sondheim.

The most fun in the book -- wicked fun, really -- may well be had from the author's commentaries on fellow lyricists. You just have to love the brutal honesty, even if Sondheim deflates one of your favorites in the process.

It was LOL time for me when I read his take on Oscar Hammerstein and

"You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" from "South Pacific":

...There's a fervent lack of surprise in Hammerstein's thoughts, made manifest by his need to spell things out with plodding insistence, as in : 'You've got to be taught before it's too late,/ Before you are six or seven or eight,' which always makes me want to ask, 'What about five or nine or 13?'

He takes deadly aim at a "bright canary yellow" sky and a lark "praying," too.

Then there's poor Lorenz Hart's "pervasive laziness," as when he makes a

sacrifice of meaning for rhyme: 'Your looks are laughable,/ Unphotographable.' Unless the object of the singer's affection is a vampire, surely what Hart means is 'unphotogenic.' Only vampires are unphotographable.

Sondheim gets pretty rough, too, with Porter, Coward and W.S. Gilbert. Ira Gershwin hardly comes off unscathed, either. I can imagine some folks eager to debate the author on one or more of these evaluations, but I'd wager that Sondheim would emerge victorious each time. After all, every opinion in the "Finishing the Hat" is delivered by the voice of authority.

The perfect companion book for the treasury of lyrics is "Sondheim On Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions," by Mark Eden Horowitz (Scarecrow Press).

This second edition of the author's interviews with Sondheim builds on the original discussions of "Assassins," "Into the Woods," "Pacific Overtures," "Passion," "Sunday in the Park with George" and "Sweeny Todd." The new material offers discussions of several other shows and a whole chapter on "Bounce."

Horowitz, senior music specialist at the Library of Congress, asks exceptionally detailed, nitty-gritty questions about melodic lines, harmonies, time signatures, accompaniment, and more; he gets exceptionally detailed answers in return. The result may go over the heads of those who don't read music (there are lots of illustrations from the scores), but that still leaves plenty of easily digested insights to savor.

The book also includes a valuable song list and discography, as well as the fascinating "Songs I Wish I'd Written (At Least in Part)" that Sondheim prepared as part of the Kennedy Center's celebration of his 70th birthday in 2000.   

If "Finishing the Hat" puts you deeply into the mind of the lyricist, "Sondheim on Music" puts you just as deeply into the mind of the composer. Putting it all together, you've got a provocative, illuminating portrait of a creative powerhouse.

SUN STAFF PHOTO (by Jerry Jackson)

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:11 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Holiday gifts


These digs from a man who wrote:

Green finch, and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
How is it you sing?
How can you jubilate
sitting in cages
never taking wing?

Jubilate? Jubilate? Shades of "Lil Abner (Jubilation T. Cornpone). Yes, it is a proper word, but a rather tortured verse, IMHO. One of HUNDREDS in Sondheim's output.

And a man who had to resort to flatulation jokes in Company:

"And here's to the girls who play smart--
Aren't they a gas?
Rushing to their classes
In optical art,
Wishing it would pass."

People who live in glass houses, Mr. Sondheim, ...

Nevertheless a genius ...

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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